Putting the ‘wild’ in wildlife

Meredith C. Carroll

Wyoming Game and Fish biologists said this week that the recent hot, dry weather in the West has produced a meager berry crop. As a result, bears are foraging for food at lower elevations, and campgrounds are among the locales being frequented by hungry bruins in search of lunch and dinner. The problem isn’t unique to this summer.Three years ago, just a few months after Rick (now my husband) and I started dating, he suggested we climb Colorado’s highest peak, Mount Elbert.”Don’t you think it’ll be fun?” he said excitedly.Don’t they have people who do those things for you? thought the native New Yorker in me, who, when living in Manhattan, frequently had delivered directly to her front door movies from the Blockbuster across the street and Chinese from the restaurant downstairs. But, as we were still in the early, doe-eyed, fluffy pink cloud stage of our relationship, I put on my finest I-can-be-an-adventurer smile and plans for the big hike were set in motion.To maximize the experience, we (Rick) decided to camp the night before at a site a quarter of a mile from the trailhead. We (I) had mulled over staying at the Super 8, an also-convenient 10 or so miles away from the base of the mountain. But in an effort to keep up the aren’t-I-an-agreeable-kind-of-girl charade, I stayed mum and tried to look at peace with nature while eating a charred hamburger at the same time an army of fire ants snacked on my ankles.Shortly after sunset, we were zipped up in sleeping bags, hoping for plenty of rest in advance of the big day. Minutes after clicking off our flashlights, Rick was sound asleep and snoring at a volume just slightly louder than the river raging 20 feet from the tent. Because of the duet, it was a while before my ears adjusted and I noticed a different noise coming from outside.It wasn’t the river. Or the wind. Or a bird. Or a cricket. Or a chipmunk. With every fiber in the Birkenstocks stuffed inside my backpack and the newly purchased hemp pillow upon which my head rested, I knew instantly and instinctively it was a bear. Stalking our tent. Clearly it was payback for me thinking I could commune with greenery anywhere outside of a salad.Becoming keenly aware that a thin sheet of nylon and a zipper were all that separated me from Jaws of the Jungle, I started poking Rick.”There’s a bear outside the tent,” I whispered.”Black bears don’t attack people, sweetie. Go to sleep,” he murmured blearily. I kept poking.”Even if it is a bear, it’ll just take whatever food scraps it can find and then leave,” he said. “Try to get some rest.”After hours of listening to the beast pacing back and forth, just waiting for me to have to pee outside the safety of the tent, I finally dozed off, only to be woken up moments later by Rick poking me.”I hear it now,” he whispered. “It is a bear.”His definitive statement provided me with some amount of comfort. If I was awake and frightened, I needed him to be sleepless and freaked out, too. Because, you know, that’s love.I could see the headline: “City girl learns lesson the hard way. Again.” Or worse yet, I envisioned no headline at all; the press disgusted that I had traded the comforts of city life to be surrounded by patchouli-wearing mountain people whose every other words are “dude” and “sweet.” I wondered how my parents would take the news. No doubt my sister would be ecstatic.”What should we do?” I asked Rick, who had six years of Colorado living to my 11 months.”Maybe we should make loud noises and try to scare it off,” he said.”But what if that just makes it mad?” I quivered.And then we both heard it. It started scratching on the tent. Four inches from our heads. We clung to each other as the noise got louder. We could hear its paw scraping up and down the tent, right in the vicinity the zipper. And then I felt something on my hair. I sat up with a start and began screaming.”It’s in the tent! It’s on me! It got me! Help!”Rick fumbled for his headlamp and then clicked it on. After a few frantic moments of the light beam shooting around the tent looking for Godzilla, it rested at last on a 2-inch-tall field mouse cowering on top on my sleeping bag. Staring at us with big dulcet eyes, it leapt off the sleeping bag and started racing around the tent like a Matchbox car.While I didn’t like the idea of a bear, as a former city dweller, there’s nothing worse than a rodent. Especially in the bedroom. “Get rid of it,” I cried.”I’m trying,” Rick yelled, maneuvering awkwardly over and around the sleeping bags and piles of clothes and sneakers crammed into every crevice. Finally, after roughly 19 laps around the track, the mouse tired out and hovered in a corner where Rick was able to coax it into his palm.”It’s actually kind of cute,” he remarked, petting it with his pinky.”Get it out of here,” I hollered.It was 4:30 in the morning. Thirty minutes before we had planned to get up and start the hike. We got up anyway and silently collapsed the tent. All while little Mickey watched from a few feet away.Fortunately the rest of the day was a cakewalk (relatively speaking). After all, I’ll happily tackle a 14,440-foot mountain over a bear-mouse any day.E-mail questions or comments to