Weird, but true (another bear story)
MECHANICSVILLE, Va. — I made my first attempt at a master’s degree from 1983-1985 in the geography department at the University of Oklahoma. For all of my scientific career, I have preferred field work. In keeping with my preferences, my thesis research was going to be a field project — a study of high-elevation forests in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of southern Colorado in the summer of 1984.
I was working in the Blanca Massif area (a little to the southwest of the Great Sand Dunes) in the Upper Huerfano River valley. The river — little more than a creek near its head — was at the bottom of a narrow 2,000-foot-deep glacial gouge. Because of the high ridges on the east and west, sunrise came late and sunset came early.
One afternoon, after an exhausting day of field work, the sun disappeared over the ridge before I had a chance to wash my dishes after dinner. It got cold quick — my base camp was above 10,000 feet — so I decided to cut corners and just dry my dishes as best I could, put them in the back of my pickup truck, and get in my sleeping bag as quickly as possible.
I was awakened at some point that night by the distant sound of something banging on metal. I dozed again, but the sound kept waking me up — and it got closer each time. Finally, I heard a big slam and heard the sound of the springs creaking on my truck.
I was in a little Eureka! Timberline tent with the windows zipped up because of the cold. I didn’t know what to do. Part of me wanted to stay in the tent, but part of me wanted to get out and face what I was certain was going to kill me. I could see nothing with the windows as they were.
The part that wanted to face my soon-to-be killer won out. I got dressed. Despite the noise I made, nothing attacked. I zipped down the windows and peekd out. Nothing attacked. I crawled out of the tent. Nothing attacked. I shined a flashlight around the campsite and saw nothing. Still, nothing attacked.
I looked for a tree to climb in an emergency. The ones that were big enough had no limbs within reach. The ones with limbs within reach weren’t big enough. I wasn’t in an ideal situation, and I knew damned well that something was nearby.
I thought about it for a minute, and decided to walk up to my truck. I shined the light through a camper shell window, and, yes, I had a visitor — a black bear.
Well, I was 24 at the time and not especially bright. I didn’t like the idea of that bear in my truck eating my food. So what to do? Sit around until it finishes with my supplies and comes after me? No. Open the door of the camper shell and tell it to get out? No.
I had a .30-06 rifle I had borrowed from a friend in case of emergencies. This seemed like an emergency. Unfortunately, the rifle was in the truck. Fortunately, it was in the cab, and I retrieved it without incident.
I loaded it, walked back to the camper shell, and thought about dispatching my problem, but I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of shooting the bear — it was a bad enough idea in general, and an especially bad idea in my truck.
Still, I wasn’t inclined to let events unfold in the bear’s good time.
Then a great idea!
I would get in my truck, and begin driving it out of the mountains. If I got all the way out to the plains below, I would shoot it.
I got in the cab and started the truck, then shined the flashlight back in the camper shell.
The bear looked nervous.
I backed the truck out onto the Forest Service road, and drove about a hundred feet. I stopped and shined the light back in the camper shell. The bear’s head now was just behind mine — only a bit of tempered glass, a bit of plexiglass, and about four inches separated it from me.
For some reason, though, I wasn’t nervous. Maybe it was because the bear was the one looking REALLY scared — like scared shitless.
I turned my back on my rider, drove about another hundred feet, and stopped. This time, I heard a big slam and my truck bounced up and down on its springs.
I pulled over, waited a few minutes, and looked for my guest. It was nowhere to be seen.
The idea of staying in the neighborhood with the bear close by didn’t seem too appealing, so I broke camp in the dark. All the time I was annoyed at myself for apparently leaving the camper shell unlocked. But when I was ready to put my gear in the truck, I found it was locked!
The bear had pried out the latch on one side and forced his way in, then, after his short ride, forced his way back out. I still had to unlock the damned thing to get it open.
The next morning, down at the base of the mountains, I took stock of the damage. The bear had gotten a lot of my food. And I confirmed that it had, in fact, been scared shitless.
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