Image: A yearling black bear cub sticks out its tongue and sniffs the air as it hides up in a tree.
Paul M. Walsh  /  The Country Today via AP
A yearling black bear cub sticks out its tongue and sniffs the air as it hides up in a tree.
updated 4/21/2011 9:53:02 AM ET 2011-04-21T13:53:02

Some people celebrate a big occasion by heading to Paris for the weekend. Others book a Caribbean cruise. And then there's Harold and Ann Graff, a pair of retired schoolteachers who traveled from Flagstaff, Ariz,, to northern Minnesota to spend Harold's 66th birthday at the million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, hoping, praying, and angling to get up-close and personal with a big black bear.

The Graffs, joined by their daughter Karyn Graff and her husband, Scott Weston, have signed up for a four-day Black Bear Field Study Course with biologist Lynn Rogers. They've each paid $1,500 to stay in rustic accommodations and spend their days tracking, observing, and photographing a bunch of wild new friends. They're not the only ones.

This week's field study course has also drawn Chris Seeley, 44, and her partner, Geoff Mead, 61, who flew in from England after seeing a 2010 BBC production featuring Lynn called "Bearwalker of the Northwoods." "Literally the minute the program was over, I went to my computer and booked a ticket," Chris says.

Having seen photos of Lynn (the male Jane Goodall of Minnesota) leading tours right up to the dens, I've also come with the hope of (safely) getting within hugging distance of one of the cubs. It might sound crazy or even dangerous to some, but the trip appealed to me right off the bat. (I'm also the kind of person who coos over bear videos on YouTube.)

I arrive at the lodge — a simple brown wooden cabin set at the bend of an L-shaped lake, about a five-hour drive from Minneapolis — and find Lynn standing on the deck, absentmindedly gazing up at the sky. He's tall and lean and, at the moment, is taming his shock of white hair with a black plastic comb. Before I can say hello, he turns and grins. "Have you met June?" he asks and points to the trees.

The woods are alive
I hear her before I see her. Branches creak. Twigs crack. Then she lets out a sound like a sputtering carburetor. "Oh, she's saying hello!" Lynn exclaims. That she is. June the bear is peering down at me from 30 feet in the air, where she's clinging to the trunk of a thin pine. My stomach flips in fear. Lynn pats my back and points again, to a lower section of the tree. It's only then that I notice three chubby cubs, attached like fluffy, furry suction cups to the trunk. One of them is climbing slowly up to his mother, stretching his little front paws first and then scooching his back legs up like an inchworm. It's too much. I let out the same delighted squeal I used on Christmas morning when I was 3. Lynn grins. He knows he's got me now.

At 72, Lynn emanates a surprisingly mischievous, schoolboy air. His slow drawl and booming laugh bring to mind The Dude, Jeff Bridges's famously laid-back character in "The Big Lebowski" (minus the pot-smoking, plus a Ph.D.).

Karyn and Scott — who run a tae kwon do studio in Pittsburgh and have taken the course once already — arrive and greet June by name. "I don't know anywhere else you can have this kind of interaction with bears," Karyn says. "If you only live once, how do you really want to spend your money and time? This is priceless."

By nightfall, the lodge's deck is swarming with bears. Everyone crowds into the living room and watches as two big males — each easily 500 pounds or more — vacuum up mixed nuts, dates, and sunflower seeds in a trough just outside a set of tall bay windows. "You always hear that feeding bears makes them lazy or that they'll forget how to forage naturally," Lynn tells me, as he jots down observations in a notebook. "But that's nonsense. Even with these feeding stations here, we track the bears and see that they still prefer to forage for ants when they can. This is just to supplement their diet." The practice is controversial, but Lynn says complaints about bears digging in locals' trash cans dropped after he started feeding them.

That night, my fear gives way to awe as I watch a male dine at the trough. His head is as big as a boulder, stuck on the end of a couch-size mass. I climb up onto the cushioned window seat to get a closer look and soon fall asleep there, with my head resting against the glass.

I wake up before sunrise at the sound of a loon calling, and take the opportunity to make use of one of the camp's canoes. As I paddle the lake, the sun rises and slowly filters light across the water.

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That afternoon, and every afternoon for the next few days, we hike a few easy miles into the woods to track the dozen or so bears and cubs that Lynn has collared. Reminding us to keep our distance until the animals recognize him, Lynn steps ahead and calls, "It's me, bear, it's me." In the woods, far away from the lodge, the bears are more cautious, but when it's apparent we don't intend to do anything more than observe them, they lose interest and go on about their business. That's when it gets fun.

I find a spot to sit on the carpet of sweet fern and spend whole afternoons watching a mom nurse her three cubs. It's enthralling. At one point, one of the cubs crawls so close, I can't resist. I put my hand out to see what he'll do, and he leans in a bit more — just as curious as I am. I touch his fur for an instant and am shocked by how soft and downy it is — a sensation I'll never forget.

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