We had one native that visited us continually while in East Yahtam. Whenever dad would finish cleaning the fish for the day he would place the remnants on the rocks of the hightide-creek in front of the camp, and during dinner, we would receive a visit from a big male black bear.
“We’ve named him Rufus,” George informed us during our first trip, “He’s on the program here in East Yahtam. He also knows not to mess with me.”
George tried to convince us that he had “left his mark” all around the camp so that the bears knew not to come near the tent. Someone had also taken a sharpie marker to the tent flap and written “Bears” with a circle drawn around and a line through it in case any of the locals happened to be literate.
“One thing you need to be aware of when you’re fishing is your stringer. Be cognizant of it at all times. The worst thing you could do is let any of these bears get ahold of that stringer.”
I thought George was telling us this because it meant that you’d never get it back. No reasonable person is going to try and recover a stringer of fish from the jaws of a three hundred pound bear.
While that was certainly true it wasn’t the only reason, and I learned the rest of it the hard way.
The four of us were fishing the first pool up from the camp one day when I left my stringer on the bank. As the day progressed I waded further upstream without going back to retrieve the fish I had kept. As I thought about it I turned around and sure enough, there was a younger male, not Rufus, slipping back into the tree line with my fish.
My heart jumped into my throat for a second because I remembered what George had said earlier. I informed him and he shook his head and said, “well now you gotta live with the consequences.” His tone was calm and very matter of fact so I settled down and thought to myself, “worst-case scenario that guy just had an easy meal.”
I learned the hard way what George meant by consequences. For the rest of the day, I could look over my shoulder and into the tree line and see two eyes and a nose facing in my direction just waiting for me to bring a fish back to the bank. This bear followed me up the and down the river, and it wasn’t just annoying it was quite unnerving.
“Now if he makes his way towards you then put your arms up, and yell as loud as you can in his direction. Maybe even try throwing a large stick or rock in its direction. They’ll typically back down,” George instructed.
At one point I was in a clearing walking back towards the camp with a stringer full of fish, twelve to be exact. You don’t think about it as the day goes on, but a full day’s worth of carrying around a stringer of continually increasing numbers of salmon all weighing around 2 pounds means you’re carrying back something like twenty-four pounds of fish. I knew I had been targeted as a source of easy meals earlier by this bear and the fact that I’m lumbering back towards camp with approximately twenty-four pounds of meat on my shoulder left me downright terrified.
I galumphed back to camp just trying not to think about what could potentially happen to me had this bear just decided he was so hungry that he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone and Dale was carrying a shotgun that was ready in case such a scenario played out, but that still didn’t leave me feeling any less uneasy about the situation.
As I walked into the clearing, a head poked up from behind a fallen tree about twenty yards in front of me. It was that damn bear again. I had to go around this tree to get to camp. There was no option. As I approached he started to climb up onto the dead tree making his whole body visible atop the log.
That was it. I had enough of this guy. I put the fish down beside me and threw my aching arms up into the air and started yelling whatever profane thing that came to mind. That didn’t last long because I had to let my exhausted arms rest. I just didn’t have hardly any energy left. They fell down to my side as I caught my breath. This bear didn’t seem intimidated one bit by my harsh but weary demeanor.
I remembered George saying that I could grab something and throw it at him. I looked down at the rocky riverbed and picked up a large stone to hurl his direction, but I couldn’t lift anything. My arms felt like Jell-O. Finally, I found a baseball-sized rock. It wouldn’t make enough commotion, but maybe if it hit near him it’d be enough to scare him off.
So I chunked that rock as hard as I could in his direction.
I’ve never been a good athlete. Whatever I intend on doing often the opposite happens. Couldn’t make a free throw in basketball unless I just chunked the ball with no real intention of it going in the net. Wouldn’t you know it that the same principle held true this time? The rock flew through the air and landed square on the bear’s muzzle. The shock, the bear’s and my own, was enough for him to lose his balance and fall off of the tree.
I don’t know if his pride was hurt, or if he was still in shock, but he scampered back up into the tree line and I didn’t know if I should be proud or terrified. In any sense, we decided we didn’t need to waste any time discussing it and get back. That moment helped me forget how tired my arms were. I scooped the stringer full of fish up, and in no time we were walking up to the tent where I immediately collapsed onto the soft moss-covered ground.
George looked over and asked, “what took you boys so long?”