The bear wasn’t there …

‘Enough gun’ sometimes isn’t enough

This isn’t the time to find out your bolt handle won’t open when your high-tech
variable scope’s turned down all the way.

Bears are no laughing matter, especially whenever one is actively gnawing on your lower giblet region. However, if you intend to pursue outdoor recreation or gainful outdoors employment in regions where Ursus conducts business — a large and growing percentage of our country — you have to acknowledge the fact you are sharing space with a mammal who scoffs at the idea of humans being at the top of the food chain. This is why “bear defense,” especially involving firearms, is such a staple topic of conversation among those who venture outdoors on a regular basis.

Let me admit upfront I’ve never really had a major “Hairy” with a bear. I’ve spent precious little time around grizzlies but have literally countless hours hiking, fishing, hunting and camping in areas where black bears hold court, but have yet to have a major adventure — defined as “requiring more than five quarts of blood.” However, I would/will/suppose I might be the world’s leading expert on “almost” bear encounters.

Go North

In the agricultural Midwest, I grew up without giving a thought to large carnivores because they had been exterminated more than a century before my own first birthday. This innocent mindset changed about 30 years ago when I and several buddies planned a major two-week expedition into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area along on the Minnesota/Canada border. It was to be my first experience living cheek by jowl with bears for weeks on end and I was a bit overwrought at the prospect. Of course, being a late-20s male, I would have sooner admitted wearing panty hose to church than to claim a deep sense of foreboding regarding camping in Bear Country.

So, as we canoed deep into the wilderness, at one point 30 miles from the nearest habitation, I was a bit nonplussed at the prospect of something large and hairy visiting our campsite some night to investigate the fish smell permeating our gear — or perhaps to simply kill and eat me before I could exit my sleeping bag.
On this trip, a friend named Rob was a last-minute addition. He’s a wonderful fellow and a joy to be around, except for two things: for some reason, he felt compelled to graphically describe the condition of the pit toilet each morning over breakfast, and he had “night terrors.”

The first problem was rectified by my grabbing a canoe paddle and chasing Rob out of camp while attempting to neatly cleave his skull. However, the other difficulty proved challenging.

The next night I was lying awake in my small two-man tent, trying to silently calm my nerves — shot from a combination of physical exhaustion and worrying about the fact I was tens of miles from assistance of any kind if a bear, cougar or homicidal maniac decided to stop by for a visit. At this moment, Rob’s brain decided to take his night terrors out for a spin.

I assure you there is absolutely nothing to get your adrenal glands pulsating wildly than to be lying in a tent in the middle of a black, silent wilderness and having one of your companions suddenly start screaming as if having a prostate exam conducted by Captain Hook.

To paraphrase an old dirty joke — when you have to use both hands to pull your undergarments out of your lower tract, it’s a bad day. In this case, I eventually needed a logging chain and a come-along.

On this trip I was unarmed — but never again. Unfortunately, I discovered defense against imaginary bears proves tougher than the real thing.

Getting High

Years later, my friend Ken and I were undertaking our first major backpacking trip. The order of battle was to invade the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, hike a piece of the Appalachian Trail to Icewater Springs, then hit the Boulevard Trail to LeConte Lodge.

LeConte lodge is located smack in the middle of the National Park and the highest overnight accommodation in the eastern U.S. Once obtaining reservations — one year in advance — you can only access the cabin complex by hiking. The shortest route is several miles long with thousands of feet of elevation gain, while we chose a more gradual but much longer hike.

My concerns started as we obtained our required backcountry permit from the Park Service. As it was September, the ranger warned us the resident bears were aggressively fattening up on berries in the high country and had already caused several hikers grief. Oh goody.

Our first stop was the Icewater Springs shelter. These shelters along the Appalachian Trail are rustic three-sided shacks with rows of wooden shelves for hikers to unroll their sleeping bags. When we arrived, several signs tacked to the shelter noted “Problem Bears” were active in the area and safety precautions should be taken.

That evening, lying on my shelf, I realized the shelter was nothing but a government-sponsored point-of-purchase candy rack for hungry bears.

“I’ll take the marshmallow in the blue North Face sleeping bag, and you can have the crunchy-looking one in the green army-surplus sack,” I imagined the bears saying among themselves as we blithely slept.

Fortunately, we weren’t visited by bear — thousands of mice crawling, over, under and in everything as we tried to sleep — but no bears. Personally, I didn’t mind the mice so much as the thought of the snakes they undoubtedly attracted. After a mostly sleepless but uneventful night, we hiked on to the lodge, spent a wonderful day and night then headed down the mountain the next morning on a different trail.

Above the clouds, things were gorgeous but as we went lower, the weather changed dramatically. What had started out as a clear morning turned into a steady hypothermia-producing rain. Fog swirled up the slope and through the tree tops like a bad horror movie as we slogged downward, dreaming of dry clothes and spiritous beverage waiting for us in Gatlinburg. We were mostly oblivious to everything, tuning out soggy socks and the water flowing down our necks as we switch-backed down the mountain. Then, it happened.

Suddenly, as we rounded a turn, both Ken and I saw it: Bear. A big bear reared up on both legs, just a few feet away on the downhill side of the trail. There, in the pouring rain and mist on the side of the mountain, I was afraid it might be time to write down my blood type for the responding medics.

Ken drew, if memory serves correctly, something revolver-ish in .44 Mag while I fumbled around a moment and finally obtained my .45 GLOCK 21 (a bit light for black bear, but offering plenty of rounds). We stood our ground, shouting, trying to simultaneously increase our bravado and scare the bear so lethal action on anyone’s part would be unnecessary. He wasn’t having any of it and defiantly stood still, gathering himself for the next move. The seconds turned to minutes and I could clearly count each heartbeat in my pounding ears, then — it happened …

Ken turned his head and quietly said, “It’s just a stump.”

Our assailant turned out to be a broken tree trunk. With corrugated black bark slicked by rain and dark skies, along with two splinters of wood perfectly simulating ears, the overall effect for inattentive hikers was that of a bear standing on its hind legs waiting to snack on a hapless passerby.

This was my first kill-or-be-killed moment facing the ever-dangerous tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipfera) but I had prevailed. I’m just glad nobody else saw it.

Solving the problem

After a dozen of such instances where imaginary bears have shredded my psyche and kicked my ego in the wedding tackle, I’ve discovered a great defensive technique which, in keeping with internet journalism standards, I’ll name after myself.

First, after securing any firearm, stand at a 90-degree angle to the area where the imaginary bear stood. Place both feet about shoulder-width apart and slightly bend your knees to maintain a stable stance. Next, place your support-side elbow against your rib cage and extend your arm straight out, hand outstretched parallel to the ground. Keeping your fingers together and wrist rigidly locked, violently smack yourself right in the middle of the forehead with your palm and say “Snap out of it!”

The “Wheat Whack” works wonders, whether you are armed or not, and you’d be amazed at how it helps prevent future episodes of bear fright. It also works wonders regarding large spiders, stick-snakes in the tall grass or any other critter known to cause spontaneous incontinence.

We’ll stop here because I need to go clean up the mess I made in the sink after changing the oil in my truck. But first, I’ll need to check outside because my wife just walked into the office and whacked me right in the forehead.

Must be a bear in the marigold bed.

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