Legend of the Grizzly

We spent most of our last roll in Wyoming, on the Cliff Creek Fire, just South of Jackson. We were spiked out the whole time, in two different camps. Spiking out means you are not getting meals and supplies at the main camp. Spike camps vary a lot. The first camp had food supplies in hot buckets, which are five gallon buckets full of whatever is being served at the main camp. We had mostly everything available that we would usually need. Our second spike camp was more remote and spartan. We flew in on a helicopter and ate MREs for dinner and breakfast most days. They flew us lunches and flew out our trash every morning.

Trash was a big concern because we were in grizzly bear country. The importance of keeping a clean camp was stressed at our first briefing and throughout our stay. We had three cans of bear spray, which is not a guarantee that you won’t get chewed up if a bear is pissed at you, so the main approach was to simply not attract them to our area.

On our last day spiked out in a the back country, a lookout from a different crew had a grizzly encounter when one came up sniffing at his lunch from 35 feet away and was acting very interested and somewhat aggressive. If he wasn’t aggressive, he certainly was not afraid. He was hungry. That night they flew us in hot buckets full of stinky baked halibut. Nice…

We all went to sleep that night thinking about bears. Around 11:30 PM someone heard some rustling in the bushes. He alerted a few others, who also heard the movements of a big animal in the brush just outside of our sleeping area. Not cool. There was much shouting at the bear to fuck off. There was much fearing that the bear would not fuck off, but would fuck us up in instead. I slept through that episode on the other side of camp, oblivious.

*I should explain something about hotshot crews, and fire crews in general: Not everyone on the crew is what you would call backwoods savvy. Fire experience and tactical know-how we can teach, and city kids are usually as proficient with chainsaws and fire science as any other rookie after a few years, but knowledge of nature, animals, and how to move with the terrain are things that take a little longer to develop. We’ve had a guy on the crew who couldn’t sleep because he was afraid of coyotes. Not everyone on the crew grew up in the woods, hunting, hiking and camping. So, the more timorous members of our group, the less experienced, were the ones bunched around the campfire, shouting at bears.

I woke up at 2:30 AM when someone on my side of camp started yelling at the bear. “Hey! Hey! Get out of here!” I woke up confused, and asked him what it was. He told me he thought there was a bear not far off in the bushes. I got up and shined my headlamp around, didn’t see anything, and laid back down. Short of blasting a grizzly with a high-powered rifle, your best bet in an attack is to play dead and hope it goes away before you are actually dead. Going back to sleep seemed like a pretty good option. But, then, I had to shit. Urgently.

There was no way I was getting back to sleep without taking a dump first. Then someone nearby started shouting at bears again. That wasn’t helping with the slumbers either. So, fuck it, I got dressed, grabbed my tool and went in search of toilet paper. Found the paper, heard some movement, saw some eyes glowing in the sagebrush, climbed up on a bear-box to get a better look… It was a goddamn deer. A mule deer doe that gave zero fucks. I walked over to where it had been harassing us from, to verify that there was not a ravenous grizzly bear there also, found a good flat, brush-free area, dug a hole, and took an amazing shit.

Then I went back to sleep. I told a few people that it had just been a deer and that I’d actually seen it, but some of the guys slept in a huddle by the campfire for the rest of the night. Apparently they missed the memo.

We all hiked out the next day, having never actually seen a bear in “grizzly country.”

That is all.

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