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for those feeling bad bout squirrels getting into yor plants

Oct 20, 2003
missing, presumed dead
i present:

Bear in Camp!
Ken Howell

"Bear in camp!" I yelled as I shucked my sleeping bag.

Some camp -- each of us lay wherever he could find two trees to string his mosquito bar between. Still, it was our home on the trail, and nobody wanted to share it with the bear that was trying to break into our meat box. On the shore of Moon Lake, just two fingers below the Arctic Circle, the sun was in the sky that June night.

Some bear, too. A middle-sized black, it might have been worth something to a hunter in the fall. But none of us wanted to shoot a summer bear, nor did we want to have to kill a campground bear that hadn't become a nuisance. I'd left my .44 in my pack, anyway. So I just stood up and tried to yell him off.

The bear ignored me -- didn't look around, just kept batting the meat box. In skivvies and socks, I ran at him, yelling crazily and waving my arms. My idiotic squalling and waving got his attention. He looked around like a sleepy husband who had just swigged his wife's shampoo.

Then in dismay, he realized that the gibbering idiot was about to run smack into him. All parts of his anatomy tried to go in all possible directions except toward me -- then he got all his motions devoted to one direction and hauled his bacon for the spruces.

Good thing, too. Certain that my mad squalling would put him on the run, I'd found myself about to run slap into a bear that didn't know what to do. And I didn't know what to do if he didn't run from me.

I got cocky. I decided that just chasing him off the meat box wasn't enough. No, I'd run him clean up into the spruces. We had to cross a couple of acres of sandy clearing, and I was trailer-close to his rump for several yards. Oho! I'd kick him in the rear end! Teach him a lesson. But punting a bear's bobbing bottom would take a lot more cruise speed than I had -- worlds more coordination, too. He pulled away from me when I tried to get set for a good running kick. So I let him go -- and boy! did he go, putting yards of sand between tracks, and off up through the spruces.

I turned back, amazed to see how far I'd run. As I walked back, my partners were rolling around on the ground, hooting, and yelling advice unworthy of verbatim report.

Well, I had to admit that it must have looked funny, though I'd been serious about it all. Then the guys started all over again, with new convulsions and glee, pointing toward me and howling unintelligibly.

I looked around and found a meek, subdued black bear following warily a couple of paces behind me, like a faithful hound that had just been kicked in the slats and didn't know why.

I stopped and turned around.

The bear stopped.

I jumped at him, yelled gibberish, and waved my arms. The bear jumped back, ready to make tracks for the spruces again but leery of turning his back on me without room for a good running start. So I went into my act again and ran him so far up into the spruces that he didn't come back while we were camped there.

(He came back later, I heard, and left his mark -- a track or two in a concrete slab that our BLM crew poured for the Red Jacket sand-point pump that we set up at that campground before the BLM ceded it to the new state of Alaska.)

A bear in camp can be a disaster. Thorgrim Ness, a Norwegian who used to boss our district's trail crew in the Selway-Bitterroot wilderness, came back to his high-country camp with his crew one afternoon to find it wrecked by a bear. New supplies were two or three days' hike away. For years after, Thor got rid of camp bears as soon as they started hanging around his trail camp.

The trail crew's supplies included dynamite for blasting rock to make or clear trails in the high country. Once a bear started visiting the camp's garbage pit, Thor wrapped a stick or two of dynamite in bacon rind, hung it from a limb near the garbage pit, and detonated it when he felt a tug on the wire. Thor -- neither a hunter nor a Bambi-lover -- hated and feared bears.

Too bad. A bear in camp can also be a circus -- with the laughs sometimes on the bear, sometimes on the camp.

The cutest bear act that I know of was put on by a cub that climbed a corner pole to the eave of an old open fire lookout in Montana one morning, early. The fellow in the lookout was asleep on a cot, with his head in that corner. A ham hung from a rafter over his head.

Lying on his back, he woke to see a cub perched in the V formed by the corner pole and a brace under the eave. With one hind paw in the ditch of the V, the other hind paw on top of the first, and one front paw completing the stack, the cub was reaching out ever so carefully toward the ham with the other front paw. But the ham was just out of reach, and each time the cub leaned forward to get it, he felt himself about to topple forward out of his awkward perch.

Quickly, he caught his balance and solemnly tried again. The man watching held his laughter in as long as he could, though his cot was quaking and creaking. Then one guffaw burst loose, and the startled cub scrambled down the corner pole and scampered off.

Coming back to our backwoods ranger station late one night, I topped a rise to see our garbage-pit bear in the road, startled immobile by the "thunder" of my pickup top -- a home-made sheet-metal affair like the rig that old-time radio special-effects men used to use when they made the sound of thunder on the air. The bear had heard my storm approaching, more suddenly than any other storm in his life, and was caught flat-footed with surprise when I topped the rise and bathed him in the continuous "lightning" of my headlights.

The headlights of the pickup also marked what seemed to be the only escape route available, and at the last moment, he whirled and made beaucoup knots down the road ahead of me. But the pickup stayed right on his rump. I'd heard and read how fast a bear could haul his bacon, so I decided to see for myself how fast he could go.

Only his bobbing head and shoulders were in sight over the front of the hood. His feet were flipping road gravel against my grille at a pretty good rate, and he was looking -- and even edging slightly -- toward the side of the road with an obvious urge to chart a new course.

But that bear had a gut-level understanding of vectors and relative speeds, and he sensed that any move to the side would cut his uncomfortably tiny lead ahead of the continuous "thunder" and "lightning" so close on his rump. So he stuck to his course straight down the road.

Meanwhile, I remembered also what I'd heard about the results of hitting a hog -- or a bear -- with a pickup truck. I knew that I could be in for some real grief if this bear got so terrified that he lost or abandoned his field understanding of elementary physics and dodged suddenly off to the side. So I let up on the accelerator and let the bear increase his lead ahead of the pickup.

The bear saw his opportunity and made a flying dive for the sawbuck fence that surrounded the horse meadow. The last I saw of him, he'd flattened himself out like a hairy giant Frisbee and sailed between the bottom and middle rails of the meadow fence -- leaving those two rails vibrating like a pair of fiddle strings.

I should've gone back later, in the daylight, and collected some of the bear hairs that I'm sure the splinters in the fence rails had captured -- but never did. I can, however, still "see" those rails vibrating as the sidewash of my headlights swept past.

Don't ask how I controlled the pickup for the next hundred yards. I really don't know how I kept it out of the beaver pond on the side of the road.

The meat cache at that old backwoods ranger station was a small shed with its door enclosed in a barbed-wire gate. The boundary of the neighboring Bob Marshall wilderness area was close by, so bears' night visits to the meat cache were guaranteed. Each night, the ranger's black Labrador chased the bear off.

In time, raider bears get downright arrogant, refuse to run off, and -- sometimes -- eventually get nasty. Finally, the ranger saw that repeating earlier discouragements would be fruitless, that one particularly insistent raider bear had to be shot. He issued volunteers a twelve-gauge shotgun and a powerful flashlight.

The mighty hunters would wait in the bunkhouse after the generator had been turned off for the night, and -- at the first screech of the barbed wire around the meat cache -- would walk up on the bear, illuminate him with the flashlight, and dose him with buckshot. After a short wait one night, the wire screeched.

With eager spectators close behind, the bear-slayers ran toward the meat cache, flicked the flashlight on as they got close to it -- and saw a great black shape bounding to meet them.

Shotgun, flashlight, intrepid hunters, and loyal supporters all scattered into the night.

The bear? Long gone, chased off by the ranger's black Labrador, which then came proudly down the hill to greet the hunters.

In one of our national parks, a tourist baited a campground grizzly into his car and slammed the door, wanting to photograph the bear "driving the car." The grizzly stirred the innards of the car like a stew but found no exit. When a park ranger appeared, the grizzly was sitting terrified amid the rubble of the car's interior, and a merry crowd ringed the car.

The ranger shushed the crowd and moved everybody a safe distance from the car. Then he cautiously opened all its doors and backed off. After a moment, the bear rolled out of the car and began to lope away. The crowd cheered. Frightened again, the bear looked for escape or haven - and spotted the ranger's patrol car, parked hastily with one door hanging open.

At full gallop, the grizzly dived into the welcome haven of the "cave." His weight swayed the car, the door slammed shut - and the bear furiously stirred up another upholstery stew.

Dogs and bears don't mix. Together, they can make stirring times.

A surveyor in Alaska, at work afield in bear country, carried a double-action New Service .45 Colt just in case. He also had a dog -- a mutt that liked to find and provoke brownies. The dog's daily routine went like this: dog wanders the brush; finds bear and nags it until it charges, then pulls tail for master's protection; bear chases dog, catches survey crew's scent, flees into the brush -- and dog goes looking for another big, interesting playmate.

The last encore ended the show. Busy writing data in his field book, the surveyor ignored the usual, familiar sounds of the dog bringing in another brownie -- and didn't notice that this bear wasn't abandoning the chase. The rest of the crew noticed and took cover. The dog ran past the surveyor, with the bear close behind.

The bear turned its attention to the man. One of the surveyor's helpers yelled a warning, and the surveyor dropped his field book to draw his Colt.

He put five fast rounds double-action out of his .45 point-blank into the bear's face -- and with but a slight pause to shift targets, gave the dog behind him the sixth round.

Each summer, my young Norwegian friend Monrad Kjoerlein worked for an exploration outfit in one of Canada's far-north territories -- prospecting for oil or uranium. He and his partner were often in bear country and knew better than to keep food near camp.

In one area that ran thick with bears, they came back to camp one afternoon to find that a party of dudes had pitched a neighboring camp across the meadow -- and were cooking supper in the tent, an engraved invitation for a bear to come calling.

The next morning, Monrad got up early and stepped outside the tent to -- uh -- stretch. Across the meadow, he saw a bear with its head and shoulders inside the campers' tent. He ducked back into his tent -- too late -- to grab his dog.

Scooting past Monrad, the pooch dashed across the meadow without canine comment and nipped the bear. The bear shot into the tent with the dog close behind.

The canvas bulged violently here and there. The pegs came out of the ground. The poles came down. A variety of shouted remarks issued forth from the amorphous mass of canvas that rolled across the meadow, dropping now a puzzled man in a sleeping bag, next a little dog that trotted proudly back to his master, and one by one, the other rumpled campers.

Finally, the canvas wad disgorged the bear, which disappeared up the meadow, at last sight still combing his ears with his hind feet.

Probably the most puzzled bear in all bruindom has to be the camp raider that forced a wilderness road-building crew in Montana to adopt a drastic method to scare it out of their camp for good.

At first, the bear had startled and fled at little more than a shout, and didn't come back to the road camp's garbage cans for a couple of nights. In time, it came to resent being chased and refused to run off. The camp included the crew's dependents and pets. Trouble was of course inevitable -- but nobody wanted to have to kill the bear.

One night, the crew parked road equipment to surround the lakeside grove that enclosed the garbage cans. After dark, everyone waited for the rattles that would announce the bear's visit. Then most of the men converged on the grove, which others flooded with light from the road machinery. Making a great noise, the men so startled the bear that he climbed a tree -- exactly what they wanted him to do.

One agile young fellow climbed the same tree, with a long stick in his hand and a string tied to his belt. By poking the bear, he made it climb higher. Then he hauled the end of a hawser up by the string and tied the big rope around the tree as high as he could reach.

On the ground, another man tied the other end to a bulldozer. He cranked the 'dozer, eased the hawser taut, and pulled the top of the tree over as far as he dared.

Going in one instant from dense darkness to blinding light, the bear now found itself hanging upside-down, high in a mysteriously bending tree top. His universe was now only a ball of light and the tops of a few trees.

The cat-skinner bent the tree over until its trunk creaked. Bark popped off in chunks. The 'dozer stopped, and the cat-skinner hopped off. He rolled a chopping block under the hawser. One swing of an ax parted the hawser.

The top of the tree swished toward the lake. The bear, clinging tighter than ever, shucked the top out of the tree as he tumbled end over end out of the ball of light. Then the sound of a huge splash rolled in from the lake.

And that bear didn't raid that camp again. Ever.