We were camped deep in the shaggy, North Cascadian shadows—just a stone’s throw away from the cable car crossing on the upper Chilliwack River—when it happened.
I had, of course, survived a slew of similar encounters over the years. Once at a dispersed campsite in Deschutes National Forest. Once behind a horse corral in Wenatchee National Forest. And twice (on back-to-back nights) in the Henry M. Jackson Wilderness Area.
But even at their most horrifying, none of those infestations ever reached within a whisker’s breadth of preparing me for the sudden onslaught of frenzied ferocity that only now do I find myself appreciably able to convey.
First off, unlike any of the youth crews I’d been leading during the aforementioned incidents, this time I was leading an American Hiking Society volunteer crew comprised exclusively of adults.
They weren’t even young adults, either. They were a 55-year-old dentist from Boca Raton, a 49-year-old stockbroker from New Delhi, a 53-year-old graphic designer from Beijing, a 71-year-old seated county judge from Alabama, and a 34-year-old former League Of Women Voters chapter president/practicing veterinarian from Oakland.
Oh yeah, and also, there was a bear. Not just any old Ursus Problemus, either, but a morbidly massive, exceedingly brazen, 500-600 pound black bear who seemed hell-bent on joining us for dinner that night.
Twice in the span of about 30 minutes we’d had to gather en masse to chase the thing back across the river by aggressively rattling pots and pans and brandishing the most fearsome-looking hand tools in our cache like spears.
So, as we sat around the campfire chewing the fat on the particular night about which I speak, our mood was expectantly anxious and the atmosphere was palpably tense.
“Well, what do you think there, big chief?” the dentist from Boca Raton furtively asked me. “Should we relocate our camp momentarily or wait it out ‘til morning?”
“Hmmm…” I pondered, scanning our increasingly dark and menacing-looking brush-obscured periphery as I sorted through the imminent laundry list of potential safety hazards attendant to either option at hand.
If, on the one side, we chose to stay put, there seemed to be a more-than-reasonable chance that I would be knowingly increasing our exposure to the wily, and potentially extremely dangerous, whims of the bear.
But if, on the other side, we pulled up stakes and lit out toward less compromised ground, I would knowingly be increasing our exposure to the sundry potential dangers inherent in causing 10 people to go stumbling around through a rocky, root-strewn forest in the dark. Plus, the bear might just decide to follow us.
“I think we should leave,” the veterinarian from Oakland opined, sliding the garden rake off her lap.
“I think so too,” the stockbroker from New Delhi said, symbolically surrendering his brush whip to me. “Let’s give that animal some space!”
“Now looky here,” piped in the seated judge from Alabama, “You all go ‘head and skedaddle off to whatever you want to. But I can tell you this: whether or not that giant fuzz ball decides to show its fuzzy puss again, I’m gonna stick put right here and stand my ground.”
Although this deliberation proved compelling on a multitude of cross-cultural levels, that’s as far as it got. Because before the next member of our vociferous quorum managed to choate an opinion, the first Pacific Jumping Mouse came leaping out of the night—bounding so high above the campfire that nobody could discern precisely just what in the flying jeepers-creepers it was.
“Ahhhh!” the veterinarian screamed, smacking the back of her head so frantically I thought she was being stabbed.
“What the…?” growled the judge, peering through the firelight as the advancing horde exploded like a shrieking hailstorm of ping-pong-ball-sized fur pellets from the bushes all around us, bouncing off our arms and knees and foreheads as they multiplied, seemingly by the hundreds, into our sight.
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