YOUNG GEOLOGISTS Chapter 3: Science and the Bear


I had mentioned earlier that the Idaho Fish and Game had a camp in our area during that summer. They also had a helicopter and our two groups became friends throughout the summer. The Geologist group worked 6 days and alway had Sundays off. The Fish and Wildlife group had more sporadic days off based on what was going on for them out in the field. One of their main projects was catching and tagging black bears to better understand how big their territory was. This particular weekend the guys were working because they had set up live traps and needed to keep checking on them in case a bear had been caught. It would have been a bummer for the bear to be confined in a trap while the Fish and Wildlife guys were enjoying a few days off.

So it was a Sunday, they were working, they had an extra seat and invited me to go along to check on a live trap they had set up. I packed a small backpack with some extra clothes and a snack and met them at the helicopter at the appointed time, which was earlier than I really wanted to get up on my only day off, but the scientists were cute.

We flew up and about 20 minutes or so away from our camp into the wilderness. I remember circling over a high meadow surrounded by a thick forest.  One of the guys, Cliff,  pointed out an unnatural dirt feature up against the side of a hill. It looked like they had built a homemade cave out of sticks and mud. The pilot landed the helicopter about 100 feet from the fake cave.


We all got out, took off our flight suits and stretched. I checked out the lay of the land. As I said we were in a meadow with knee-high grasses and flowers. We were surrounded by steep hills and tall evergreen trees. As I was gaining my bearings, one of the Fish and Game guys, Jeff, yelled from the other side of the meadow, “We got one!”

Cliff and I ran over to the home-made cave we had seen from the air. George, the pilot, sauntered over after us. The cave looked like a mound of mud and sticks with wood supports inside a deep hole that went straight back. The ‘cave’ was about 5 feet tall and looked to be about 10 feet deep with a gate that was blocking the doorway. It was dark in there except for the eyes of a big animal that was pacing back and forth and grunting. One of the guys got out a flashlight and shined it in on a very black bear who was definitely agitated that he/she was stuck in this cave against his will.

The scientists described to me how they put ‘bait’ (a dead fish) inside this hole that the bear, with it’s keen sense of smell would follow. The bait was attached to some kind of rope that was attached to a mechanism that when the bear took the bait, the mechanism released the trap door over the doorway trapping the bear. Poor guy.

The next step, they told me, was to put the bear to sleep so that they could check some things on the bear for their study. I don’t remember what it was exactly that they attached to a long pole but it looked something like a hypodermic needle. Cliff reached the pole way in through the gate, backing the poor bear way to the back and was able to put the needle into him in the appropriate place.

We waited for about 15 minutes while we watched the bear calm down and then get drowsier and drowsier until he fell asleep. One of the guys checked this out by reaching the empty pole way in and poked the sleeping bear, just to make sure. Feeling like he/she was deeply sleeping, the gate was lifted, two of the guys went in and dragged the maybe 150 lb bear out into the open.

The scientists worked fast because they said the sedative only worked for about 45 minutes and we wanted to be well out of there by the time the bear woke up.

About then, the pilot yelled out, “Hey. Hurry up. There is some weather coming in.”

I don’t remember all of the things they did to the bear other than measure foot and ear size, put a tag on his ear and then opened his mouth and extracted a tooth (to determine his age). Can you imagine waking up to find that one of your teeth were missing? And how much that would hurt? No wonder they wanted to be out of there fast. Poor bear.

About then the wind picked up and the pilot yelled out that we needed to get moving.

Jeff and Cliff took a bunch of photographs of the bear and then wanted to take the time to set up a photograph. Of me. With the bear on my lap. Which I have treasured my whole life since then. That was very nice of them. But taking that time may have cost us.img044

We had been so focused on working with the bear that we had not taken heed of the pilot’s warnings and stood up to feel the wind, and the temperature dropping. Out of the west, out of nowhere, came a thick fog just as we got to the helicopter.

George said, “We ain’t going anywhere until this fog lifts. Better put on your extra clothes.”

I put on all the clothes I had brought with me; a sweater and a hat, plus the flight suits because it had gotten cold! Out of nowhere. It was a beautiful, warm July day without a cloud in the sky when we left that morning.

We were all shivering and Jeff said, “Let’s gather up some wood and start a fire to stay warm. It’ll also keep that bear away once he wakes up.” We were all acutely aware that there was a sleeping bear not very far from where we were, and was going to start waking up at any second, probably pissed.

Jeff, Cliff and I ran out to gather some wood, while George hopped into the helicopter. Jeff hauled over some huge dead wood because this fire wasn’t going to be a little campfire. These guys were talking bonfire. A big one. They made sure to pile it all up at least 50 ft from the chopper. It would be a bummer to burn that up. Cliff brought over a bunch of kindling to put under the big pieces and started to fumble through his pack.

“What are you looking for? I asked.

“Matches.” He said. “Do we have any paper to get this thing going?”

“Don’t even bother looking,” George hollered from the helicopter with glee, “Watch this.”

He hopped out of the chopper with a clear hose and a big clear plastic bag. He walked around to remove the fuel cap then stuck the hose right in. He started to suck on the hose to create some suction,  so that the jet fuel started to come right up to his mouth. He stopped sucking just in time and let the fuel squirt right into that plastic bag.

I’ll never forget how blue that stuff was. Like water dyed with blue food coloring. It stood out in the soupy, gray fog that surrounded us now. My clothes and skin were wet from the moisture and it wasn’t raining. We could only see the shapes of the trees and land features. No details. We could barely see the bear. I kept looking over and thought I saw some movement. My hear rate went up a bit.


George carefully carried the gallon bag of bright blue fluid over to the huge pile of sticks and logs. He carried it with two hands well away from his body, walking slowly so as not to spill it. Then he carefully poured the flammable liquid over as much of the wood as possible until the bag was empty.

“OK. Who has a match?” He smiled.

Cliff handed George a match and his match holder that had a flint on it.

“Stand back everyone”,George shouted as he lit the match. He was clearly relishing his role and what he was about to do.

We all moved about 20 feet away from the pile. From about 6 feet away, George lit the match, leaned forward and tossed it into the pile.

Whoosh. The fire roared to a start with flames shooting about 20 feet into the air. For a second the flames seemed to be blue, like the jet fuel and then settle into a nice hot orange.

“Boy Scout starter fluid! Always be prepared!” cried George.

We got as close as we could to the roaring fire because we were all cold. As much time as we had all spent out in the wilderness noone was prepared for this course of events. It was the type of day where the side of you facing the fire warmed up and the other side of you got cold, so we were all rotating. When we were facing away from the fire we could see the bear starting to move as he woke up.

“The bear’s waking up! What are we going to do?” I asked anxiously.

“Be calm”, said Jeff. “We’ll stay by the fire. If he does come towards us we’ll all make ourselves look big and do a lot of shouting.

There was some reason we couldn’t get in the helicopter but after all these years I can’t remember what it was. I do remember that there was really no escaping as we were perched on top of a knoll in a little meadow. There was a steep wall behind us and we were surrounded by pretty steep drop offs. The bear definitely had the upper hand here.

We could see the bear starting to lift his head and open his eyes and try to get to it’s feet. He appeared very groggy. Cliff threw some more logs on the fire to keep it going.

“How far do you have to see before you can fly the chopper?”

” Well, usually it’s a mile…. but I’ve done it in less. In Vietnam. And look around you. A miracle might be happening. ”

Sure enough it was getting brighter out and the visibility was getting better. This might just end like a Hollywood movie, with a happy ending!

George all of a sudden yelled, ” I’m gonna go start up the chopper. I think we can make it out of here!”

Jeff yelled, “George and Deb. Get to the chopper. Cliff, help me put this fire out as much as we can. We don’t want to start a forest fire on top of it all. Leave your water bottles here” They were conditioned to be good stewards of the wilderness even while facing a groggy and mad bear. My heroes.

So while George buckled into the pilot’s seat and I into a passenger seat in the back, I watched the other two knocking down the fire with other sticks and then shoveling dirt onto the coals with a shovel they had procured out of Cliff’s backpack. Jeff was pouring all the water from the canteens on the fire too. They did a pretty good job of it as George fired up the engine.

When helicopters start up, they pierce the quiet of the forest with a startlingly loud and un-natural sound. I was feeling even worse for that bear as he was standing up by now and staggering around under the effects of the drugs, slowly moving his head back and forth as if to clear his head. The sound of the helicopter could have only added to his confusion. All in the interest of science.

Jeff and Cliff had extinguished the fire enough to be satisfied and sprinted the 50 feet to the helicopter while bent at the hips, their backs parallel to the ground with their packs fastened to the front of their bodies for safety. They quickly leapt into the helicopter, Jeff in the front and Cliff in the back next to me. George waited for the them to quickly get their helmets and seatbelts on and took off immediately into the thinning fog.

We looked down on the bear as he was making his way towards the remnants of our fire.  Staggering, but less so. We truly made it out with little time to spare. I’ve thought about that bear over the years and wonder how often he told the story of eating a delicious stinky fish then being surprised at not being able to get out of that cozy cave, hearing a giant and noisy bird land in his meadow and spit out four funny looking animals. Falling asleep in the middle of the day, then waking up feeling like he did after a long hibernation except that his mouth hurt like crazy and there was an annoying thing stuck to his ear. Then through his haze, seeing four animals with bright orange skin standing around a fire. Had there been lightening while he was asleep? Then the bird made a huge noise as it’s wings started flapping as it ate all the orange animals and flew off. That story would make a good children’s book!Y

YOUNG GEOLOGISTS Chapter 2: Our Special Lake


We flew into the wilderness to do our work via a helicopter. We would be in teams of 2 or 3 geologists. We would plan our routes and where we wanted to map and sample, leave early on one morning, be out for 3 days at a time (backpacking) then get picked up usually on the third afternoon at a pre-appointed place. We also carried line-of-site radios so we could talk to the helicopter if necessary.

Our pilot was a Viet Nam vet. He had flown many missions just a few years previous but he never talked about it. In fact PTSD was not a named thing yet, but in retrospect, I’m sure that he had it. He kept to himself in his cabin when he was not flying, he was very quiet but spoke with biting sarcasm when he spoke, though he sometimes had a twinkle in his eyes and other times could not meet your gaze.

He was a good pilot, and we trusted him.

Mostly, we worked together with the same partner each week, but sometimes we would change it up and go out with different groups. Several times a summer it ended up that my group was all women. That was great because when it was just the ‘girls’ we liked to do geology semi-naked. We’d wear our hand lenses around our necks on a lanyard, shorts with a belt with our Brunton compass (a measuring device) and notebook around our waist, a hat for sun protection, socks and our heavy-duty hiking boots. A backpack on our backs completed the outfit. I’m sure we were a sight but we were in a wilderness area that would be several days walk for any hiker and we were fairly certain that we no one would be close enough to see us.


We would do this quite often and word got out among all the other geologists at camp that we had all-over tans.

On one occasion four of us women were up in the mountains hiking around on the white granite looking at rocks. We had finished up our three days of field work high in the mountains and had gotten to the appointed pickup spot earlier than expected.

“We’ve worked hard. Let’s quit a bit early and enjoy this beautiful lake,” suggested our team leader Maggie.

“Oh, great idea! This will feel so good,” gasped Judy as she shrugged her huge pack off of her back into a heap on the white rock.

Maggie, Judy, Mary Beth and I quickly took off our our backpacks and our clothes in almost one movement. Time off in the middle of the afternoon was rare. We wanted to make sure we had time to sunbathe and swim before our pickup in about an hour.

We had picked a flat place on the map three days earlier where it would be easy for a helicopter to land. The landing zone was on white granite rock right next to a beautiful blue high mountain lake. We knew there would be no trees there to catch the blades and it would be safe. What usually happened was that we would start to hear the helicopter when it was several miles away and then the pilot would give us a call over the radio. We’d have to time to get ‘decent’ before he got very close.

There were lakes all over the wilderness area and most of them were un-named on the map. So based on memorable events at each lake we named them ourselves. There was ‘Broken Toe Lake’ from a mishap with a rock late at night. There was ‘Ripped Shorts’ Lake from snagging some already ripped shorts on a rock and ripping one leg off. There was W3 (W cubed) Lake meaning ‘Wild Wilderness Women’ named by a bunch of 20 something year old female geologists who worked very hard in the field, but had a good time doing it.

This un-named lake where we shed our clothes on this summer afternoon was very deep and there were several places where we could dive or jump off an elevated rock into the icy cold lake. The icy water took our breath away but felt great on this very hot July day. It was easy to get too hot lying in the sun so each of us was popping up every few minutes to cool off with a dive. It was wondrous! Forest fire season had not begun yet in Idaho so the sky was cloudless and clear and breathless.


Geologically speaking this lake was called a ‘Tarn” which is a lake that is situated in the middle of a “cirque”. A cirque is an amphitheater-like feature that has been carved out by a glacier thousands of years before. There is usually water coming into the lake from snowmelt and then water leaving the lake via a creek. In this case the creek was water falling off a steep cliff into a canyon below. It was a very dramatic setting.


“Oh my god, this water feels so good on my tired feet,” I called from the water.

“I’m going to smell a whole lot better after this swim,” shouted out Beth.

So we were lying there, or swimming intermittently, baking in the sun while chatting and dozing and enjoying the beautiful afternoon.

“WHOP, WHOP, WHOP, WHOP”, completely broke the silence and our zen, making all 4 of us jump in complete surprise and momentary confusion. The blades of our helicopter rose slowing into view.

Our helicopter and the pilot ascended slowly at the outlet of the lake. At the same time, the radio crackled to life with the voice of our pilot saying in a sing song voice, “I see you!!!” Then laughter.

He had flown up the base of the canyon (‘snuck ‘would be a better word) below us so we wouldn’t hear or see him. When he was below the lake he had brought the helicopter up vertically several hundred feet until he was at eye level. It was bad enough that we were so startled, but the wind from the blades also sent our clothes flying all over the place and he had quite a show watching four naked women chasing their clothes and frantically putting them on. He had planned it all perfectly and was getting a huge kick out of it.


With a mix of embarrassment and laughter we loaded our backpacks onto the chopper, put on the one piece flame retardant jumpsuits and helmets and got in to fly back to our base camp. Of course the story got out to all of our co-workers.

And the next day the four of us also discovered that we were sunburned in some new places so forever after that the lake was called “Burnt Tit Lake.”