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.

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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.

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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