My Grizzly Bear Story
How do you save a tiny bear cub from falling off a ledge to its death?
I can still hear my Grandfather’s words carried by the wind through the trees, whispering to me, “Leave the wild animals in peace, Peter.”
He always taught me, by example, to respect people, the environment, and all wildlife. “Keep a safe distance, not only for your protection but to protect the animals. Never feed wild creatures; you think you’re helping them, but it will do them more harm than good.”
And yet, there were a few times, though not many, when he would soften his rules, just a little, and do something that surprised me.
Like the time we were on our way home from town in the dead cold of winter and happened to take a back road, we usually never drove down. We came around a bend, and there was a large moose, caught and struggling to free its antlers from a barbed-wire fence by the road-side. The moose’s efforts looked hopeless.
We walked over for a look-see. Grandpa didn’t let me get too close. There was barbed-wire digging into the poor animal’s head, some blood dripping into its eyes. He was snorting, and with each attempt to free himself, the wire cut deeper. I was worried grandpa was going to shoot it to put it out of its misery, but I should’ve known better than to worry about that.
“Go back to the truck, Peter, and get inside. I’m not sure how this fellow is going to react, and I don’t want you to get hurt.”
I looked up at him. “But Grandpa, I don’t want you to get killed.” I lowered my head, looking at the ground, and whispered, “And I don’t want you to shoot the moose either.”
He patted my head in that familiar, reassuring way and guided me back to the vehicle. “I’ll be fine, Peter, and you know I won’t do anything to hurt the moose.” He smiled down at me. “Now, hop in the truck, so I know you’re safe.” As I sat down in the passenger seat, he reached in and took his work gloves from the dashboard, tussled my hair, and shut the truck door. Then he gathered his wire cutters from the toolbox in the cargo bed of the truck, and while talking gently to calm the animal, he moved back to where the moose was struggling.
Watching from the truck and wiping the fogged up windows with my sleeve, I wished I could help too. That man must have pulled and tugged on that wire for almost an hour. I was only about eight years old, but I was so proud even at that young age. I could tell that poor moose was relieved for the help because he didn’t resist Grandpa when he was untangling its antlers or when he’d gently push the moose’s head lower to get a better angle to cut the wire.
And finally, my Grandfather’s hard work paid off. The moose was free. I bolted out of the pickup and joined Grandpa, hugging him, and we clapped and whooped it up in celebration as the moose ran until it reached a nearby ridge, once again standing tall and proud. I was standing tall and proud, too; proud, I had a hero like Grandpa in my life.
And there was the time he nursed a red-tailed hawk with a crushed wing back to health, spending many an evening feeding and tending to the raptor, with me watching over his shoulder, or sneaking around in the barn when I should have been sleeping in my bed. I would peer over a hay bale, trying to be as quiet as I could, watching Grandpa’s gentle hands care for the hurt animal.
We named the hawk Hank, and I think we both grew way too attached to him. In my mind, I can still see the joy on Grandpa’s face when Hank could spread his wings and fly again. I see the tear running down his cheek when Hank flew out of sight; out of our lives, like an angel soaring over the mountains, free once more.
Grandpa’s ways taught me that if you can keep an animal from suffering, and if there’s no hope for the animal left to its own devices, and if you can help the animal without putting yourself or others in danger, there can be exceptions to the rules.
Of course, nature doesn’t usually need a hand. It knows what to do, and sometimes, though tempted to interfere, I remember what I learned, and I don’t cross the line. But it’s a thin line, a slippery slope. And you might have to decide in haste what to do when your mind, full of ideas, might not be as unclouded as it should be. Stepping in and changing the natural order of things is wrong. I know this. But a person’s heart can get in the way if you aren’t careful. And my heart did get in the way, and I endangered myself, and worse, one of my best friends too.
I don’t know how my Grandfather would have felt about what I did; I lost him several years before this, but I like to think he would have come around to my way of thinking when all was said and done. Oh, he would have lectured me—no doubt about it, but I think he would have understood.
And that brings me to the story I want to tell you today. It’s the story about what happened to a good friend and me about six years ago while on a hiking/camping trip in the mountains. I debated whether to write it as I did something careless and without due diligence, and I wouldn’t want to encourage someone else to do the same. “Leave the wild animals in peace, Peter.” With all of that being said, here’s my bear story.
“What was that?” My friend Scott wrinkled his nose as he looked in my direction. “That didn’t sound good.”
“It sounded like an animal crying out, but I couldn’t tell what kind. Could you?” He shook his head. I turned and looked back in the direction the sound came from, hoping to hear it again, but I could only hear the breeze whistling through the pine trees and an occasional bird singing. “It was nothing.” I finished helping Scott unpack the tent, and then we got busy setting it up.
With the final stake pounded into place, Scott stood up and brushed the dirt off his jeans. He squinted one eye, shading it from the sun with his hand. “You mind looking for some wood? You’re better at that than me.” He grinned.
“Oh, sure. You’re just afraid of what lurks in those dark, spooky bushes. I got your number, man.” I sighed. “All right, I’ll be back in two shakes. Then you can get the campfire ready in case we need to make a rescue fire when those monsters come calling.” I nudged his shoulder as I walked by and laughed at his expense.
After searching through the brush, I found some twigs and branches that would work fine and slowly made my way back to camp. As I walked along, I noticed a plump piece of wood on the ground in front of me and bent over to grab it. I stood up, admiring the piece of wood and not paying attention to my surroundings, when Scott jumped out from behind some bushes and yelled at the top of his lungs, wigwagging his arms like a wild man. I must have jumped 10 feet off the ground, wood flying everywhere.
By now, Scott was laughing and rolling in the dirt, pleased with himself. “Oh! So I’m the one who’s scared of what might lurk in the bushes, huh?”
“You son-of-a-bitch! You scared the bejesus out of me. Are you trying to give me a heart attack?” I was bent over with my hands on my knees, trying to catch my breath.
He said nothing, he couldn’t, because he was laughing so hard. And then I lost it and started laughing too. I had to admit I deserved it, but not before wrestling him to the ground and throwing his hat up in a tree. He looked at me, pretending to be annoyed. “Now you know better than to touch my hat, son. You’re going to pay for that!”
I waved my hand in front of him. “I already paid for it. I just lost ten years off my life.”
He pondered that for a moment, smiled, and nodded his head. Scott stood, stretched, and reached up into the tree for his hat. And then, there it was again, that awful sound, echoing off the mountains and across the valley. It was a scream, definitely an animal in distress. I bolted to my feet and looked at Scott. I knew it was a bear, and so did he. Scott flashed me a look. That look. The one right before telling me not to get any crazy ideas. But it was too late for that. I was born with wild ideas.
“Come on! Let’s grab some supplies and go take a look.” I turned and raced back towards our campsite. Scott right on my heels.
“Peter, stop!” He grabbed my shoulder and pulled me around to face him. “What the hell are you doing? You aren’t seriously thinking of going out there. It’s a bear. A big. Fat. Hungry. Angry bear.”
“I don’t think it’s angry. It sounds like something’s wrong. I will only take a quick look, I promise. Aren’t you curious?”
“No, no, no, no, no, no! Don’t do this. You always do shit like this. It will only end badly.”
There’s something I should tell you about Scott. We grew up together, and he is like my brother. He is older than me, so he looks out for me. He’s like my Jiminy Cricket, the voice of reason. But we enjoy getting into trouble together, so we both already know he’s coming along the entire time he protests.
I grabbed some rope, our climbing gear, bear spray, and a few other things I thought I might need and stuffed them into my pack. “I won’t be too long. You can get the campfire going, so it’s ready when I get back, and we can cook some lunch. Sound good?”
Scott was nodding his head, yes, but his expression was saying no. “Oh, fat chance. Like I’m going to stay here, and then when you don’t come back, I can wonder where you are or what happened to you.” He sighed and shook his head slowly. “I’ll grab my pack. We’ll only check it out and then leave, right?”
“Sure, sure.” He didn’t look convinced, though. He shook his head again and talked to himself under his breath while getting his gear. I pretended not to hear and turned my head so he wouldn’t see me smiling.
We headed off in the direction we thought the sound came from, and as we moved up along the ridge, we heard the scream two more times. It was getting louder, so we knew we were on the right path. It looked like an old hiking trail that had long been abandoned and allowed to grow over. Even so, it made our hike much easier and faster.
We reached the top of a hill, and then the trail made a steep descent down the other side. It was tough seeing too far in front of us because we were in a dense, forested area. We made our way through the trees, and finally, I could see something beyond. As we came through the tree-line, we were standing on the edge of a deep ravine. We both stopped and stared, unable to speak for a few moments and unsure of what we were seeing.
Scott spoke first. “Oh, damn, Peter. We have to do something.” He turned and looked at me, waiting for a response.
I couldn’t speak at first but croaked out, “Yeah, but how?”
We both looked across the ravine. A ledge about 10 feet below the opposite side had a little cub, pacing back and forth, crying and grunting for its mama. She was above him, trying to peer down to where her baby had slipped onto the ledge below her. The drop from the shelf the cub was on was steep. Too steep for man or beast to survive a fall. Mama bear kept a safe distance from the edge for the time being, but she was getting more agitated and desperate as we watched in horror.
Scott put his hand over his eyes, “Oh jeez. If big mama gets much closer to the edge or tries to get down to the cub, they’re both gonna fall. Neither of them will survive. Any ideas on how we can help?”
Oh, I had several ideas, but none of them seemed doable. I hashed it out in my mind for another minute or so. “Well, we have two options as I see it. We could backtrack and work our way around to the other side of the ravine and lower a rope, snaring the cub and pull it up.” I scratched my chin as I pondered. “But that would be tricky because mama bear would likely think we were a threat to her cub and attack us.”
Scott looked across the ravine, then back at me. “Yeah, I don’t like the plan where we have to get mauled by the big, mean bear. I’m afraid to ask, but what is the other idea?”
“Um, you see that enormous boulder on the left side of the ledge? Can you throw your rope around it?”
“Yeah, I think so. It will take a few tries, but I think the rope is light enough.” Scott made a noose on one end of his rope, twirled it around, and let it fly. The little cub didn’t pay it much attention, which was a break for us. The rope missed its target, but after a few tries, it went over the boulder, and he pulled it tight. “Now what?”
“You can let your end of the rope drop, then we use my rope on this side to climb down to the bottom of this ravine, make our way across to your rope, and climb up to the ledge, unseen by mama bear.”
Scott looked at me like I was from Saturn. “No, really? There is a bear cub on that ledge. What are you suggesting? We carry it down to the ground and let it go?”
“Not exactly.” I cleared my throat nervously. “Um, we climb up to the ledge as quietly as possible, so we don’t scare the cub. Then we grab it and lift it over our heads to the ledge above and hope mama bear grabs him and pulls him up the rest of the way.”
His mouth dropped open. “No way! That is the craziest idea yet.” He turned his back to me and wiped his forehead with his sleeve, then turned to face me again. “Seriously? How will that even work? My idea to carry it down is making more sense to me.”
“Let’s try. If it doesn’t work, then we’ll do it your way. I’m just worried that if we try to take the cub all the way down, it will start crying, and mama bear will jump down onto the ledge and fall… onto us.”
He put his face into his hands and rubbed his cheeks, then wiped the sweat off his neck with his bandanna. “Oh, hell. I can’t believe we’re going to do this. How do you talk me into this stuff?” He was looking at me with wide eyes and shaking his head at me again. “Oh, shit. Let’s get it done.”
We both put our gloves on, and Scott tossed his rope down. Now it was hanging from the boulder on the other side below the ledge. I tied my rope around a thick tree trunk on our side and let it drop into the little canyon. I eased myself down first, and Scott followed. Once we were on the ground, we made our way to where Scott’s rope was dangling.
Scott looked at his rope, then up to the ledge where the cub was. “Damn. That’s a higher climb than it looked when we were up on top. Are you ready for this?”
“Yup.” I pulled on the rope to make sure it was secure. “Okay, I’m going on up.”
“Wait. When you get up there, how will you keep that cub quiet until I climb up?”
“I hadn’t thought of that. Do you have anything to eat in your pack? I don’t think I do.”
Scott rummaged around in his pack and pulled out some saltine crackers. “Think he will like these?”
“Are they stale like usual?” I smiled and nudged his arm. “Should do the trick. Although I’m not experienced in bear snacks. Too bad we don’t have a pic-ah-nic basket.” I said it in my best Yogi Bear impression, which wasn’t good at all.
He smiled back, but then his face went all serious like. “Just don’t you become a bear snack.”
I unbuttoned the top of my shirt, put the cracker pack against my chest, and buttoned up. I tugged on the rope again just to be sure. “Here goes nothing.” I grabbed the rope with both hands, and my feet landed on the side of the cliff. I slowly made my way up, using my feet against the rock to help me along, making sure not to look down.
Once at the top, I peered up over the ledge. The cub was on the opposite side with its paws against the rocks, looking towards mama, but he soon caught my scent. I lifted myself up and sat on the ledge. Baby bear looked over at me, wide-eyed. Getting the saltine crackers out was more difficult with leather gloves on; I crumbled some and placed them on the ground. He sniffed the crackers and began licking at them in the dirt, following the trail to me. Then he did something I wasn’t expecting. He grabbed onto my leg and hugged it tightly. I could feel him trembling against me, and his soft whimpers broke my heart. I petted him lightly with my gloved hand and spoke to him softly, trying to calm him the best I could.
I glanced down and saw Scott on his way up, thank goodness! I tossed more saltines, and the little guy released my leg and went for them. I needed to keep the cub’s attention on them instead of my rope climbing buddy.
I reached down and helped pull Scott up the rest of the way. We sat for a moment and watched the cub licking at the crackers. Now the most challenging part, grabbing the cub and lifting him up. It terrified me he would scream and bring mama bear down on us. Just to be safer, both Scott and I kept one hand on the rope in case mama bear dropped in on us.
Now mama bear knew we were there because she was becoming more agitated. She was pacing back and forth, and then that blood-curdling scream pierced the air again. I whispered to Scott, “We need to do this fast before she tries to come down here.” He nodded.
I placed more crackers on the ground. Scott reached out and grabbed the cub, pulling him closer. That caused it to cry out and try to pull away. We realized we needed all four of our arms and hands, so reluctantly, we let go of the rope.
Scott stood up and moved close to the rock wall below the ledge, putting his left hand around the cub’s snout to keep it quiet and keep it from biting, his other hand on the cub’s belly. “Okay,” he whispered, “now help me raise him up.” I put my hands on either side of Scott’s; he let go of the cub’s snout and placed that hand next to mine.
We hoisted the little bear above our heads and stepped to the area below mama bear. Now we looked like a weird statue or sculpture, two figures offering an animal sacrifice to the clouds. As much as we tried to stretch, though, we came up short. We couldn’t get the cub high enough for mama to see it. I looked over at Scott’s now red, agitated face. “I guess we should have tried this without the bear first, huh?” He rolled his eyes and puffed out a sigh.
We put the cub back down, and I dropped some crackers to calm him…the bear, not Scott. Just then, mama started getting nervous, pacing back and forth and some tiny rocks, dust, and dirt pelted off our hats from above. Scott shot me a desperate look. “Any more bright ideas? Now would be a good time to have one.”
I was out of any bright ideas, but I had a desperate one. “Do you think you can boost me?”
“Sure, I think so. We better hurry.” He picked up his backpack, placed it below the ledge, and then got on all fours, his knees resting on the pack to cushion them.
I picked up the little cub, walked over to Scott, and stepped up onto his back, lifting the cub above my head. The little imp didn’t like this and wailed and squirmed; I had to grab tightly to his fur, which didn’t help. Mama was grunting and snorting, and more rocks and dirt rained on us from above. None of this was going like I had imagined.
I could hear mama bear’s claws clicking and scratching on the earth above me. As her fur grazed against the sagebrush, it sounded like dried straw cracking and rubbing together. She smelled like the dusty mountains in Autumn, all sweet and grassy, littered with leaves that have yellowed and dried out, and then get wet from the rain. You know, like wet dog hair.
The cub tried to get away from me, and I’m surprised it didn’t try to bite me, but it never did. Thankfully, I had the gloves on, though. I toyed with the idea of tossing the cub up onto the ledge, but if he fell back down, he wouldn’t survive.
I looked down at Scott. “Can you lift just a tiny bit? I’m almost there.”
“Oh, sure. Why not? I can do this all day!” Was that sarcasm in his voice?
I moved my feet up by his shoulders, and he dropped his butt lower, bringing his upper back a little higher. I stretched up again, standing on my tiptoes, and moved the cub as close to the ledge as I could.
I heard a loud sniff, then a snort, and I felt the cub push down against my hands and then get lighter. He was gone! I pulled my arms down fast, looked up and could see part of mama bear’s front leg and knew she had him. I dropped to the ground with a thud, tripped, and landed on my back.
The sun flashed into my eyes, and then bits of dirt pelted my face. Scott had tipped over when I fell, so we were both looking up at the ledge, and mama bear was now looking down at us, her eyes piercing and steady. Terror flashed through my body like lightning, laying there frozen, scared to move in case it would entice her to jump down and chase us.
We crawled towards the side of the cliff wall so it would hide us under the ledge. We sat up and could hear her grunting, and she was moving. Scott looked at me with eyes that were as wide as mine. “Do you think she’s coming down here? She wouldn’t, right?”
“Holy shit, I hope not. Could we make it over to the rope?”
“You mean before the ledge falls? Not likely.”
We sat there like a couple of bear snacks, panting, sweating bullets, and expecting mama bear for lunch. More dirt fell from above and made little pyramids on the ground. But she never came. She didn’t sound distressed anymore, and her gentle grunts were becoming fainter.
“Is she leaving?” I asked Scott.
“I think so. Sounds like they are moving away.” He smiled with relief. He shook my hand. “We did good!” And then he laughed, laying back and wiping the sweat from his forehead with his glove.
“Let’s go watch them!”
“What?” He sat back up fast.
“Come on. Boost me up, and I’ll pull you up.” It surprised me he didn’t argue; he just stood up and followed me to the ledge. This time, he made a step for me with his hands since we didn’t have to worry about a substantial menacing bear. I pulled myself up with the aid of his lift, then reached down, grabbed his hand, and pulled him up by my side.
We were standing on top of a steep hill, and below us, several yards away, was mama bear and the little cub. But there was another little cub with them we hadn’t seen before. The three of them ambled towards the woods, the two cubs chasing each other and playing off to the side.
As they reached the treeline, mama bear stopped and looked back at us. Scott and I stood there, looking back at her. She didn’t move or make a sound. She just observed us with her gentle, sweet face. I’m not sure why, but I raised my hand and waved as if to say goodbye. Scott looked at me and smiled. Then she turned away, and the three of them disappeared into the trees.
Scott put his hand on my shoulder. We stood there, not feeling like moving for a while. With a gentle breeze tickling my ear, I could almost hear my Grandpa say, “Leave the wild animals in peace, Peter.”
And at that moment, I think he would have understood because watching those bears, going home, together again; they were now at peace for sure. =]:)