Bear encounters of many kinds | AspenTimes.com

Bear encounters of many kinds

Tony Vagneur

It’s common knowledge that there are lots of bears roaming around the valley during the summer and fall, and the secrets, if there are any, may be found in how each of us deals with whatever encounters we face. I chastised one of my uncles a couple of years ago for calling the cops on a bear he found raiding his refrigerator, telling him the bear really didn’t need to get any strikes for trying to eat. My uncle replied with good advice, “Do anything you want with the bears you find in your kitchen.”My most egregious lack of common sense regarding bears was to bolt (at age nine) from the family car in Yellowstone to play with a couple of supposed grizzly cubs, seemingly abandoned by their mother. About the time we got friendly, I heard the loud cracking of branches deep in the woods and witnessed the pines shudder from being grazed by one angry momma bear. My own mother, unable to move, was quietly but desperately ordering me to get back in the car. It all seemed friendly with the bears, and I remember the cubs milling around my feet as the sow charged across the meadow at a good run. Slinging slobber from side to side, she went around to my left and as she did so, I ran my hand down her back, feeling the coarseness of her silver-tipped hair. She did a 180 around my backside, and with a loud grunt, sent her cubs fleeing toward the forest. I suppose she never even looked back to see if I was chasing her, because on some level she realized someone so dense couldn’t possibly be a danger to her family. I think my mother set the record for paleness about then, and I got one of those major lectures. Last fall, my cousin, Ken, warned me about a particularly big and surly black bear that was hanging out around our summer horse pasture and his house. Other neighbors gave me the same admonition, so I kept my eyes open for trouble. One evening, just at dark, I went to check on my horses. Not seeing them, I began to cruise through the rather large forest of Gambel oak that the horses use for shade and hanging out. The bear was at the front of my thoughts as this particular stand of oaks has been very enticing to bears and is, without the benefit of sunshine, a tad spooky. I walked through the scrub oak on trails well suited to bears, having to bend over and duck my head under branches as I traveled, making me unable to see very much farther ahead than the front of my boots. Coming out of the oak brush, satisfied that the horses weren’t in there, I immediately forgot about the bear and was thinking instead about where I might find my elusive equines. Continuing the search, I had to pass a small, bushed-up cottonwood on my right. It didn’t evoke thoughts of hiding bears and besides, any bear worth his salt should have heard my footfall by then, so I didn’t even consider a bear encounter. As I got within 30 feet of the tree, one of the biggest black bears I’ve ever seen ambled out in front of me, giving me a look similar to, “This trail isn’t big enough for both of us.” I have to tell you, after being so careful to avoid running into him in the oak, I wasn’t scared, but more like ticked off. “You SOB, get the hell out of here!” was the start of my tirade, deteriorating into further denigrations and slurs as I ran toward him, thinking I might kick my boot halfway up his posterior, with a little luck. Fortunately for me, I scared him pretty good and he took off up the trail, disappearing into the darkness. That’s about the time I realized my heart was pounding and the familiar adrenaline rush was coursing through my veins. My offensive behavior may have been the preferred alternative in either instance, and I’ve since wondered what might have transpired if I had approached these incidents with a weak heart. Tony Vagneur used to race the bears through town to get the garbage picked up. Reach him at ajv@sopris.net