Hibernation (An excerpt from Road to Alaska)

Posted: October 13, 2010 in Uncategorized

We’ve only had one real experience with wild life so far. A bear cub ran across the highway in front of us. We pulled over to see if we could catch another glimpse, but it was gone. Good thing, since momma bear was probably close by.
Bears are interesting creatures. They spend half of their lives sleeping. Sometimes more. We call it hibernation, but it isn’t really. Hibernation is when an animal’s heartbeat dramatically plunges to the point that you’d think it was dead. Their body temperature stays just above freezing, and they can’t be awoken. It takes hours for their systems to warm up to the point where they can become conscious again. Bears don’t do that. They can be easily awoken from their sleep. Sometimes they even move to a better location in the middle of winter. They also make conscious decisions during this time. If a momma bear has young cubs, sometimes she’ll wait an extra month before leaving her den. This kind of awareness makes me wonder if getting through the winter requires some patience. Maybe some trust in the natural order of things.
But there is a type of bear that doesn’t sleep for the winter. Captive bears. They don’t bother because, apparently, they don’t need to. They are constantly fed by their keepers, so there are no foodless winter months to hunker down for. The natural seasons are suspended in favor of something more convenient. This means they can be productive year round instead of spending half of the year asleep like their wild counterparts.
If bears in captivity could observe bears in the wild, I wonder what they’d think of them. I wonder they’d watch and think, “What the hell is that all about?” I wonder if they have any idea what it’s like out there or what it takes to survive. I imagine in the summer they’d call wild bears gluttons and in the winter call them lazy.
But what if a circus burned down, and a group of bears escaped and made it all the way to the Alaskan wilderness? I wonder if those bears would freak out during their first winter. Snow fall would seem kind of cool and refreshing at first. Something different. They’d realize there’s a purpose for this fur and fat. They were designed for a place like this. But a few months in to the winter, it might get rough. They’ve never experienced real seasons before. If they’ve never seen the end of a winter, do they begin to fear that this is more than a season? As they sleep in their dens for the first time, losing a third of their body weight, do they fear that this will never end? With no sign of it changing, why shouldn’t they think it will last forever? It might seem that spring will never come again. That they’ll die there in their dens.
“I’m just wasting away in here. If I don’t do something, I’m gonna die!”
I think I’d get out of that cave and bust my ass to find some berries. Anything would be better than starving in a cave, hoping the season would end. To feel like I was slowly dying as I slept my life away, and not doing a damn thing about it. Just the thought of that makes me furious. I think I’d be wishing for a time when I could put on a tutu and dance around for a fish. Sure it’s captivity, but it’s so much safer. So much more convenient and predictable. Anything would be better than dying of starvation in a dark hole. If not back to captivity, I’d at least want to try to hunt in the winter.
But that’s just fear talking. Misunderstanding and short-sightedness. Inexperience. Wild bears know the worst thing they can do is leave the den in the middle of winter. There is nothing to eat. There are no fish out there jumping through the streams. No berries on the bushes. They can’t follow that compulsion to just do something. The smartest thing they can do is nothing. Any energy spent searching out a meal is wasted energy. It will only bring them one step closer to starvation.
This is a different world than the circus bear is used to. It’s a harder life. It’s less predictable. But does the salmon taste the same when it’s thrown to them in a cage? Is anything really the same? Or is there some unquantifiable quality in the experience of the wild bear. Something that would make the bear say, “This is right. I was made for this.”

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