Isolated attacks on campers by normally docile black bears in Utah and Colorado set off media excitement last year. What could this mean? Is it more evidence that nature is fighting back?

One such bear burst into the tent of Patrick Finan, 22, of Boulder, Colo., and gnawed on the young man’s forehead. The bear then wandered on to the tent of Finan’s companion, Tim Schuett, 23, of Glen Ellyn, Ill., and slapped him silly with one powerful blow.

Both men came away from the incident with only minor injuries, but it was still the first known black bear attack in Rocky Mountain National Park since the 1970s when a young honeymooner was attacked and killed.

Advice on the meaning of this event rang in from everywhere, not the least of it in a long internet memo from Teresa Binstock, an environmentalist opposed to continued development in the Colorado Rockies. Ms. Binstock drew an analogy to a mixed Husky/St. Bernard dog she once owned.

Seems the dog was gentle in the company of a visiting toddler who became annoyingly fascinated by the animal’s eyes. “The dog finally placed his jaws around the boy’s forearm and squeezed,” Binstock wrote. “The boy cried. The boy’s mother was freaked out and angry—but listened. I told her she had just witnessed a wonderful dog being gentle and appropriately instructive. The dog was powerful enough to have broken the arm or the leg bone of an adult—but chose to gently chastise the toddler.”

These are much more enlightened times than in the days of the old frontier or even in the 1970s, when disco music was known to drive many species mad. So black bear attacks in the 21st century maybe should be seen more from the perspective of the bear.

Look, I’m the bear, okay? I get grumpy now and then. I’m a bear. But you’d get grumpy too if you had to scrounge like I do just to fill my appetite. It gets worse all the time. Last year I had a couple hundred thousand more acres to search for a snack—until that Forest Service lady with a broken heart burned her love letters and touched off the largest fire in Colorado history. Talk about Goldilocks in your porridge: that dame took out a couple of whole mountain ranges.

So I get grumpy when I get hungry and see all them college kids tramping along stuffing themselves with trail mix. Think they care about a hardworking bear? So I see this bunch of ’em up near Fern Lake one Sunday, and they’re doing all the usual wise guy stuff—cooking dinner, washing their plates, and (damn) hanging their food off a high pole before crawling into their tents without so much as a crumb for a snack. Sometimes, you know, it just gets to be too much for a bear to take. So I went up to this one kid’s tent and ripped it open. “Hello, college boy,” I says, and gave him a good chastising bite on the head.

“I just woke up and it was a blur in my head, then the blood was going everywhere,” Patrick Finan told the Rocky Mountain News. “The bear was standing outside my tent, staring in.”

According to the News, as Finan came shrieking out of his shredded tent, the bear more or less casually moved on, pausing to take a swipe at Tim Schuett’s head through a neighboring tent and opening his scalp up to the skull.

Yeah, well, I said I was a bear, didn’t I? Dang college kids gotta be chastised by somebody. It was going to take me half the night to find a loose cooler somewhere. Might as well serve another gentle reminder of how hard it is to be a patient bear.

Meanwhile, however, the Park Service set out to deal with the bad bear, particularly after it was photographed later that same night—breaking into a food cooler.

I’m a bear! Bear’s gotta eat too, you know! Now I’m a bear with a death sentence on his head and his mug shot on most wanted—like all bears don’t look alike to humans. All over the park they’ve posted these warning signs telling people what to do if they run into me. Those last two both just went for their cell phones. But I like the advice being handed out by the rangers—“Back away slowly and try to make yourself look big. If you are attacked, fight back vigorously.” Heh, heh, I like that.

Rendezvous on the Internet

It could be, as others suggest, that black bears were not always so docile as we think until they learned to fear the scent of men. It’s too bad, actually, that the mountain men of old didn’t have a chat room on the Internet like they do now. Here are some excerpts of buzz right after the Fern Lake incident:

“Sad, especially for the likely future of the bear. Wonder what the two were doing to make the bear so aggressive?”—Stumprider

“I think I better hide my food in 2scoops’ tent in a couple of weeks. What area of the park was this in?”—StoveStomper

“Where where where…I’ll be soloing there in a couple of weeks, and I’d like to skip the bear encounter.”—Stikmon

“Better take the 44, sticky…”—Stratdewd

“Kinda unusual for a black bear to attack isn’t it?”—le Subtil

“Yeah, it is unusual…and so is the word unusual…it has three u’s in it. Curious.”—Stratdewd

“It could have been a bear fraternity prank.”—Violin

“Bear decappa campah?”—Stratdewd

“The only times I’ve seen bears in the backcountry they’re doing full tilt boogie away from me. Then again, HPM, his bro and I were driving through Cherokee late one night and nearly hit the biggest lardbutt bear I’ve ever seen.”—Treebait

“Well...hmmmm...lightning strike? Bear attack? Meteor collision? Stroke? Rattlesnake encounter? Plane crash getting out to Colorado? Being bored to death at the three days of meetings before my trek? Wonder what will happen to me out there next week?”—om

What marvelous stories must go around at contemporary “rendezvous” of such mountain folk.


Summer 2004 Contents

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