JOHN HOLYOKE

Bear researcher looking toward future after helicopter crash

Posted July 12, 2013, at 12:14 p.m.

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 Lisa Bates, assistant project coordinator for Unity College bear studies, recounts a helicopter crash she and her pilot survived while looking for bears that occurred on Wednesday, July 3, 2013.
Lisa Bates, assistant project coordinator for Unity College bear studies, recounts a helicopter crash she and her pilot survived while looking for bears that occurred on Wednesday, July 3, 2013.

Ask Lisa Bates to describe herself and she uses words like “stubborn,” “strong-willed” and “driven.”

Ask her if she’s a thrill-seeker, and she’ll say she’s not, even though she regularly crawls into bear dens as part of her job as a black bear researcher.

“I don’t even like to go water skiing, because I think it’s too dangerous and I might break a leg,” Bates said the other day as she recuperated after a harrowing helicopter crash while conducting bear research for Unity College.

Bates isn’t a frequent helicopter passenger. She said the July 3 crash, which injured her and the pilot, wasn’t a regular event. In fact, it was just the third time she had ever been in a chopper.

Bates was knocked unconscious in the crash. When she woke up, she helped rescue the pilot, then hiked to find help.

Understandably, Bates is thinking twice about her next flight, whenever that might come.

“My initial answer is, I’m good with being grounded [right now],” Bates said.

But she said she already has begun thinking about hopping back on the proverbial bike and conquering lingering fears.

“I think that with my personality, it’s the type of ‘bike’ that I’d like to eventually get back on and ride,” she said. “But I’ve got zero interest in it right now.”

In her everyday work as a seasonal contract worker for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Bates has taken advantage of her physical gifts — strength, agility and a small stature that allows her to crawl into spaces that others won’t fit into — and parlayed them into a role as “the mole.”

She faces down the bears, often in close quarters. She jabs them with a needle, anesthetizing them so that team members can gather physical data.

That, she says, is normal.

But she understands if you think otherwise.

She simply says that sometimes you have to “mind-over-matter” things and figure out how to overcome your fears.

One trick that the state’s bear team — led by biologist Randy Cross — uses is counterintuitive, but it works, according to Bates.

Cross tells his team that they’ve got to wage a constant battle against “irrational fear.”

And then he convinces them that fearing the bear is irrational.

Bates recalls crawling into one bear den and finding a huge spider inside. She kept herself together long enough to jab the bear, but was frantic when she popped out of a narrow den entrance.

The problem wasn’t the bear. It was the spider.

“So a spider is ‘irrational fear,’” she admitted the other day. “A bear is ‘rational fear.’ But through late-night storytimes [with the crew] and years of training, we switch it around and say that [fear of your] proximity to a bear is still rational, but we treat it as irrational. We have to overcome our body’s basic reaction to run and flee, and [we have to] understand the animal and where the animal’s coming from.”

On July 3, Bates says those lessons she learned at the hand of Cross, her mentor for the past five years, paid off. She fought her fear. She did the things that needed to be done. She proved herself under pressure.

And now, Bates says she’s eager to keep fighting.

There are other things that have made her uneasy in the past, and she thinks she’s ready to conquer them.

“Before [the crash], I always wanted to take my guide’s license and become a Maine Guide,” she said. “To do that, you have to sit down in front of a panel of professionals and wardens and other guides and do a lost-person scenario and map-and-compass and all that stuff.

“I’ve always visualized myself failing, because, just like anybody else, I never knew what I would do if I was in a really stressful situation or a life-threatening situation,” she said.

And now, she does.

“It’s only been a few days [since the crash], but I don’t picture myself failing,” she said. “And I think that what helped was all of those late-night storytimes with Randy [and the bear crew], and the last five years of training myself to overcome irrational fear and use rational thought.”

After what she has been through, Bates doesn’t doubt that she’ll fare well if she sits down in front of a panel that will decide if she’s got what it takes to become a registered Maine Guide.

You shouldn’t doubt it, either.

John Holyoke may be reached at jholyoke@bangordailynews.com or 990-8214. Check out his blog at outthere.bangordailynews.com and follow him on Twitter @JohnHolyoke.

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