by Harrison Birkett
Over the course of my first summer I saw seven bears. I remember, because I counted. Most of those times I didn’t see anything more than the big, furry shadow of the beast as it sprinted through the woods. I’m sure that at least one of the sightings was really just a noise I chased, but I counted it anyway because I was eighteen and needed to sound tough.
After my first season at camp, I became a regular on the mountain. I spent many of my weekends as a college freshman driving up in the dumpy Honda I bought with all the money I’d made from my first summer. I would work night shifts at the zipline, sitting in the woods in the snow until midnight putting people in harnesses and telling terrible jokes (what do you call a cow with two legs? Lean beef). So long as there is snow on the ground in San Bernardino, you won’t see a bear. However, when summer is in full swing and the creek is running, bears are as common as the pines at Forest Home.
Things changed when I started my second summer. I was a returner now, one of only three that year. That meant that the bosses looked to me to help teach the newcomers how to do the job. I relished the opportunity to look like the grizzled veteran. I wanted to show all the scared recruits how to deal with bears. What I didn’t expect was how readily the opportunities to do so would appear.
During the first week of that season, I was assigned to lead the first night watch team on the correct route, so that they could do it on their own and teach the next crew when their time came. It was well after midnight when we reached Lakeview. This was the camp where our high school ministry stayed, so named because of Lake Mears, the man-made lake in the center of the ring of old buildings. We were walking the shore when I heard a distinct sound coming from the cafe that was just out of sight, down a hill that led into the more forested area. I had been awake for nearly twenty hours, so my senses weren’t exactly in peak condition, but what I heard I immediately thought was a skateboard deck hitting the concrete. Of course, I thought. Some young punk kid decided to slip out of the cabin to skate camp in the middle of the night. I had to stop myself from taking off in the direction of the sound, because the trainees had frozen, unsure of what to do. The three of them were my age and didn’t seem any less experienced than I, but that didn’t change the fact that it was their first night. Two quiet girls and an obnoxious boy, they all were stunned at the possibility of actually finding something that night. I gave a quick explanation of what I thought I heard and took of running in the direction of the cafe.
When I reached the top of the hill and looked down toward the building, I found a large plastic trash can tipped over, the lower half of a black bear protruding from the open end. A year away had not dulled my ability or my memory of my training. I sat my water bottle on the ground at the top of the hill, and stormed towards the bear, somehow forgetting my trainees completely. I knew the sound would get it running, and I wanted to get it as far from our grounds as I could.
This did not go as planned. The bear, rummaging around with its entire face firmly pressed into a pile of garbage, didn’t hear my loud footfalls. I was three yards from the animal when I brought myself to a standstill. My mind was racing, but one thought rang very clearly in my mind: this animal is stupid, and I have had many good times chasing them, but if it chose to, it could turn around and kill me with a lazy swipe of its paw. The black bear was an adolescent, just shy of being fully grown. If it hadn’t been stuck in a small can, I would have been in serious trouble.
I got low and backed up quietly. Now that I was so close, the last thing I wanted was for it to notice me. When I had reached a safe distance, I thought back on another part of my training. Initially, everyone on night watch was issued an SOR: satchel o’ rocks. It was a small canvas bag where we would hold two or three baseball-sized stones for throwing at bears we wanted to spook. Most people left them in the office because there would never be a place at camp where we couldn’t readily find a throwable rock. That evening I managed to prove that theory wrong. Without looking, I squatted where I was and reached around for a loose object on the ground. My fingers found something, and grabbed it. It was a broken off sprinkler head.
I didn’t think about the irony until much later.I stood and threw the sizable chunk of plastic at the bear’s behind, hitting it squarely in the flank. I heard a comical bear-yelp, and watched the can jolt upwards as the startled animal slammed its head into the top. It gracelessly pulled its filthy head out of the garbage, and took off into the woods. I followed behind it at what I thought was a reasonable distance. This entire time my three coworkers were looking on, baffled as to why someone who was supposed to know what they were doing would run headlong into a bear and then throw trash at it. When I finally returned, they handed me my discarded water bottle, and I acted like everything had gone as planned.
“As you can see,” I said, “they run from everything. The stupid things will book it if they hear you from a block away.” I was hoping to get them laughing at the bear, and not me.
“Did you just peg it with a sprinkler?” the boy asked.
My head lifted a bit at the chance to save face and boost my ego. “I absolutely did. Did you hear the noise it made?”
The three of them grunted. It was late. They were tired. No one really cared but me.
That night planted a thought in my mind that I carried with me for the rest of that summer: maybe this job hadn’t made me all that impressive.
Harrison Birkett is a creative writing student at Azusa Pacific University who has spent four years working as a guide and recreation staffer at Forest Home in San Bernardino. He is currently working on his first novel while looking to publish his short fiction and nonfiction.