Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Mama Bear

We went camping with friends this past weekend at Sugar Pine Point State Park at Lake Tahoe. We were expecting a fun weekend of campfires, hiking, and swimming, but we ended up getting much more than we bargained for. By the time the weekend was through, our kids had some great bear stories and I had a brand new wife.

We arrived Friday afternoon and listened to a ten-minute bear advisory lecture from the park ranger, complete with an affidavit we were required to sign, stating that we understood the bear rules and would gladly be subject to a $1000 fine if we did not keep our food and toiletries locked in the big, green, steel bear lockers provided at the campsites.

OK, OK, we get it. There are bears here. We’ll put the food away. Can we go to our campsites now?

We set up camp in two adjoining campsites and had a fun evening of men setting up tents and making fires, women laughing at the men’s lack of skill in the tent and fire-making departments, and little boys playing in the woods and peeing on trees. Dinner and s’mores and off to bed without a bear in sight. Good times.

I had a book signing back in our home town the next day, so I got up early and drove the two hours back to our house to take a shower. I went off to the bookstore and occasionally received a text message from my wife about something or other to bring back with me that afternoon. When my phone rang around two o’clock, I was expecting to hear about another camping-related item that we’d left behind. Not so.

What I heard my wife say was, “We’ve had some bears. They’re stalking our campsite.”

Hmmm. That’s different than what I thought you were going to say, honey. As the ever-concerned father figure, my first question was, “Is everyone OK?”

After she assured me that everyone was safe and in good spirits I switched to ever-financially-vigilant breadwinner mode. “Is the State Parks Service going to fine us $1000?”

Luckily, the answer to the first question was yes and the second question was no. She then had to hang up because the park rangers had just arrived at our campsite for the second time that afternoon to get the latest bear report. I drove really fast back to the lake.

When I arrived back at the campsite, the rangers were still there. “Have they been here the whole time?” I asked.

“No, we just had a third bear about ten minutes ago,” my wife answered casually, as if close bear encounters were a common occurrence in her life. “I tracked him through the woods until they got here.”

Excuse me? You did what? I have been away for nine and a half hours and when I get back you are tracking bears? What in the hell happened while I was gone?

Here’s the condensed version my wife and our friends, Jeff and Carrie, told me:

They woke up shortly after I had left, had a leisurely breakfast, went on a long hike, and came back to camp and made lunch. They were all assembled together eating at the picnic table in Jeff and Carrie’s campsite, but my wife had left one of our plastic storage bins out of the bear locker and on top of the table in our campsite. No one thought anything of it, since they were close by, until Jeff saw the bear coming through the woods. They watched in awe as the 300-pound black bear walked into our campsite, a mere 25 yards away, and knocked the bin off the table. He (or she) grabbed our big bag of marshmallows and sat down for a delicious and delightfully fluffy snack.

By this time, three adults and five boys had been shoehorned into Jeff and Carrie’s midsize SUV, and were driving away from the bear and toward the ranger station. While they were busy alerting the ranger to their predicament, the bear devoured our entire box of graham crackers.

The rangers came back to the campsite with them and shooed the bear away by yelling at it and banging pots and pans together. When the bear had retreated, the rangers explained the “no food left out farther away than arm’s reach” rule which we had missed during bear orientation the day before. It was at this point that my wife asked the ranger, while crying, if the bear would come back. They reassuringly said, “No.”

Apparently the rangers don’t speak for the bears. They obviously did not take into account the fact that the bear had unfinished business, because he came back about a half-hour later looking for the crucial third and final ingredient to his lunch of s’mores. To the bruin’s dismay, the chocolate bars were locked up tight, and he was out of luck.

Over the initial shock of their close proximity to long-clawed wildlife, Jeff and my wife shooed him away on their own this time while Carrie took the five boys for a nice ride back to the ranger station. Knowing my wife, I think at this point she had gone from being scared to being aggravated that this thing was threatening the safety of her children, not to mention putting a severe damper on the night’s dessert.

When the rangers arrived back at our campsite, they questioned my wife on which way the bear had gone after she and Jeff had shooed it away. Unbeknownst to the rangers, by involving my wife in the hunt for the bear, they had apparently deputized her as an assistant park ranger in her own mind. This became shockingly obvious to everyone a few hours later when a new bear showed up near our campsite. Upon spotting the interloping omnivore, my wife casually asked Jeff and Carrie if they would keep an eye on the boys while she went off and made sure this pesky varmint didn’t cause any trouble around these here parts.

Into the woods she went, armed with the formidable defensive weapons of choice, the universally-feared pot and pan combo. She quietly stalked the bear through the underbrush, making sure she could relay the beast’s exact coordinates to her new comrades-in-arms when they arrived. I guess her plan was to fall back on her extensive deputy park ranger training by banging the pot and pan together if the bear showed any signs of annoyance at being followed.

Thankfully, the actual rangers with actual guns showed up and took over before she was forced to make a move with her deadly cookware. What a difference a few bear sightings can make! My wife went from suburban housewife to Grizzly Adams in the span of two hours. I am convinced that if a fourth bear had showed up before I had arrived, she surely would have slipped off her shoes, clamped a kitchen knife between her teeth, and tried to sneak up on it from behind to teach it a lesson about messing with her kids and her meal plans.

The really funny part is, if I had been there and even hinted at wanting to shoo the bear off, either by myself, or with Jeff by my side, she would have asked in an exasperated and slightly panicked voice, “Are you crazy? Do you want your boys to grow up without a father?”

It just goes to show you, there’s no telling what a mama bear is going to do.

See you soon,

Copyright © 2011 Marc Schmatjen

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  1. The Loperena Family has its own "Mama Grizzly."

  2. That's crazy! Go mama bear! Must have been those giant marshmallows from grandma Donna! g.