Old bear makes it through another summer
The old boar black bear was weak from hunger and loss of weight as he hauled himself out of his winter den below the cedar root mass. Time has taken its toll. The den's cavity in the ground wasn't as deep as it used to be. Vegetation and sediment runoff was slowly filling the depression with soil. Even the roots of the old cedar tree that fell almost 13 years ago were deteriorating. The earth was reclaiming them too.
Stiff from his winter torpor, the tired old bear stood at the top of the root mound and gazed into the familiar surroundings of his late winter, almost spring, home. His small round brown eyes searched instinctively while he scented the thermals in hopes of detecting something in the air worth investigating, worth finding, worthy to eat.
As he began to walk, his footpads hurt him more than he remembered them hurting in the past.
Having once again shed the pads over the course of winter, he found himself becoming annoyed by the pain. He had to stop often to lick the sore and now bloody pads as he stepped awkwardly, yet as gingerly, as he could muster.
His nose did not fail him. Nor did the southerly breeze. For as he followed the scent, now growing stronger, he recognized the odor as that of a dead deer -- an old buck-deer unable to cope with the demands of last November's rut and the Minnesota winter -- lying beneath the boughs of a large balsam fir tree.
He gorged himself on the remains of the deer, standing atop the carcass with his front paws as he pulled at its frozen hide and flesh with his worn canines. It wasn't long until he was unable to eat anymore. As best as he could he covered the remains with nearby forest debris and snow to hide it from others.
He then turned and wandered up the grade out of the swamp.
At first, the old boar didn't recognize the massive clearcut he encountered at the far edge of the cedar swamp.
The aroma of downed timber permeated the air as he stopped short of stepping into the open. He took stock of his whereabouts and realized he was indeed on the familiar trail, but the forest before him had been removed while he had slept. The odor reminded him of when he was a cub as his mother led him and his sister through a twisted mess of horizontal timber two days after the July '95 blowdown.
Hunger compelled him to move into the recently harvested woodland. From experience he remembered how tasty aspen buds are. Last year's growth at the tips of branches would be good to eat too -- even the bark. And with a little luck, maybe he would find another dead animal, or greens on the south facing slope, or an anthill he could rip apart . . .
The month of April turned out to be rough on the old bear. Though he was indeed getting stronger and beginning to regain some of his lost weight, he was still hungry and he needed his strength: mating season was approaching. It was possible that the standoff he had had with a large and intruding boar last summer, the one that finally backed off and departed without a battle, was nearby and eager for a rematch. He couldn't know for sure.
But April was not like any other April he remembered. Vegetation did not advance as it normally did, but instead was stymied by snow and cold. Yet, despite setbacks that the old boar had no control of, he continued to make his circuit around the perimeter of his territory searching for food.
By the second week of May, life was steadily improving for the old black bear. His footpads were now well conditioned and his joints didn't bother him like they did in March. He began encountering a number of sows in estrus too. His courtship and matings with these females, whose smaller home ranges overlapped with his, were brief. Over the years the old bruin had fathered tens of dozens of cubs. Maybe in the hundreds for all he knew.
Lean times have been met and overcome before. He knows where the best sedge meadows are, he knows where the succulent marsh marigolds grow along the remotest drainages, and he knows where all the sun-exposed areas are that allow the first sprigs of grass to grow thick and delicious. And he also knows where a few birdfeeders are and where a number of unprotected, out-of-the-way apiaries are located too. Yes, he's a smart bear that knows his way around.
In his bear mind he senses that the season of plenty is simultaneously delayed and waning. Fruits and nuts that he habitually knows ripen at certain times of the summer are late. It wasn't long ago, in late July-first part of August, when he was bending over the tall Juneberry shrubs and plucking clean with his pursed lips the wonderfully juicy berries. Blueberries were late too, but thankfully as plentiful as he's ever remembered them.
Most of his favorite gnarly bur oak trees, the ones that are still easy for him to climb, are heavy with acorns this late summer. He's had to chase a few lesser bears from some of his prized mast producers, but he didn't have to run far. His uncommon strength and intelligence, astonishing bulk, and surprising nimbleness assure him the undisputed status as king of the woods.
Yes, the old boar can tell the Northwoods summer is coming to a close. His black coat is growing thicker and his drive to locate and consume food is insatiable. He's always hungry. And he never did run across that other big boar again. Perhaps he found his own turf. Just as well, the old boar didn't want to fight anyway.
Innately, the old black bear finds himself slowly making his way back to the old cedar swamp, back to his old den, eating as he goes, alone, along familiar trails, up familiar slopes, near familiar trees and across familiar streams within his own, and familiar, great outdoors. It's the way of the old boar.
Author's note: although the old boar depicted in this story is an imagined black bear, somewhere in Minnesota's Northwoods, he lives.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org