Winter Rituals: Nighty-Night Bears

Grizzly Bear Laying on snow-covered log

No more bears. Nighty-night bears. Bears all gone. No bears anywhere… Does anyone see any bears? No – no bears.

Our five sleepy bears are all tucked in for the winter. They may be magnificent. Huge. Powerful. Have great dignity. But they are also complete beings like us and have their moments of vulnerability. Who among us doesn’t want to make a warm cozy safe bed in the cold, cold dark and snuggle in and settle in and feel hidden and protected? Do we want to be talked to seriously as equal beings at that time or do we want to be told bedtime stories, called sweet nicknames, and told sweet nothings? Bears are no different. We all become vulnerable as we prepare for bed, need to feel safe to be able to sleep, lower our guard, turn inwards, and relax. Our dogs do that—give sighs of comfort and relief as they circle and plop themselves down in a safe familiar place after a hard day—a vet visit, a hospitalization, the relief of a full belly after hunger is sated. It’s the same with bears. It’s just harder for a wild animal to feel safe and relax.

Black bear napping on a large boulder
Bears like their naps! This is Huckleberry Bear Bear stopping in the middle of a walk, regardless of anyone else's agenda... • Photo by Earthfire Institute

I sing to Talkeetna my malamute every night, her very own special song. She gets into the position she appointed herself on the bed and waits expectantly. You can see the want in her eyes and the relief and release when the familiar routine is followed: petting, singing her song, bonding, reassuring… all is calm, all is safe. Satisfied, she goes off to her pad under the table. I sing to the bears, too, each with their very own song, when they are distressed or scared. And they too respond. So when I say “No more bears. Nighty-night bears,” I am not trying to make them into babies or cute little teddy bears. They still are bears in the fullest sense. I am just reflecting an aspect of them as real in them as it is in us. A sweet vulnerability. Being big and powerful doesn’t change anything. If we are honest, there are very few of us who don’t like to be mothered at vulnerable times.

They love to tuck themselves in. You see the want, the need in their eyes as you bring them their hay bedding. It is a three day process of intense concentration and satisfaction. They make and remake their beds just… so, pulling in each piece of hay, looking at you with sleepy eyes and drooping body as the process nears completion. The floor gets rearranged, more padding here, less padding there… the edges get rearranged; the log gets placed just so and hay put on it so they can use it as a soft pillow. When I described the extent of the preparation someone said, “Of course it takes three days—I would take that long if I had to sleep in the same bed for five months.” Finally, they plug up the entrance and are gone.

Black bear entering his den at a wildlife sanctuary and education center
A big bear rump disappears into a den, ready for a Winter sleep • Photo by Earthfire Institute

This happens every year. And every year I worry. I can’t help myself. I can talk to myself sternly. This is what bears do; they have survived every year for the past decade. But I still can’t help myself. Will they be OK? Will they be alive in spring? How can they possibly survive four to five months without eating or drinking? Should I offer them food, water? Are they warm enough? Were they plump enough when we sent them off? (By visual standards, they certainly were.)

It is part of the yearly winter ritual at Earthfire… the bears look pathetic; we give them their bedding; they make their beds, they disappear, I worry. We check out our ancient snow plow (can we make it last one more year)? We set up heat lamps for Adrianna the goat and the various chicken flocks. There are water tanks to heat—the horses and burros and buffalo need their fresh water. We make preparations for our elderly animals. They have a hard time with the cold just like elderly people. But it is not easy—each have their own idiosyncrasies and needs and definite minds and tastes of their own.

Black and white fox with red toy dog
Loki the fox cuddles with his big red dog • Photo by Earthfire Institute

We watch our foxes get plump and fluff out into incredibly full coats. The bison, horses and donkeys all gain a dress size or two in fur. My dog, inexplicably, chooses this time to shed all her fur—a request to be able to stay indoors on the couch in cold weather? We check to see if the elderly animals are getting enough to drink, as the water freezes so quickly. We prepare broth to encourage drinking before it freezes and to be sure they get enough liquid. We prepare cages in case we have sick animals to be brought into the heat of the cabin—or if that becomes full, the office. I have to lay in an extra supply of chicken food for the sparrows, starlings, magpies and various other birds that have decided they are chickens too.

For ourselves, we lay in a supply of wood, fill the propane tanks, make sure the lamps are full and we have enough matches and kindling; it can get to 30 degrees below zero and we can get snowed in for days. A couple of years ago, the whole valley was closed off for nearly a week. (The bears didn’t care—they were warm and cozy and didn’t know a thing.) We gather up all the things left lying around all summer before they get covered in snow. I start to count the days left for it to get still darker and colder and then double it for how many days until it gets back to today’s lightness. Then I remind myself to enjoy what is given; for example, coming into a warm cozy cabin with a fire, an experience made rich and vivid just because of the darkness and cold. To enjoy the turning inwards, to digest the happenings of the year and refresh and renew and prepare for the new one.

I started this story asking who among us doesn’t like to be tucked in or mothered in some way. It is no different for bears. It is something we all share; it goes to a deep commonality between us. When it comes down to basics, we are fellow beings.

I don’t see bears any bears anywhere – do you?? Invisible. No bears, nowhere… if you can’t be seen you are safe… Sleep tight. Sweet dreams. And to all of you, too.

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