by Thomas J. Elpel
As a teen-ager I spent a great deal of time living with my Grandmother here in Montana. We shared a common interest in learning outdoor skills and particularly in studying the wild plants and their uses. I was living in Bozeman, but went to visit Grandma Josie almost every weekend, and all summer long. She lived near Virginia City through most of my youth, but then moved to Pony in 1985, between my junior and senior years. Pony is a small community at the base of the Tobacco Root Mountains, halfway between Butte and Bozeman. One summer I will never forget came to be known as Bear Summer.
I remember hearing a report on the radio suggesting there could be bear problems due to an exceptionally low berry crop. That, I soon learned, was an understatement. I do not believe there was a day all summer when I did not hear some story about bears.
Of course, the main reason I heard about bears all the time was because I spent so much of my time with Grandma. Her house was the last place in town up along Pony Creek. Or, from the perspective of a bear coming down the gulch, it was the First house in town. And so Grandma was always concerned that she would walk out one night to lock up the chickens and end up in a bear. She talked about bears all the time.
The first bear incident occurred early in the summer. Grandma and I were doing a little organizing when I happened across a box with a very dark black bear rug in it. Grandma was working in the other room so I draped the bearskin over me and slipped in behind her and crouched down to blend in with a dark desk and a dark wall. I did not say anything; I didn't need to...
Not long afterwards, a bear was sighted on the slope across from the Post Office. Next, a mother, a yearling, and a cub were seen near the same spot. A few days later Grandma and I were returning from our evening walk when we met three tourists with binoculars. They kept looking at the hill behind us and told us a bear had been seen there the night before. We talked only briefly as the shadows grew darker in the trees. Grandma was not about to idly stand around to visit with night coming on. I could hardly keep up with her on the way home.
At about the same time I was in the habit of getting up around five or five-thirty in the morning and hiking out to watch the deer. The deer are always out grazing, moving, and playing at that hour, and they are quite carefree because people are not normally out that early. Every morning I would see several deer with fawns in a gulch that I call "Deer Valley". Then I started seeing bear sign, where the rocks had been over-turned by bears hunting ants and ant larvae. Sometimes I would find where the bear had split rotten logs apart in its search for grubs. Occasionally I would find a perfect bear track.
As I looked at all the signs, one question burned in my mind: How did the bear eat all the tiny grubs without eating a paw-full of dirt? This question was somewhat answered for me when I found a bear pile left several days before. I pulled it apart with a stick and found it to be full of gravel, pine needles, ant parts, and indistinguishable mush. I didn't know if the mush was digested food or just dirt mixed with stomach acids to make mud.
I went away for a few days on a camping trip. Upon returning to Pony, Grandma greeted me and said, in an exasperated voice, "Tom, the BEARS! They're getting closer!" She proceeded to tell me the latest story about a bear in a yard across town.
Later I talked to some old-timers who had grown up in Pony and had come back to visit. They had all kinds of bear stories to tell. Among their stories was one about the time they were putting up a barbwire fence. The barbs on the wire were the exceptionally long ones that were used on the battlefields in World War II. The guys watched while the bear carefully crawled through the fence one limb at a time. When it was halfway through the wires they threw a red jacket up in the air and yelled "Yippee!". The bear left a hunk of hide in the fence.
I returned home to Bozeman, and the next night Grandma called me, "Tom, GUESS What!" She and Great Uncle John and Great Aunt Alice saw a bear while taking their evening hike. I believe they were a little disappointed because it was not too ferocious, and it ran away as soon as it saw them. However disillusioned, Grandma was still plenty worried.
In the next incident, my wife and I saw a bear in the late evening while returning from a hike. It was only a short distance downstream from a tent. Being kindly, we detoured to the camp to warn the campers, especially since they left some coolers of food sitting around outside. We also hoped to scare the wits out of them. The campers had already gone to bed, but were not asleep. They said they were not worried about the bear. We were disappointed that they took it so casually, but one way or another, they were not camped there the next day.
Then Grandma's neighbors had a bear in their yard. When the woman saw it out the kitchen window she pointed her finger and started shaking, unable to speak until her husband came running to see what was the matter.
Meanwhile, Great Uncle John bought Grandma a big-beam, six-volt flashlight for walking out to lock up the chickens at night. The next time I came to Pony Grandma said, "The BEARS! They're getting closer. They are starting up the road!" My cousins had been taking pictures of a bear at the end of Grandma's long driveway.
Then my sister, Jeanne, had a face-to-face stare down with a bear on trail in Bozeman, where we lived with our mother. She heard a noise in the bushes and merely thought kids were building a fort. A bear lumbered out onto the trail twenty feet ahead of her. She could not have done anything since she was slowly ambling due to an injury. Someone, a cyclist perhaps could have easily come along the trail behind the bear and startled it right into her, fortunately no one did. She and the bear looked each other over, then both turned tail ambling in their opposite ways.
All summer people asked me if I worried about bears, especially since I do quite a bit of camping. I always answered, "No, why should I? They are all in town."
And so a bear raided the neighbor's garbage and ate the centers out of all the baby's diapers. Then it raided the dump. My dog nearly lost his voice from barking so much. And Grandma was scared she would end up in a bear.
I packed my gear to go on another camping trip. Great Aunt Evie called up and said she had a bear pass through her yard at four in the morning. As I walked out of town towards the mountains I noticed the tracks of a bear cub neatly padding down the road--towards town.
Thomas J. Elpel is the director of Hollowtop Outdoor Primitive School, LLC in Pony Montana, and the author of four books, including Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills.
A reminder from the author: It seems that everyone wants to live on the fringe of the wild, close to nature. Unfortunately, Montana is being chopped to pieces by subdivisions and houses plopped down by the thousands in prime wildlife habitat. Every new home in the wrong place reduces wildlife habitat, which translates directly into less wildlife. There is certainly plenty of room here for all, but please locate in existing communities, rather than breaking up additional wildlife habitat. Thanks for your consideration!
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