Working with bears out in the wilderness is strenuous, says Lisa Bates ’08, but it’s also about the emotion and the instincts you take into the field.
At a sun-soaked picnic table, Lisa’s face shines as bright as the day while she speaks about her latest project—the Unity College Black Bear Study. A woman of slight stature and gentle yet passionate manner, it’s hard to envision Bates wrestling bears in the wilds of Maine.
“I’ve learned lots of little-people techniques. And learned to overcome fears.” Working with men much bigger and stronger, she’s had to figure out methods to do the same job in a different way. “And, along the way I’ve managed to teach the guys on the crew a little about working smarter.” Her eyes light up.
Bates’ job as a wildlife technician on the state of Maine’s bear crew gives her plenty of opportunity to learn from her mistakes, figure out ways to work smarter, not harder, and overcome obstacles.
“Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. Have some gusto.” Bates says these words from her supervisor at the Maine Department of Inland Fish and Wildlife (IF&W), Randy Cross, are indeed words she lives by.
“You can’t help but face obstacles when you’re in the middle of the northern Maine wilderness in sub-zero weather, rolling around in the snow face-to-face with a bear.” Bates has learned all the tricks.
At the same time, because of her stature, Lisa ends up with jobs the men have a harder time performing—like crawling into an s-shaped tunnel to get to the bear den.
“Fighting the fears of small places can at times be more fearsome than the bear.” That’s where some of the emotion comes in. Every one of the crew members has had to face fears and overcome them. Cross not only supervises, but coaches and mentors each member to keep the team together and working at optimal levels in the field—endlessly training to overcome those fears and get the job done.
“Facing down a mother bear with only a hypodermic needle, a flash light, and Randy’s voice in my earpiece isn’t easy for a claustrophobic.” Bates needs to get close enough in a constricted space to sedate the bear without getting hurt. With so much practice the task becomes second nature, and Cross’s words—shine the light directly in her eyes and position the syringe pole slow and steady—she’s learned to work on instinct.
Bates’ experiences as part of the well-oiled Maine state bear crew and coordinator of the dozen Unity College black bear study teams, as well as her training and education, gave her the tools she needed in an emergency situation this past summer. While tracking a bear wearing a VHF collar, which must be located manually with ground or aerial telemetry, the two-passenger helicopter she rode in crashed in a heavily wooded area in a town near Unity.
She credits her repetitive training, both at Unity College and in her career, using the strategy of repeat scenarios—or pictures in your head—that normalize something that is not normal. According to Mick Womersley, professor of human ecology and faculty advisor for the Unity College search and rescue team “In general, we always use drill in emergency management systems so that training kicks in, and fear and shock are overcome more easily.”
When Bates trained for the state, her supervisor used the example of envisioning tackling yearling bears to dispel the fear and ensure her reaction became instinctual to any scenario that might arise while subduing a yearling.
Training to remain calm in stressful situations gave Bates the ability to go through the stages of normalizing the helicopter accident. “First you face your fear by grounding yourself,” Bates says. “Once you’ve calmed down, you orient yourself to the situation and get the job done.”
In this case, Bates had to understand where she was—dangling in a seat in a helicopter that was turned on its side—and remember she was traveling with a pilot.
“When you’ve been unconscious, it’s tough to acclimate yourself to a situation and then force yourself to stay on an even keel to do what needs to be done,” says Bates.
In the end, Bates was able to get out of the helicopter, drag the severely injured pilot to safety after seeing leaking fuel, and use her GPS to get her to the road to flag down help. With a smashed cell phone, her options were few. Because she was trained to always know where she was in relation to landmarks, her Unity class training and her work experience allowed her to clearly visualize the map of the area where they had been following the bear, and head in the right direction toward a road she knew was close-by.
“Lisa’s prior training in lots of different areas we cover at the College, but especially first aid and land navigation, kicked in and helped her solve her emergency problem,” says Womersley. “Flagging the route was her best decision—it’s easy to walk in circles when your head is fried by shock!”
Paraphrasing the John Mayer song, “Bigger Than My Body,” Bates says “I’m stronger than my body gives me credit for.”
She’s had to be one step ahead of her body, and not depend on her strength, instead using her knowledge, experience, intellect—and yes, instinct—to conquer the situations she encounters.