Bears and Babies
When I was a few months old, my parents lived high in an isolated region of the Rocky Mountains northwest of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Over the years, they related stories of events that happened there from 1951 to 1955. As children, we absorbed them all, envisioning what it had been like to live in a mountain wilderness.
Wildlife was plentiful in the national park where the animals had already learned not to fear humans. In fact, human camps made great foraging grounds.
My older brother (by one year) and I lived with our parents in a small trailer while my father worked on a road-building project. The trailer was parked not far from a lake that supplied fresh water and kept milk in small cream cans cold.
This arrangement was convenient except for the fact that bears got curious about the camp and wandered in to take a look around. They’d find the narrow trail on the lakeshore then follow it to check out the tempting aromas of cooking.
Mother told us the little camp trailer often tipped and swayed alarmingly as bears used the bottom of it to scratch their backs. Apparently the tiny home-away-from-home would’ve disintegrated with one swipe of a bear’s paw but the bears didn’t know that.
The clean clothing she’d washed by hand and hung on a line to dry was often torn down by bears that dragged the laundry around on the ground for a while before settling for a nap onto the pile of erstwhile clean diapers, shirts, and all the rest. She’d have to wait until the animal left, gather up the newly-soiled clothes, and wash them again.
Every day was a gamble. Keeping an eye on the children took on a new meaning when one lived in a forest filled with bears, wolverines, wolves, and the occasional cranky old moose. Rearing children in a forest is not for the faint of heart.
One day my mother was headed to the lake to refill a pail with water when she met a bear lumbering up the trail. It was coming to check out the camp, I guess.
She glanced into the pail which still had a couple of inches of stale water that she hadn’t yet poured out. Not wanting to wait for the animal to wander off, she decided to try an experiment. Maybe she could look scarier than the bear!
She yelled, charged at the animal, and threw the water into its face.
Mother and bear both froze.
It occurred to mother that perhaps she hadn’t thought this idea all the way through.
Luck was on her side that day. The bear tumbled over backward as if it’d encountered a rabid grizzly, shot to its feet, and dashed into the forest.
Mother watched in amazement at the disappearing rump and sucked in a breath. “Well, that went better than expected!”
Thereafter she carried at least an inch of water in the bucket and had cause to use this technique on bears many times. Fortunately, it always worked.
Fast-forward four decades. My brother worked in Northern Alberta where he stayed at an oilfield camp. One day as he drove in, he noticed all the men were outside the cook shack looking spooked.
“What’s the problem?” he asked as he stepped from his truck.
Apparently, a black bear had wandered into the cook shack and was making a hell of a mess ripping open food sacks, crushing cans, and eating anything that smelled like food. They had no idea how to get it out and everyone was too scared to go in with it.
My brother remembered our mother’s stories. Praying she hadn’t exaggerated, he said with feigned confidence, “No problem. Get me a bucket with a few inches of water in it.”
They thought he must be crazy but someone brought him a bucket with some water. When they discovered he intended to go into the cook shack with only the bucket, they tried to talk him out of it. It would be suicide, they insisted.
“No, it won’t,” he said with a light scoff. “That bear will be out of there in ten seconds! Keep away from the front entrance!”
Smashing and crashing sounds came from the building as he approached the back door. By then he could also hear the grunts of the bear.
“You always were a crazy bastard!” yelled one of the men. “Who do we call to pick up your remains?”
He waved them back. “Don’t worry! I’ll be fine!” He marched to the rear of the cook shack with the uncomfortable realization he was betting his life that our mother had told us the truth.
He jerked open the back door and stepped in. The huge bear didn’t see him at first, intent as it was on ripping open a bag of flour and a box of cans. My brother noticed the room was filled with the distinct odor of bear scat.
The bear froze. A furry, flour-dusted face swung to stare at the intruder. Dark lips lifted in a snarl to reveal long, white teeth.
Before the creature could attack, my brother threw the water straight at the bear’s face – all of it. No second chances.
This was followed for the space of a heartbeat by terrifying silence. Then the bear tumbled over backward and scrambled out the front door as if its fur was on fire!
With a long, slow breath of relief, my brother set the empty pail on the floor amidst the debris. Hot damn! It did work!
Heads peeked in the doorway, stunned and mystified at their co-worker’s heroism. How the hell had he terrified a fully-grown black bear into bolting into the forest using only a few inches of water in a bucket?
“I told you it wouldn’t be a problem!” he said. “You guys need to learn more about bears!”
Then he walked to his truck and headed to the local bar for a whiskey – or three.
*Note: Please don’t try this at home – or anywhere else for that matter! You might not be so lucky. Stay away from bears!