NORTH WOODSTOCK, N.H. — It’s the dead of winter in the White Mountains, the 22d day of January, and Maureen Clark pulls in to the back of Clark’s Trading Post to do what she always does on this day. It’s something children’s books tell you never to do. She’s going to wake a hibernating bear.
The bear’s name is Victoria, and it is her 22d birthday. Twenty-two is old for a black bear. Maureen has had Victoria since she was a cub, a gift from a famous bear trainer, small enough to run around in Maureen’s cabin.
Maureen has lived with bears all her 54 years. Her father and uncle began doing a trained bear act in 1949 in the amusement park her grandparents opened in 1928, and Maureen and her brother have been working there since they were kids. Maureen loved all the bears, but Victoria is her favorite, the one she calls her baby. For years, Victoria was the star of her father’s bear show, and Maureen was his helper in the ring, leading Victoria through her tricks while her father played the showman.
Victoria is old now, and she has been retired from performing. But she still wants to be in the show, Maureen says. She can tell by the way Victoria gets excited each summer when the show season arrives, how she watches when the younger bears walk on the giant globe and ride on the swing while the crowd cheers. It hurts Maureen to have to watch Victoria go through it, but this year, she’s got a plan to make the aging diva feel a part of the show again. But for today, she’s just going to have a little birthday party.
Maureen opens a padlock to a large gate and the cold sound skips off the ice through the small park, just a half-dozen attractions and a few old-timey buildings. The Trading Post is known for its steam train that takes people on a 30-minute ride over a covered bridge and through the White Mountains, and the bear show.
Maureen crunches through the low snow to Victoria’s enclosure. All of the other bears spend the winter across the street at habitats. Victoria has never liked the habitats. She never wanted to leave her enclosure right next to the show ring. As Victoria got closer to retirement, Maureen built new accommodations for her behind her cabin, an elaborate habitat with cool caves to crawl in and trees to scratch and climb, and a pool of clean water. Maureen planned to build a corridor to connect it to her house, for the bear to come inside. Victoria hated it. The bear paced and refused to eat until she was brought back to the three-sided concrete box where she has lived her entire life.
Maureen says it is because she doesn’t want to lose her front-row seat next to the show ring, the center of the action at Clark’s Trading Post. Victoria is still an able bear, just not as young as the show’s current stars. Maureen says she still wants to go in. Every show she says she can feel it. The view from the pen is as close to it as Victoria will get, a rectangular view on the world where she can watch two bear shows and two circus shows daily. If she is at the habitat, Maureen says, Victoria cannot see the show. Victoria, she says over and over and over, wants to go into the show.
“It’s mommy, baby,” Maureen says softly as she pulls open a large gate and steps into the untouched snow around Victoria’s den. “Hey, pumpkin pie.” She kneels down on the deck outside the giant doghouse, and sticks her head inside. Then she crawls in.
Victoria recognizes Maureen’s arrival, but doesn’t fully commit to being awake. She lets Maureen rub her fur, and Maureen tells her that it’s her birthday.
Bears do not eat while they are hibernating, so Maureen reaches her hand outside and makes Victoria a birthday snowball, a present that gets her to turn her body in the small space and gently lick it from Maureen’s hand. If it were summer, she would have fed her some black raspberry ice cream with a long metal spoon. Ice cream is the only treat they use to train the bears, the only weapon in the ring.
They spend a few minutes together, Maureen nuzzling deep into the bear’s musty coat, and as she zips up her coat to say goodbye, the bear takes her gloves in her mouth and hides them behind her body, in the hay, to keep Maureen from leaving.
A seat on the sidelines
By St. Patrick’s Day, the other bears have been awake for a week already. The younger ones are climbing trees, wrestling, eating. But there has been no sign of Victoria outside her den. For Maureen, spring does not begin until Victoria wakes up, and on March 18, someone sees her stirring outside her den. “Victoria is awake,” Maureen shouts into the phone.Continued...