Sky Patrol

Tracking Maine's black bear

October 1, 2001

It's very early on a brilliant fall morning. Humanity's habitats fade away to the south as we cruise a few hundred feet above an endless carpet of bogs, forest, and low hills capped with dazzling yellow crowns of maple. We are at work, officially speaking. But for someone who has never quite lived down his city-slicker roots, a day of flying over the Maine woods on a mission to chart the positions of several dozen wild bears is difficult to classify as work. During this long day in the saddle one of my closest flying associates and I will conduct close-up inspections of wild places most people never see. We will test our flying skills against the demands of the job that awaits. And we will even get to pause during our adventure for breakfast at one of our favorite aeronautical hangouts — where the coffee is hot, the pancakes and eggs memorable, and the price so low you wonder how the nice people can stay in business.

For several years my old friend and flying companion has been one of the pilots responsible for keeping the state's wildlife biologists informed on the movements of several dozen bears participating in the scientists' data-gathering efforts. He has brought me along today as sort of a half-useful apprentice — a human autopilot who can keep the airplane from becoming rebellious while he is engaged in the paperwork aspects of the job. He adds that there is a small chance that I am trainable in the more subtle aspects of the enterprise — well, we'll see about that.

Now he keys a radio frequency into a receiver nestled in an aluminum frame on the floor of the airplane and selects a much-photocopied aerial photo from the pile of papers in his lap. In my headset I hear a series of beeps, about one every second, faint but slowly growing louder. "That's old Ten-Forty; she's been on the move lately," he says. "Usually she'd be all bedded down by now. See if you can find her."

There is a definite hint of a dare in his voice. We have been flying together for years on all sorts of aerial outings, both for work and for pleasure. This is not my first time "doing the bears" with him, but each time we go up I am less of a spectator. My presence in this cramped workplace, which he usually occupies alone, must be justified by results.

"Old Ten-Forty" is not a federal income tax form, but an Ursus americanus, a black bear. Not only of scientific relevance to our mission, but for anyone living in Maine, the bear is emblematic of life here. The state university sports teams are Black Bears. Countless hotels, pubs, radio stations, and other enterprises have drafted the animal as their mascot. Yet most of the people who crowd the University of Maine hockey rink or patronize the Bearbrew Pub in town never get to see a living example of these shy and clever animals in their natural environment. Today, we will be dropping in on almost three dozen of them, and you'd be surprised where some of them hang their hats. Each bear is outfitted with a collar containing a small radio transmitter. We can discern by the interval between the pulses issuing from the collar whether the bear has settled down to sleep or is still on the move. If we hear them on slow mode, they have bedded down.

This is the essence of flying, and for a commercial pilot living in a rural area, it is a rare incentive to own and use an airplane. We are in for six or seven hours of cruising in a familiar and trusted machine over spectacular, largely uninhabited country, punctuated by lively sessions of low-level maneuvering to pinpoint each bear's location. Not everyone has the stomach for this. It is wise to refuse to bring along all but the most acclimated passengers. Drop-off points are few and far between, and diversions are expensive, time-wasting setbacks. Even some of the officials who occasionally invoke their right to ride end up wishing they hadn't. My friend isn't being harsh when he regards ride-along requests skeptically. A bad decision regarding the transportation of nonessential personnel can turn a day's work into two, or more.

We are flying in the direction of the last recorded location of old Ten-Forty. In my headset the beeping sound has gradually grown strong. "Still on fast mode," my friend says and jots down a note on his clipboard. That's my cue to switch to directional sensing and begin pinning down the location. My free hand goes to the toggle on a switch box sitting atop the panel. The signal from the bear's collar is received by antennas mounted on each wing strut of the Cessna 172, and now it is time to configure for receiving the signal on one side at a time. Then you can rapidly toggle to receive from side to side, hearing the tone in either your left or right ear only, and maneuver the airplane accordingly. When you are flying in a tight circle with loud beeps coming out of one antenna, and silence from the other, there's your bear. We will do this no fewer than 30 times today.

The signal seems stronger from the left side, but I know from past efforts not to be hasty. Turn too soon and the signal will fade — and then I'll have to set up for another pass, which will cost me a disapproving glare from the man in the other seat. I hold course. Thirty seconds more and the indication seems certain, so I bank a few degrees left and level out again before taking another signal. I toggle right and hear faint beeps. I toggle left, and they are louder. I bank a few more degrees left, then roll out. Suddenly the beeps become very strong on the left side, and a noticeable clicking sound occurs with each pulse. The telltale change of tone means we are very close. A quick check of the right antenna produces a weak response, so I roll the aircraft into a steep left turn and circle. The beep-click remains strong from the left side throughout the steep turn. Somewhere down in that dense puckerbrush is old Ten-Forty. My friend marks the position on his aerial photo and enters the position into a handheld GPS. I continue circling because he must also record terrain features, whether the bear is in a zone of hardwood trees or softwoods, etc. This takes time, but it is OK now to gain a little insurance altitude.

Finally he puts the paperwork down and indicates with an inclined palm that it is OK to level out. He points to the east and we turn toward a place he calls Pot Hole Bog, where another bruin resides. I am pleased with my discovery of old Ten-Forty, but I know better than to preen — the next effort may fall short. He is already keying in the new frequency. I hear the faint beeps. "See if you can find that one," he says.

The short cruise to Pot Hole Bog provides a reason to climb to the seriously heady altitude of 1,100 feet. On another day of tracking only lowland bears, this can be as high as we go. We don't get much higher than that even when paying a call on the three or four animals he is watching in a more northerly zone, where the lowlands give way to sharp-spined ridges in the long chain of mountains that includes the 5,200-foot Mount Katahdin, the northernmost point on the Appalachian Trail and highest elevation in the state. As a rule, bears here also tend to den up in the low areas. They would be hard to find in this wilderness, except that a bridge across a stream makes a useful landmark. We head for the bridge until the transmitters become audible. This works well, and usually we are already setting up for our first tracking pass before the bridge comes into view. Today there are kayakers on a wilderness expedition plying the stream, and several moose plodding over an adjacent clear-cut ridge as we fly over.

Not all of our bears are so compliant. It is another bright fall morning, and the plan today is to probe the northern zone in the early hours before the worst of a forecast strong wind sets in. We will then take a breakfast break and do the lowland animals in the afternoon. Probing the ridges on the downwind side of the mountains can be nerve-wracking on a blustery day.

Such is the case today. A bear that usually resides in the flatlands to the east (call her Ten Ninety-Nine to keep the tax metaphor going) has taken off for reasons unknown, and she has climbed high up on East Turner Mountain, remaining there late into the season. Perhaps she has developed an affinity for beechnuts. In any case, she is somewhere down there on an east-facing slope that resembles a bowl carved out of the mountainside. We key on a jumble of rocks covered with a light dusting of early snow as my friend sets up her frequency in the receiver.

Pinning her down will be interesting. We will have to maneuver directly below the ridge, where strong winds flow over the peak and plunge down the leeward side of the hill like an invisible waterfall. Already we have an idea of what to expect from the winds, having checked on the positions of the two lowland bears denned near the bridge. If nothing else, our ground-reference maneuver skills have become razor-sharp from flying hours of circles, rectangular courses, and turns about a point in these conditions.

We have the signal. Fast mode. The signal is of equal strength from left and right, so I am flying directly toward the peak and have begun a shallow climb from our low cruising level above the lowlands. The chop has increased, and our groundspeed has slowed considerably. The ridge is becoming uncomfortably prominent in the windscreen when the signal finally begins to strengthen on the left side. The turbulence is not bad, but enough to arouse a strong sense of anticipation. My friend decides that the best chance of getting the information we need with minimal exposure to the conditions is to cross the peak, reverse course, commence the tracking run from the upwind side, and begin a descending turn as soon as possible after crossing to the downwind side. Doing all our maneuvering below the peak on the downwind side would be fine in no-wind conditions, but it is extremely unappetizing today.

Two passes give us a fair estimate of the bear's position. My friend observes that if he knows old Ten Ninety-Nine, the bear will soon be heading for the lowlands anyway. Trying to appear nonchalant, I roll level as soon as we are on a southerly heading. But I am relieved to be getting out of here. I know that the plume of steam from a large paper mill 30 miles south of our position will soon be visible. I count on this to remind my companion that flying works up an appetite in a fellow, and that we are both in a state of caffeine starvation that is shameful, if not actually life-threatening.

In cruise, we relax and speculate on the bear's reasons for a trip up the mountain. With the reluctance of a true bush pilot he allows me to turn on a com radio — only one, mind you — and announce our position and intentions to any traffic in the vicinity of the large and once-vital airport which now mirrors the desolate quality of the local forest-products economy.

Taxiing in, we note an airplane on the ramp. It is a Beech Bonanza, which proves that it is not from around here. We climb the steps to the office and find two men in khaki trousers and shiny leather shoes milling about inside. All survey each other with mutual fascination. My friend and I slide into a booth in the snack bar. (We have no intention of eating here. But it would be rude to borrow the fixed-base operator's car without buying a cup of coffee from him and passing some time. He has long since given up competing with the Cholesterol Palace for our breakfast business. Instead he lends us one of his vehicles to go there.)

The two fellows from the Bonanza are out on a lark. They have questions about potential destinations nearby. I am fascinated by their shiny shoes and try to imagine walking out of a peat bog with those things on my feet. Their questions lead to a short spate of hangar flying. We learn that they cruised up from the southern (that is, populated) part of our state at 5,500 feet to spare themselves the discomfort of the rough air lower down. Did we find the turbulence annoying too? I reply that my friend would probably pass out at an altitude as high as 5,500 feet. Straight-faced, he nods agreement. The fellows shoot him a sympathetic glance. I am trying not to stare at the shiny shoes. Clearly we are coming at this from different points of view. They inquire about food, so we tell them about the Cholesterol Palace and invite them to tag along. They consider it but seem to balk at driving the half-mile downtown in a truck with no license plates. To each his own.

The friendly folks at the Cholesterol Palace give us their usual jovial greeting. Our coffee cups are filled before we know it. We talk about the strategy for the rest of our journey. It has been exciting, but there are still almost 30 bears to do. Two reside near some high transmission towers practically within sight of home. Maneuvering to locate them will involve some drama of its own. Another is denned up in or very near a horse barn just a few feet behind a family home. There will be one more fuel stop. Yet it is not quite late afternoon when we touch down at the home base and toss our gear into the back of the truck. He will head out again next week to see if the bears still active today have bedded down. If so, there will be no more flights until late winter.

It has only been a few hours away from my daily routine, yet I feel as if I am returning from Mars. It is a good feeling. Waiting for me will be messages on the answering machine, mail and an unread newspaper in the mailbox, and a lawn that needs one more mowing. But sitting in my friend's kitchen to reflect on the day's toils, I find that a supper plate has been placed before me. There's no reason to rush off.

I won't go along on every flight — it is a year now since I have — but my friend will tell me when the bear comes down from the mountain, when and where they have bedded down for the season, and how many cubs are born over the winter. We'll chuckle over some of the places the animals have chosen to den up. But the black bears' secrets will be safe with us.

Dan Namowitz is a writer and flight instructor living in Maine.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor.

Topics Avionics, GPS