With Valentine’s Day looming, a good, old-fashioned love story seems to be in order. This morning, I’ve got a great one for you. And as a bonus, I’ll add in a few hundred cuddly Maine bear cubs, just to increase the warm-and-fuzzy quotient.
Not a sucker for love stories? That’s OK. Just consider this a true Maine adventure tale. Because it’s all of that, too.
It all starts with the bears. Maine black bears, which a hardy and athletic group of researchers have been studying for more than 35 years. The current bear crew is led by wildlife biologist Randy Cross, and includes Lisa Bates, Jake Feener and Ethan Lamb.
Cross is the boss. He’s seen it all during his 35 “den seasons” on the project. And for the last four years, he has watched, somewhat nervously, as a romance flourished between Bates and Feener.
In fact, Bates is pretty sure that Cross knew what was going on right from the start. The crew is close, after all, and spends 13 weeks each winter working, traveling and living together.
“I had a super crush on Jake, like a teenager, and I don’t know where it came from,” Bates explained.
She thought she was acting professionally while conducting bear den visits, and was still getting the job done. Then, one day, a sow bear ran off during a den visit, and Bates was assigned to go back to the den early the next morning to see if she had returned.
“[Cross] was like, ‘If you weren’t so busy thinking about a boy …’” Bates recounted. “I was like, ‘Oh my god. He knows.’”
One adventurous decision later likely led to their future life together, Bates said.
The two were in a “just friends” stage of the relationship when Feener announced that he had to go back to the western U.S. to pick up a banjo, a dirt bike, and some of his other belongings that he’d left behind.
“I was at a time when I’d never really done anything,” Bates said. “He said, ‘I need a truck,’ and I was like, ‘I’ve got a truck.’ So the day after den season ended, we said, ‘Let’s just do this.’ I wanted to go somewhere. I had the mode [of transportation], and he had the destination. We planned a trip in a day, and we left, and we were on the road for 12 days. And that’s kind of where it blossomed.”
Bates said the Feener she had come to know was a special man.
“He was just the nicest human being I’ve ever met,” Bates said. “He’s so considerate and generous and jovial and all of that stuff. I was like, ‘Man, I’d like some of that stuff to rub off on me a little bit.’”
Feener is also open about his feelings.
“I’ve always admired her. She’s a great gal. She’s a great person,” Feener said. “But when we got out and started working together — you hear about this in love songs and stuff — literally, we were drawn together. We had no choice.”
Bates is admittedly serious and driven. Feener is quick to smile, and eager to chat and tell a story. His banjo skills make him a popular man around camp, when team members often sing to each other, or gather in front of a fire to listen to Cross read poetry.
And both vividly remember how Feener proposed.
“He actually proposed while we were down trapping [bears],” Bates began.
“Yeah. Down on Hemlock Stream,” Feener agreed.
“Next to a beaver carcass,” Bates finished.
The original proposal was to have taken place in a restaurant. Or on the 100-Mile Wilderness. For whatever reason, neither of those plans worked out, so Feener decided to wing it.
“I was so sick of waiting for the right time. I thought, ‘I could die tomorrow. I should just tell her today,’” Feener said. “I took her down to the stream — it’s the prettiest trap site we have in the Penobscot Lowlands — and I asked her there.”
The couple will marry on July 8 — conveniently timed so that the wedding doesn’t take place during den season or a spring trapping period, of course.
Somebody’s got to keep looking after the bears, after all.
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke