A bear den opened up on a ski trail at the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle on Saturday, Jan. 27, delaying a championship event and forcing organizers to think fast and re-route the races.

“The roof of a bear’s den had opened up and there were bears in the den still,” said Mark Shea, venue manager for the Nordic Heritage Center.

The ski event was the Chummy Broomhall Cup, which serves as the state championship in nordic skiing for Maine college teams.

“The women’s race was delayed about 30 minutes, but nobody seemed to mind,” Shea said. “Everyone seemed to be pretty excited about the story.”

In preparation for the big event, the nordic ski center had widened some of the trails with a groomer, Shea explained, and in that particular section of the trail, the groomer had pushed a snowdrift to the side, and the bear’s den had been underneath. Then, at some point between the grooming and the races, a hole melted in the roof of the den. But it wasn’t discovered until the races were underway.

“At some point in between the men’s and women’s races, somebody discovered there was a hole in the trail,” said Shea. “They may have even gotten a glimpse of one of the cubs or both of the cubs. Some of the details around that are pretty fuzzy — no pun intended.”

The hole was about 18 inches in diameter, Shea said.

“You could peer down in the hole and kind of make out where the mother bear was, but it was really hard to see,” Shea said. “You could tell she was breathing in there, and she didn’t seem to be bothered.”

On Monday, Shea visited the den with local game warden Alan Dudley, and after consulting with state bear biologists, they decided to cover up the hole with plywood and snow, protecting the slumbering bears from the elements. They didn’t see any baby bears, but the skiers who found the den reported seeing two small bears, likely yearlings, which hibernate with their mother for their second winter before striking out on their own.

“That den structure is a typical den,” Vashon said. “A lot of times in northern Maine, you have deep snow so the den goes undetected and the animals undisturbed even in that close proximity to people.”

Maine black bears hibernate as a way of getting through the winter, when food sources are scarce. They typically find and prepare a den by early November, and they usually select hollowed out trees and tiny caves. They collect leaves, twigs and grass to build insulative beds, then settle down to sleep. During this time, their heart rate drops. They don’t eat, and they don’t defecate or urinate. They stay put, for the most part. But they can be woken up by disturbances, Vashon said, and they will flee their den if they sense danger.

Taking this under consideration, the nordic center decided to close the trail, giving the bears plenty of space.

“Over the years we’ve heard a lot of people say they’ve seen bears up here,” Shea said. “Besides promoting the biathlon as a sport and outdoor recreation in the wintertime, one of the things that’s important to us is that we’re stewards of the land and the wildlife that live on the land. It’s really neat to be a part of this, to get a glimpse of what the bear does through the wintertime. Our first priority is to protect the people and the wildlife.”

At first, the ski center planned to keep the trail closed for the rest of the season, but after a lengthy discussion with state biologists, it was decided that the bears would be sedated and relocated to a more remote den by a crew of bear biologists with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. This maneuver was scheduled for the morning of Friday, Feb. 2, for the safety of the bears and the people using the center’s trails.

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Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...