bear ranch

Visit the Bear Ranch for family-friendly fun

I yawned, stretched, and glanced out the window to assess the weather. Gray clouds dominated the skies. I slid on my flip-flops and stepped onto the deck to check the air temperature. A slight shiver shot through me when the chilly air kissed my skin. But it wasn’t until I ventured down to the shoreline, where waves crashed over the dock as wild winds whistled, that I determined it was not, in fact, a good lake day.

With tangled hair and damp feet, I hustled back into the cabin to make an announcement to my crew: “Road trip!” I hollered. “Grab a sweatshirt and snacks for the car.”

“Noooo!” whined my son Trevyn.

“Whhhy?” moaned my older son, Kyler.

“We’re going to see some bears,” I said.

Ears perked.

For years, I’d heard about Oswald’s Bear Ranch located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The 240-acre ranch – the largest in the United States – houses 36 bears spread across four large natural habitats.

Cabin neighbors had raved about the place, but our family had never been, partly because it was a three-hour car ride from our cabin and partly because it was insanely difficult to drag my boys away from their cherished lake activities.

But the chance to see, smell and feed live, 250-pound bears? My boys were all in.

One of the great things about entering into the Upper Peninsula is that you lose cell service almost as soon as you cross the Mackinac Bridge. As a result, spontaneous car conversation immediately follows.

“So, what is a bear ranch, anyway?” Kyler asked.

“It’s a place that cares for rescued cubs and injured bears from all over the U.S.,” I explained.
“Will we get to play with them?” Trevyn asked.

“No, but hopefully we’ll see them play with one another,” I said.

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bear ranch

As we neared the entrance to the ranch, enthusiasm grew. We headed for the female habitat first where we watched giant balls of fluff spar, swim, romp and roar. A couple of them sounded as if they were “having words,” but I imagine they were chatting about salmon – or maybe about the laziness of their male counterparts. Because while the females were rather active, the male habitat was full of snoring nappers sprawled out across the soil.

We bought a sack of apples with the intent of evenly distributing them among all the creatures, but my boys insisted we chuck every slice to the big brown injured fellow who ambled with a limp because one foot was paralyzed in an accident. His soft, angelic face had us tucked in the palm of his injured paw.

Next came the most energetic of the batch – the juveniles. One of them played on a log. Another went for a swim. A third rolled in the dirt. These furry teens played rough-and-tumble in the shaded section of the habitat until two elementary aged kids started tossing green apple slices over the tall fence. Then the bears raced down the hill to collect their crunchy treats.

Smarter than the average bear, these young Yogis had learned that if they sat on their hind quarters with their front paws outstretched, the crowd would throw every last piece of sweet fruit in their direction.

The highlight of the day, however, was when our family gathered round a black bear cub and fed him a giant spoonful of strawberry jelly.

“This was the best day ever!” Trevyn exclaimed, as he selected bear figurines from the gift shop on our way out.

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bear ranch

This is what I love about cabin life. Even after decades of going to the lake, one can always find new sights to see, new things to do, new memories to make. Sometimes these revelations come as a result of drab, dark, dreary weather, which just goes to show that there’s no such thing as a bad day at the cabin.

About our author
Christy Heitger-Ewing thinks that if everyone could experience life at a cabin, the world would be a happier place.