I scare bears! That’s a weird new wrinkle in my life trajectory. I was innocent. I was quiet. I was just looking at the stars for a quarter-hour, the Big Dipper in particular, when my body, not my conscious self, went into a whirling startle response and into a karate-crouch facing an unknown but loud cracking sound that an instant before was close behind me. Nothing! It was near blackness, the only light coming from house lights nearly a mile away across the Truckee Meadows, and the feeble dark remnant of day over the Sierra Mountains just west of Lake Tahoe.
There was a flash of fear, and a reflexive leaning forward to attack or defend myself, but there was absolutely nothing there. It was total blackness and silence. “Who’s there?” … “Is anyone there?” I said in what I hoped was not to be heard as a fearful or unfriendly voice … but nothing. I stood for a few seconds in blackness and silence. Then I wondered if the small flashlight I usually carry was in my jacket pocket. Yes, it was, and after a bit of fumbling, its light was scanning the direction of the noise. It wasn’t a bright light, but clearly there wasn’t anything for about fifty feet except for a three-foot diameter Ponderosa pine tree. Perhaps a branch or pine cone had fallen, but no, that didn’t make sense because the sound had been that of a large branch breaking close to me. As I looked and pondered, two bright blue-green eyes swung out from behind the tree, about ten feet up.
My first thought was that it was a cougar coming down from the tree where it had been sleeping until night, or perhaps a bear, or a raccoon, or badger. All I could see were the brilliant eyes. They appeared to be about four inches apart, and that would be too big for anything but a bear or cougar. Then it began hissing loudly. Being only a few steps away, I began to back off, slowly and a few steps at a time, while still facing it and shining my flashlight in its eyes.
Do bears hiss? Do cougars hiss? I stand there for about thirty seconds wondering about those possibilities, and then it begins a guttural throaty purr. I am wondering how I am going to explain this to my friend Jeff, a professional wildlife control officer back in my home town, Bend, Oregon. I don’t have an MP3 recorder, but I do have the movie function on my pocket camera, so I bring that out and set the movie mode and start recording.
During this movie time the eyes go up the tree to maybe the fifteen foot level and then back down to about the ten foot level. I back off some more, and check my black-movie to see if it is recording properly, which it appears to be doing, so with my movie done I continue slowly backing up for about fifty yards, then turn and head on home. The whole mysterious episode lasted about three minutes.
What was it? The next morning I went out to the site with my friend Laurie and we looked at the various clues. There were eight pieces of freshly broken Ponderosa bark at the base of the tree and six clear deep fresh claw marks at the five- through seven-foot level on the tree. The marks were about one sixth of an inch wide, about an inch long and about a quarter of an inch deep.
My theory is that the bear was walking quietly along the path, where I was standing looking at the stars. He came within about twenty feet of me, maybe closer, in the darkness, and then when he saw me immediately retreated to the closest tree. The sounds I heard were those of his retreating and grabbing the tree and in his struggle to ascend quickly he broke off the chunks of bark and slipped his claws along some of the bark. What I had first had seen as a tail hanging from the very dark figure’s body was probably his lower legs, helping to support his weight, and his upper legs were wrapped bear-hug style around the tree. I had tried to view him silhouetted against the sky but it was too dark to get a good impression. This next day I collected a few chunks of the clawed bark to show Jeff for his opinions and for a memento of my scaring a bear up a tree.
My buddies have given me a new nickname. “Scares bears up a tree”. Or the shorter form “Scares bears”. The quickie form is – “Scares”. I kind of like ’em all.