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Off the trail: Three bear night

November 16, 2012

In the dark November night, the snow-struck silence is broken by a cacophony of noise and the floor of the bedroom erupts.

My border collie Skye slams up on top of the bed from the floor, bouncing on her toes, barking at the closed window.

We pull the curtain back, and shine the big flashlight, hastily retrieved from its home under the bed, toward the cars and parking lot just 30 feet from the window.

“Wendi, there’s a bear in your car,” yells my partner Chris as I scramble into boots and a warm coat. He grabs the old dog, Mica, now far past her bear dog days, and holds her back as I head down the icy hallway and out the door at a run, Skye at my heels.

She flies out the door on tiptoes, barking her fool head off, a big, yowling bark that sounds more like a hound dog bay than a collie, almost crying in her eagerness to get to the bear.

I follow her out, hoping to drive the bear away, hoping, in the end, to save it from being destroyed if it becomes too acclimated to human food sources. There is no food in my car, but I was canning apples last night at a friend’s house and the car probably still smells like apples. It’s a mistake only a rookie Mammothite should have made—which I’m not. But I was tired last night, it was late, it was storming, and I didn’t take the time to air the car out before I locked it up for the night.

I hear another yell from Chris, still watching out the window with the flashlight trained on the car.
“Wendi, there are two bears in your car, two bears!

“No, wait. There’s three! There are three bears in your car!”

Three?

That stops me cold and in a split second. I round the corner and see the car—and small black shapes tumbling out of the broken window, one after the other after the other.

Cubs.

“Skye, get back here, get back here now,” I scream into the rising wind.

“Come here NOW!”

The cubs scatter like big black bowling balls and head for the trees, Skye hot on the heels of the smallest one. Skye is an eight-year Mammoth veteran and she’s chased a lot of bears in her time, both in town and in the backcountry. Bears aren’t fond of dogs and most run from them, making a good bear dog invaluable in training bears to stay away from human homes and food. Skye is a smart dog, and I trust her implicitly, but this is different.

Three cubs this small mean mom’s not far behind and I’m now more worried about my dog than the bears’ education.

“Turn around now,” I yell again against the crying babies.

Sure enough, mom shows up, squalling in almost human-like distress, seeking her scattered babies. In the deep dark, I see Skye’s white-tipped tail swirl, then turn back to me.

I give her to Chris, who herds her into the house. We watch the babies up in the trees for a moment and head in against the howling wind.

I know I have made a huge mistake.

For the next week, the bears come back, night after night. Night after night, we chase them away. Night after night, we lie awake waiting.

Mammoth wildlife specialist and bear guy Steve Searles comes out and shoots his rubber bullets and flash bang devices. My heart breaks but they still keep coming every night. Mama is desperate and something deep in her knows she stands little chance of keeping these babies alive through the long dark winter if they don’t get fat fast.

A big winter storm beds the sow and her three cubs down for good.

I take plastic and duct tape off the window and take the car to the shop to replace the window.

Only time will tell, next year when the survivors of this little family wake up again, which experience will triumph in their minds—the car/foodbox attraction—or the fear.

I clean the car out and scrub the last vestiges of the hot chocolate that dumped onto the carpet two weeks ago clean. I take every wrapper from every sandwich or cookie out every day. I let the car air out a few moments every night before I lock it and I hope.

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