Ramble the grizzly bear taking his first bath after hibernationPhoto by: Earthfire

by Susan Eirich, PhD

They emerge slowly, tentatively– is it time yet? A damp nose. Sleepy little brown eyes. Fuzzy ears. One front leg reaches out of the den entrance. Followed by another. Slowly the front of the body emerges, seeming to expand as it squeezes out the narrow entrance. Half in and half out, the back arches in another streeeeeeetch. Then the back half emerges. Nothing is rushed. Once out, another long, luxurious, stretch. After all, it’s been four months…… (Bears are more like us than we think)

They sniff around a bit, not too lively yet. We offer lettuce to ease their fast. They nibble half-heartedly. Their stomachs aren’t quite up to it. We give them time.

As they ease back into life we fill the inner pool and offer it to them in turns. The older bears, Huckleberry Bear Bear and Teton Totem, are not really ready for any action. I expect the joints have to warm up, and everything is slower when you are older anyway. Humble Bumble, always tentative, always uneasy about anything new, doesn’t enter the water. Yes he did last year – and the year before and the year before, but that was then and this year is a whole new thing. He will, eventually. But the (relatively) young whippersnappers Bramble and Ramble!!! How to convey the intensity of the joy?

They fling themselves into the water with abandon, eyes alight with excitement, their body positively vibrating with the joy of it all. Ramble rears up to his full height and belly-flops down on the water creating a great, satisfying noise and spray. Again. And again. And again. Then he slaps the water with his massive left paw and his right paw and his left paw and his right paw Whap! Whap! Whap! Whap! as fast as a boxer practicing with a small rapid-fire punching bag. Water flying everywhere. Eventually he tires of this and, heaving himself out of the pool, goes to retrieve his grizzly-sized ball. He rolls it into the water and pushes it down under. He releases it. Filled with air, it shoots up. He is there waiting for it and pushes it down again over and over. Then he pushes it down and getting it just right so it can’t pop up holds it under water, a look of triumph in his eyes. Tiring of that he releases it and starts all over. Next he grabs his log and does the same, pushing it under. Able to grasp it in his teeth, which he can’t with the big ball, he whips his head left and right, left and right with incredible speed, strength and flexibility. We watch all this, an admiring and responsive audience. He gives us a quick look from the corner of his eye, and lunges out of the water running over to greet us, bathing us in a shower as he shakes himself. Then he races and jumps around the enclosure all worked up. Comes back to greet us again. Then back into the water……..…..

IMG_8771Ramble the bear in full enjoyment mode

The energy with which all this happens! They do this all summer long in the big outer pools, but not with the total fervor of the first swim of the year. You get the strong impression they are celebrating the awakening of life. Like after a long sleep it is a miracle. Oh wow! There is this! And This ! And ThIs! I remember this! They show such joy at being embodied.

Every year it feels like a miracle to me too. Each year my worry is the same. Will they live though the winter? How CAN they, no food no water. But every year they do. Our oldest, Huckleberry Bear Bear is now 20 and has lived through the winter 20 times. You’d think I’d get used to it. But I don’t and it is a huge relief when I see their noses poking out. They made it! I don’t know how but they made it! The bears are back!

It isn’t just a relief. The whole place comes more alive, feels more complete with bear energy. They are native here. Belong. It is like the land needs them; needs their presence. ……

Dr. Susan Eirich is the Founder and Executive Director of Earthfire Institute Wildlife Sanctuary and Retreat Center. A licensed psychologist, biologist and educator, her goal is to widen the circle of conversation about conservation to include the voices of all living beings.

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