Nothing wrenches the mind away from the pandemic quite like realizing you may have stepped between a mother bear and her cubs.
I was taking a shortcut through woods toward my neighborhood’s woodland trails when a flurry of clacking claws broke the forest silence. Three black bear cubs, probably only a few months old, were scurrying up a towering tree uncomfortably close by.
The cubs had been in my backyard a few days earlier, accompanied by their impressively large mother, who happens to be New Hampshire’s most famous bear. Nicknamed Mink by her fans, and recognizable by her tracking collar, she has in the past emptied bird feeders, filched garbage from garages, and survived a death sentence when she was pardoned by the governor.
Two years ago, she was exiled to live near the Canadian border, a fate she chose not to accept.
It took a year of walking a zigzag route, back and forth across the Connecticut River into Vermont, before she made it back last summer to my neighborhood just south of Dartmouth College — a black bear version of thin and bedraggled from her trek.
“No one has sat down yet and done the math, but it’s in the hundreds of miles, because it wasn’t all in a straight line,” said Andy Timmins, bear project leader for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. “There were wide swings and back and forth.”
I think her emergence from hibernation a few weeks ago with a lustrous coat and three playful cubs in tow offers us all inspiration for surviving anything — including the pandemic and the shutdown of so much in life — and for finding our bearings in the uncertain times ahead.
Like Mink the bear, we should all be so determined to reclaim the lives we once led, the places we’ve always loved.
And while we’re at it, we should pay attention to what she teaches by example. Like others in her species, this mother bear was all about social distancing before social distancing was cool.
Indeed, the lessons of living in the company of bears have turned out to be useful while navigating life in a pandemic.
Close proximity to a mother bear and cubs means always being aware of your surroundings, and knowing that the responsibility for keeping danger at a distance rests principally on you.
That means modifying human habits — something the world is getting used to now.
To avoid unsafe encounters with bears, for example, you keep your trash secure in a garage and take down bird feeders when spring arrives, or never put them up at all. There surely are parallels in our day-to-day life if we want to discourage pandemic hazards from landing on our doorstep.
Meanwhile, the stakes for this mother bear’s future survival also have unintentional connections to our fraught time.
Three years ago, after repeatedly raiding garbage cans and bird feeders in Hanover, N.H. — home to Dartmouth College — she was scheduled to be killed.
Amid a public outcry on behalf of Mink — so named for the Mink Brook area she usually inhabits — Governor Chris Sununu ordered that she be relocated north instead. Her cubs went to a well-known bear rehabilitation facility in Lyme, N.H., just north of Hanover, that’s run by renowned bear expert Ben Kilham, who raised them to weaning age and set them free.
Those steps set in motion the mother bear’s yearlong trek back to her longtime stomping ground in woods off my neighborhood.
While she’s the state’s best-known bear, she’s hardly the only one around.
Michael Hinsley, the deputy fire chief and fire marshal for the Hanover Fire Department, estimates that not counting Mink, there are “11 distinct female bears of breeding age” in the hydrant (or sidewalk) district of Hanover — an area that begins a few tenths of a mile north of my house.
Hinsley has invested considerably in helping residents understand that humans and bears can safely be neighbors, if people practice common sense.
Here and elsewhere, bears have always coexisted with nearby humans. We instinctively worry about mother bears protecting cubs, but a significant study showed that fatal black bear attacks, though exceedingly rare, were mostly by solitary, hungry males.
Mink hasn’t been aggressive toward residents. She has merely done what bears do: Find easily available, high-calorie food, such as bird feeders and trash that people leave out.
“She’s not a bad bear,” Hinsley said, "but she’s damaged by human behavior.”
And her survival now depends on people changing how they act.
“We’re trying to get people to understand that her success is in the public’s hands,” said Timmins, the bear team leader. “If they want her to be successful and her to be there, they have to be extremely careful with food attractants. That’s the only way this is going to work.”
In other words, Mink’s survival has everything to do with safe behavior by people whose own survival in a pandemic has everything to do with . . . safe behavior.
And what if the bear and the people around her don’t behave? Will she end up with a death sentence again if she goes back to lumbering into open garages in residential areas to raid trash cans?
“I honestly can’t answer that because of the political side,” Timmins said. “It’s going to be a decision above my pay grade.”
Make no mistake, I’m rooting for her survival. After all, her species probably roamed these woods long before mine arrived. And at the rate we’re going, bears may well be hanging out here long after we’re gone.
Because of the politics surrounding her relocation two years ago, I never thought I’d see this mother bear again.
By that point, I’d photographed her scores of times for several years, with litter after litter.
My backyard is her occasional thoroughfare from her home in the woods to food sources elsewhere, a path she has traveled frequently enough that our photographer/subject relationship sometimes feels like a tacit nodding relationship, though not one that allows me to be closer than she to her offspring.
Amid the pandemic’s gloom, her return this month helped my spirits soar, but by blundering several days ago upon the tree where she had stashed her cubs, I had committed the most unpardonable sin of living in the company of bears.
Was she around? Within charging range? Moments felt like hours as I breathed in the forest’s sights and sounds — head swiveling, ears straining — before quietly, stealthily walking away.
Frankly, that too-close brush with bears felt safer than the time I spend with humans these days.
For years, I’ve admired the wisdom that Timmins, the state’s bear team leader, has imparted in media interviews. So when he showed up in my neighborhood last week, I was so impressed to meet him that I instinctively reached out to shake his hand.
That was dumb, I thought afterward while scrubbing my hands vigorously with soap. (No offense, Andy.)
How odd to exist in a time when shaking hands with a wildlife biologist seems riskier than encountering wild bears.
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.