Marauding Bears & Closeness
TETON WILDERNESS--I'd visited this campground too often in summers of old, and not once did I come here to recreationally camp. Back then, there were different reasons for spending nights here.
This place made my "avoid" list a long time ago. While it borders wilderness, it seems so damn far from it. In my world, there's nothing nature-al about it.
A month from now, the grounds will transform into an alien world. Sites will be booked well in advance by those intent on enjoying the great outdoors six feet from each other. RVs, hard-side campers, and tents will be abound. Every site will be reserved and the entrance sign will read "FULL".
Soon, the evening mood will be one of barbeques smoking, beer cans cracking, Nickelback blaring, babies crying and retirees complaining. But nothing will set the tone like the return of barking Chihuahuas and rat terriers. It will become a kingdom reigned by five pound, resentful canidae with a thirst for blood and no stature or wherewithal to kill. Why do so many RV'ers have tiny, strung-out dogs with attitudes? Surely, some rat dogs travel well, but in the world of fang and claw, these miniature, overstressed tyrants seem to endanger more than protect their human subjects.
This place is not for me! I’ll have none it! And choice was never a reason to be here because I'm a fan of good choices.
Blame it on the bear. He brought me here. He sent the invite. A concerned citizen was his messenger.
Several years ago, we used to live, my dog and I, in the cab of an emerald GMC pick-up from May through October. I was working for Wyoming Game & Fish and my truck came with all the tools a trapper could ever need, including a tent in the bed when, on occasion, a need arose to sleep on the ground with legs stretched out. We were on the road and off the road most days--and nights--driving from one call to another. With over five million acres jurisdiction, there really wasn’t much home time.
Bears didn’t seem to get into trouble during business hours.
"GF 117, we have reports of a cow killed by a grizzly" at 10:30pm.
"GF 117, we have a neighbor who observed a black bear rip open a garbage can" at 5:15am.
"GF 117, a lady says a black bear broke into her upstairs window" in the early morning hours.
"GF 117, the bartender at Drink Till You Sleep saw a bear climb out of the dumpster" during last call.
Naturally, quite naturally, thievery works best at night. So, quiet times were often midday while bears were taking siestas in the shade. Perhaps a few were dreaming about their next heists.
Between the green truck and the contentiously RED, starchy G&F shirt, my arrival at a place wasn't a response to a Christmas party invite. When I showed up at the cabin, encampment, second home or ranch, most likely a bear brought me there. What followed was an investigation, a conversation with neighbors and anyone else in the area, and an assessment of what caused the conflict. The conclusion every time, EVERY time, was that it wasn't a "nuisance bear" (the legal definition for a bear that wreaks havoc and causes conflicts) but rather a "nuisance person." Not one investigation out of hundreds conducted ever revealed otherwise. Usually it was some asinine thing that humans did, knowingly or unknowingly, to attract the bear away from a biologically suitable life into some socially unacceptable circumstance. And often times the cause was an unwillingness to adopt a self-limiting ethos so desperately needed on a wilderness landscape. Many people want to live here, few want to sacrifice the conveniences of the big city life, and the bear rarely wins. But, as a nation who loves underdogs, we ought to root for him nearly every time.
He was simply there to get something tasty, and people made it readily available.
I was there to trap and remove the bear. The goal was to catch and move him before he damaged more property or injured some one or became so far gone that he could not be relocated. Sometimes the bear would be in a trap the next morning. Other times it'd take weeks. Other times still he'd vanish, showing hide and hair no more. Trapping took a lot of effort. One bear could mean hundreds of trapping hours, and many sleepless nights.
Of course, had I approached management like other colleagues, efficiency would have improved. But that wasn't the best path for me. I saw myself in the bear saving business (and people management business), not in the bear management business. And, saving takes more effort and time than killing. Isn't that true for just about anything worthwhile?
Trapping in campgrounds was uniquely challenging and frustrating. The bear could easily and stealthily move in and out of the evening woods and then vanish not to return for two days, five days, or two weeks. Plus, there were always a few campers who intentionally misled or impeded trapping efforts. Even when told, "We're trying to save this bear and we could really use your help," I'm not sure they believed us. Suspicion was abound and with good reason. G&F admittedly had a longstanding transparency and trust issue with the public. So, let us blame a contentiously RED shirt and perhaps a green truck. Or maybe it was the dart-gun that looked to an untrained eye like a high-powered rifle.
Back to this campground.
I used to get regular calls here--sometimes from the Forest Service, sometimes from a camp host or guest, sometimes from the sheriff. We'd gear up and head out towing a trap with a case full of darts and Telazol, the Rohypnol drug for bears. Again, no choice. Urgent response was necessary. Fear was taking over. Marauding bears scare the crap out of campers, the feds and anyone who fears lawsuits and who enjoys peaceful sleep.
A quick response was the norm unless responding to another call. The mission was to set the trap by sundown, then pull an all-night stake out. In campground settings like this, the trap had to be watched. A stake out was a safe measure in case the trap failed and, in the process, didn't catch the bear properly but instead royally pissed him off. This was an early lesson learned: a guaranteed health hazard for campers is a mad-as-hell bear wandering the grounds.
Of course, stake outs were also to keep an eye on the misinformed bear-loving campers with good intentions. If given the chance, these lovable folks would tamper with the trap to save the bear from someone in a red shirt. But that only gave the bear more opportunity to do "nuisance" things--to become more food-conditioned and human-habituated--thereby increasing the likelihood of that bear's condemnation rather than exile. Feeding the bear while, at the same time, sabotaging the trap--good intentions on the road to a bear's hell.
I sometimes had sinister thoughts borne from the frustrations of people management. It was tempting to let that raging bear wander the campground a few more evenings or weeks. Maybe it'd do some good. Natural selection. A bear on a mission to take out all those people who disrespected him--who dishonored what and who he is--by trying to hug him or take selfies with him. Instagram be damned. Or, at the very least, maybe a few more marauding nights might allow him to snack on a few Chihuahuas here and there as well as a few Nickelback lovers and, in turn, improve this campground's outdoorsy time. I often fantasized of vengeance back then.
But not this day, and not this year.
Nearly a decade has passed since my management days, and I don’t miss most of what I did. Neala is not as energetic as she once was, and I have gained some perspective, even if some think I haven't. We're both blessed to no longer be chasing bears for the government of and for the urban people. I'm glad I did it, but I wouldn't do it again. We have to grow out of some things, especially things that involve a lot of control and killing.
However, I do miss tracking. I miss reading bear sign and figuring out what the animal was doing and where he or she was going. Now, years later, I find myself still seeking bears. Every now and again, I try to catch wind of them just to remain close and, strangely, to revitalize who I am. In many ways, I feel I understand the bear (and I'd like to think he understands me) more than my own kind.
It's early May and snow still shrouds the shaded campsites. All is quiet this morning. Neala, the retired bear dog turned college undergraduate, and I, a man filled with memories, are the only noticeable living beings here. And we are off to find a bear.
We won't mention this notorious campground's name. Nor will we name the trail or the creek nearby.
The reason is religion. The bear may not know it has its own religion, but it certainly has its religious following. They come converted, evangelized, ready to worship, ready to do their vigilante, self-proclaimed research while on vacation. And more often than not, it's about them, not the bear. So we cannot be the bug-light that attracts all the biologist wannabes to where we are, and to where the bears are. Leave them be. Let them be. Let thy place hereafter be Christened, "Unknown."
Of course, shouldn’t that mean we stay back as well? Yes. Perhaps. No. I’m just as hell bent on letting myself be as the bear is on us leaving him be. Someone has to lose, and I don’t mind if its not the bear. We have no plans other than to track and see what the bear (or bears) are doing.
Sometimes we do see a bear or a family of bears. Sometimes Neala and I are lucky. Sometimes we're rewarded for our efforts. But the yearning to track these days is not really driven by a need to see the bear, to confront him face-to-face. In fact, it is far more satisfying to feel his presence close by than to see him in the glade. There’s something solemnly sobering about knowing he is out there in the shadows and behind the trees that escalates a man's feeling of being fully alive. Sometimes the intensity is felt during an encounter, depending on the circumstances. But, more often, standing face-to-face brings forth a sense of security more so than insecurity. I've been around them enough times. I've had my hands in their asses and mouthes, pulled their teeth, and tattooed their ears. I've seen and touched many bears. Not sure a man can get any closer than that.
But that is just physical closeness. It's not meaningful closeness. Its not nearness.
Strangely, when I was physically close to bears during my wildlife management tenure, I felt afar from their meaning, I felt further away from them than I had ever felt before or since. But now, at this moment and in many moments past and, hopefully, in many moments yet to come, I'll embrace a different understanding. Now, when we find recent hairs on a tree or fresh scat on a trail or wet tracks in the mud, the bear's presence is felt nearby and within.
The trailhead is on the east side of the campground just by the creek. We head towards it. Bear tracks meander all over the snow, then through the mud, then over the snow. The tracks appear to be a grizzly mother and at least two cubs, but confirmation is needed. All the signs point to them heading out of the campground and up the trail. Already there are healthy reasons for walking slowly, looking for sounds and listening for movements.
Neala and I ascend from the campground and leave that place to our memories. Trekking up the muddy slope in the tracks' direction, the campground falls below our horizon. Also fading away are thoughts of the hordes of campers soon to be making their summer pilgrimage to that place with beer, music, hot and little dogs. Undoubtedly, they are seeking something. They will try to get close to nature. But they will likely find themselves even farther from it.