The shores of Lake Superior are home to some of the oldest growing forestland in the region, giving shape to the Porcupine Mountains. The Porkies, as they’re commonly referred to, sit right smack dab in the middle of Bear Country.

Winter is finally over in the U.P., which means bears are just waking up from an unseasonably long slumber. Although exciting, taking a hike to an actual bear den can be a bit scary.

“I’ve been outdoors all my life and the opportunity to see a bear den is very attractive to me. Whether there is a bear there or not is not really the point, it will give me an idea of what bears do all winter and how they survive without eating anything for such a long period of time, so it was a natural thing to come here,” said Patricia Miller, Williamston, MI.

Before heading into the beast’s intimate lair, the tour group received a few tips which a required using their imaginations.

Brittany Sides, who recently lead the group of hikers is a Park Naturalist Assistant with the Department of Natural Resources. “Do you think it’s going to be in a cave–like area or in a tree?” Sides asks. “That gives people a good idea of what they might expect a bear den to look like and then I usually wait until the group sees it before I point it out.”

Surprisingly, it was a short hike before someone spotted the den. It wasn’t on a designated trail, just a footpath off South Boundary Road. Upon first sight, the den is small, not quite what the group was expecting.

The level of housekeeping is what distinguishes a male den from a female’s. Typically, if occupied by a male, the bear does not care how the den is decorated. Females will decorate with leaves or moss.

They can smell a crumb that is microscopic. When hiking in bear country, it’s advised to avoid carrying any food or any type of scented products.

While lying inside the den, it appeared to be about six or seven feet deep and no more than two feet wide – close quarters for such a colossal creature.

Although the tour group didn’t spot any bears on the hike, the guide brought props to help illustrate some of the finer points, like the thickness of bear’s winter coat, or what can be learned from their teeth. A careful inspection of bear teeth samples left most hikers fascinated.

Sides explains that a bear’s teeth can be very sharp, indicating that the bear eats meat. The back teeth are flat, telling of diet of plant material.

Seventy-five percent of a black bear’s diet consists of plant material. The rest is made up of berries, fish, or maybe a fawn in the spring. Each chomp is important for researchers. Teeth marks can reveal a bear’s age, sex, and even how many times it has given birth.

Bears venture out around 100 miles for food. Some even travel 40 miles just for an acorn. For them, it’s worth it. Storing food for the winter is a number-one goal. A hibernating bear can burn 3,000 – 4,000 calories a day in the winter.

Although there were no animals on hand to grin and bare it, the group was able to see how their hands matched up to a bear’s front paws.

The Porcupine Mountain bear country tour also taught the tourists helpful advice if ever caught in the woods with one of these giant creatures. According to the guide, bears are afraid of people. Sides says the best self defense when encountered with a bear in the wild is to talk to it calmly, and back away slowly. Bears will only be aggressive if they feel cornered. If a female is with cubs when crossing paths with a human, her instinct is usually to first protect her kin. If not threatened, she would first put the cubs up the tree and allow you to get away.

Do not run. Unless you can reach speeds of up to 35 miles per hour, a grizzly will bear down on runners like prey in no time. Despite the risk of having an encounter with one of the den dwellers, most who participated in the tour said they’d be willing to bare it again hoping next time to spot a black bear up close.

“Bears are really amazing animals,” said Sides.

“It was pretty cool, the bear den. It’s pretty dark in there but I could still see. It wasn’t that dark,” said David Oosse, Traverse City, Michigan.