This is the first of our Summer Blog Series! Enjoy!
Contributed by Tanya Harrison
“I don’t have to run faster than the bear, I just have to run faster than you.”
My boss liked flinging that saying around while we worked together in bear county. I could never tell if she was joking.
Bear country, loosely defined, is anywhere on the mainland where you might run into bear. You learn to recognize their sound, their smell. You start jumping at shadows, bear repellent within reach. Sometimes the smell is so strong you can taste them. One’s senses are heightened when one realizes you are no longer at the top of the food chain.
After 22 years of biological surveys in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve collected a plethora of wildlife close encounters – cougar, wolves, snakes, angry mama deer, dueling elk, wild horses – these can all do you in. But the bear – they were ever present.
I was conducting vegetative surveys on Oregon’s Umatilla Indian Reservation. The area was closed to non-tribal hunting, and tribal members generally don’t hunt bear. It is a mini bear sanctuary and the bear know it. I heard stories of other employees charged or mauled by bear. Bear prefer not to tangle with a human, but if you see them on a daily basis, your chances of a bad day increase.
If I didn’t encounter a bear on the drive up the road, I usually did on the hike past the parking area. I carried a bear bell and sang loudly, announcing my presence as I stumbled through their realm. Sometimes I found a bear bathing, or I’d get back to the rig to find one curled up nearby in the shade. Occasionally I’d come across mama and cubs – typically mama sent the cubs up a tree before running off to hide, giving me time to escape.
Multiple bear sightings in one day was common. My record is eight, including 2 mamas and 4 cubs. Have you ever heard a bear cub scream? You don’t want to, especially after you just scared off mama, then stepped up on the stream bank only to find her cub tucked in a hollow just feet away. Screaming cub runs upstream towards mama, I run downstream. The next day I came back for the tools I left behind, rubber handles chewed off. You could see the teeth marks on the steel.
After fleeing from the screaming cub, I decided to survey a different drainage, assuming it would be cub free. Upon my arrival at the survey start point, I swore I heard things running through the bushes – here, there, over there…but couldn’t see them. I dove into my lunch, then noticed that all too familiar smell. Leaning against a tree, I slowly peered behind me…and glimpsed a bear cub leaned against the same tree.
Scooping up my gear, I hurried to the trail, dragging 50 feet of measuring tape behind me. Finding fresh bear tracks in my own, I abruptly turned away from the trail, running down along the creek instead. For 3 miles I didn’t stop until I got back to the rig. After that incident my boss started joining me in the field.
We both love fieldwork and relished the opportunity to work outdoors: beautiful scenery, fresh air, exercise on the job, and we could sing silly girl scout camp songs at the top of our lungs. But the bear started to wear on us. Screw hiking and fresh air. We started riding an ATV up the trail.
I remember that last survey. We road 3 miles up and hiked the rest. It was a bit chilly that morning so I wore a wool hat, and left it on the ATV before hiking up. Sure enough, a bear appeared at lunch. Sniffing and snorting, it kept approaching, regardless of how loud we yelled or how high we jumped. Only after pounding rocks against my metal clipboard did it slowly stumble away – exactly in the direction of our next planned survey!
I turned to my boss and proclaimed “we’re done for today”! Heading back, I realized I left my ball cap at the lunch area. Thoughts of turning back to retrieve it dissolved immediately as we came upon our ATV. The seat was completely ripped up.
Immune to the bear’s antics, I started looking for the wool hat I had left on the seat. My boss wasn’t concerned either, until she started picking up the pieces of the seat….they were still dripping with saliva. Expecting an angry bear to burst through the trees at any moment, we piled the pieces onto the prickly seat remnant and hauled down the trail. It was a very bumpy, painful ride. We didn’t bother to keep track of the bear we passed along the way.
That was the last straw. We cancelled the rest of the surveys, and showed off the ATV seat pieces around the office. I still have a few pieces myself. And I reckon there’s a few bear out there wearing my hats.
To find pics of bears online. Link to Umatilla Reservation- http://ctuir.org/
Raised in Hawaii, Tanya moved to the mainland after college and worked for various natural resource management agencies throughout the inland Pacific Northwest, including 12 years as a wildlife biologist for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Tanya moved back home last year and is now working on a MS in Natural Resources and Environmental Management at UH Manoa.