The Cast: Matthew (the nicest guy you’ll ever meet), Myself (the very tired guy).
When you’re in the mountains, sitting in your tent, at two o’clock in the morning, exhausted, the last thing you want is some dog sniffing around and bothering you.
I think we can all agree that wild animals can be found in the wild. Creatures like chipmunks, squirrels, deer, bunnies, foxes, and other such cute and safe critters. But there are also bigger animals like mountain lions and bears. And in the summer, the Boy Scout Merit Badge Camp I worked several years at, had all kinds of both of those animals. We had a mountain lion that would prowl about the ridgeline, leaving everybody alone. The deer would wander in and out of the campsites and be lovely, natural reminders that we were in the wild. Occasionally, there would be a brown bear or two roaming about, but they never caused any harm or mischief. With the one exception of that summer of the bears.
There was one summer where there must have been a brown bear convention that didn’t tell us about their arrival because the bears were everywhere. At one point the staff had counted 13 distinctly different brown bears. Did you know that not every brown bear is actually brown? I didn’t. They can even be a blonde color. That’s right, blonde! A blonde brown bear?! Whoever heard of a blonde brown bear? Wait, wait, wait. We’re getting off track. Um, brown bears. Lots of brown bears.
We had a few close encounters with the bears. And when I say “we” I mean everyone. The staff, the Scouts, visiting adults, the Bureau of Land Management people and Wildlife people we brought up to try to capture and relocate the bears. Everybody. Except me. Our Aquatics Staff saw the bears on the road to the lake. Staff saw them leaving their program areas. Some of the Scouts that came up had bears wander into the campsites on occasion. Even my children saw them when my wife brought them up to visit me. But I never saw any bears! Not a single one.
For several years my whole family would be up at the camp for the summer, but this particular summer my wife had to stay in town with her work. So, on the weekends I would return home for laundry and such, then I would bring one of my children up to stay with me for the week. It was very fun until the bear count had gone up too high to be safe for small children. It was my oldest child’s turn and she was not happy about missing out, but she understood why. And she had already seen some of the bears. Lucky.
One night I had been up late speaking with my boss, Matthew, about what the administration had been doing to help resolve the bear problem. Trackers, and trappers to tranquilize and move the bears had become the latest option. Matthew shared with me of the whole plan. During the night—so that the Scouts and Scout Masters wouldn’t freak out—trackers and trappers would come up with hunting dogs to locate the bears. Once found, they would tranquilize, collect and move the bears safely, quietly, and without negative attention.
Camp life, as a staff member, can be very tiring. But when you add to that all the stresses from dealing with a sleuth* of bears and you get exhaustion. So, after hours of talking about all the things the camp had been planning to keep the campers and staff safe, Matthew and I had wearied. It was two o’clock in the morning after all. The two of us had been talking for hours inside the main lodge of the camp. It was time for some sleep.
I said goodnight and headed to my tent. It was in an isolated area because married staff cannot billet with underage youth. Additionally, most of the older/married staff had trailers and that area was full. So, it was just me with my tent, located by the camp’s dumpster. Oh, the fun of having everyone’s garbage as neighbors. They were quiet and didn’t keep me up at night, but they did smell and didn’t maintain their lawn. But otherwise, they were alright.
Once inside my tent, I began to get myself ready to sleep. My mattress was on the ground and I sat upon it to remove my boots and change clothes. My boots were off and I began to hear noises outside my tent. Nothing new. I’ve been stared at by more than one mountain lion while at camp. I’ve even been spontaneously surrounded by deer while at camp. They do not know what to do when you’re in a clearing before they get there. The three deer just stood there, on three sides, staring at me as if to say, “Um… Are you supposed to be here? Oh, you are? Well we had a reservation to meet here this morning bu-ut… We’ll just leave.” Then the deer backed up, slowly, like I had just committed a horrible crime and they were doing their best to ‘get out alive’ and not have to talk to the police about what they had just seen, so to speak, and when safely far enough away the deer turned and bolted.
There it was again. A sniffing sound. Hmmm, something was sniffing my tent. This was a new experience for me, and I had been camping since I was a child. Wait, this was heavy sniffing, and the nose was higher up than a small rodent animal like the marmots nearby. Oh, right! The dog’s and trackers Matthew had just been telling me about. It must be one of the dogs. Duh. I was tired and not thinking clearly.
When you’re in the mountains, sitting in your tent, at two o’clock in the morning, exhausted, the last thing you want is some dog sniffing around and bothering you. So, I swatted the dog’s nose. The dog came back, a little more aggressive this time. Fine. New smell. The dog was just doing what dogs do. No offense, but I needed sleep so I hit the dog’s nose again. Harder. The dog left and now I could go to sleep. Once changed, I was about to climb into my sleeping bag when someone began to empty the lodge’s garbage cans into the dumpster. At least that’s what I thought based upon the sounds I was hearing.
Matthew must have decided to take out the trash. I always knew him to be over-the-top helpful. Even this early in the morning, as tired as he was, he was emptying the trash. What a nice guy. Maybe I should help? But I’m so tired. I’m sure he is too. But he is the one that chose to empty the garbage cans. I didn’t make him do it. Wow, that is a lot of garbage he’s dumping out. Well, they are big garbage cans. Nope, I’m not helping, I’m going to sleep. Matthew can finish what he started. Those were my thoughts as I lay my head onto my pillow and fell deep asleep.
Four hours later I woke up to get ready for the day. In a mountain camp if you wanted hot water for a shower you had to get up early. So I gathered up my things, unzipped my tent door, and stepped out into the chilly mountain air to behold all of nature’s splendor. At least that’s what I would have seen had a group of drunken college fraternity kids not had a party all night long and covered my neighbor’s lawn with their garbage. At least that’s what it looked like.
There was garbage everywhere. Everywhere! The plastic bags were torn open and several boxes were ‘sampled’ by the wild party animals. Wait, not party animals, just animal. A bear had made that mess. That means… Matthew had not taken out the trash. The trash was being taken out of the dumpster… By a bear… So that sniffing at my tent wasn’t a dog? It was a bear!?! I hit a bear?!? I hit a bear in the face! Twice!!!
As I looked around at the mess the ‘frat boys’ had made I spotted a pile of bear scat next to my tent. Like the bear was trying to say to me, “Hey man. I made this mess. I’m not letting some imaginary fraternity take the credit for my late night garbage buffet mishmash. Also, don’t hit me. It’s not nice.” Then he signed his note for me by leaving his perfectly shaped paw print, centered, in the only patch of soft dirt for 200 feet. It wasn’t huge—because it was a brown bear—but it wasn’t small either. It was about the size of the hand of an average sized man. But those claws…
To this day I have yet to see a bear in the wild. But I’ve hit one. In the face. Twice.
*A group of bears is called a sleuth or a sloth. Referring to their slow movement, not their detective skills.