My friend Ben and I sat in the back of his parents’ van rattling along a dirt road winding through the Sierra Nevada mountains, loosely following a small stream. We pulled to a stop, opened the sliding doors of a Maroon GMC. We were about 15 years old at the time and about to have an adventure. We clutched fly rods and a backpack filled with some snacks, tackle, a bottle of water, and a couple purloined cans of beer.
“Ok boys just follow the river and after a couple of miles you’ll get back to the road. I’ll pick you up there in a few hours.” Ben’s dad said, gesturing with something called a “Story Stick.”
“Sure thing, Pop,” Ben replied.
“Be careful and have fun,” Ben’s mom added.
“Watch out for bears!” Ben’s little sister put the cherry on top of the goodbye and slammed the door.
“Haha, bears” I replied. We turned and began cutting through the pine forest and into a box canyon in California mountain country. It was a beautiful day, and we slowly picked our way through the polished granite canyon. The fishing was good; Ben even caught a keeper sized brook trout. They call them “box” canyons because they are so easy to get out of. The average box canyon usually features a few rattlesnakes and some poison oak, just to keep thing interesting.
After fishing for a while we climbed out of the canyon at the first available escape route. Once on a flat above the stream we gathered some sticks, made a little fire, and cooked and ate the one keeper trout. We washed it down with snow melt-chilled cheap beer. Life was good.
“Well, it’s getting late, we should head downstream to the road and meet my dad,” Farley said.
“Yep,” I agreed, glancing at the shadows of the trees growing ever longer. Depending on which side of a mountain you are on, the sun can go down awful quick.
“Hey there’s a pretty flat trail up here, way easier than climbing through that canyon again,” I offered.
“Sounds good” Ben replied.
We walked down the trail as the light slowly faded, gradually becoming a little more nervous.
“I haven’t heard the water in a long time,” Ben said, glancing around.
“It must be near, who the hell builds a trail that doesn’t follow the river to the main road?” I said with mixed confidence.
“Someone who built the trail not for the purpose of going there?” Farley said.
We kept walking, discussing the merits of screaming and lighting three fires (the distress signal most likely to burn down half a national forest). Then we saw it. Well I saw it. I grabbed Ben’s arm in the method known to get attention and imply imminent danger.
“Bear,” I whispered.
We both stood there, it was twilight in the woods, animal sounds were all around us, and in the center of the path about 50 yards ahead was the silhouette of what could only be a bear.
“What do we do?” Ben whispered
“I don’t know…maybe turn back?” I suggested.
“Screw that, we’ve been on this trail like an hour!” hissed Ben.
“You got another option?” I inquired.
He shuffled his feet, a determined look settling on his face. “We charge it…”
“The hell did you just say? Charge it!?” I was stunned.
“Bears are afraid of people, I don’t see any cubs, I say we run it off and keep going. Its just a black bear not like its a grizzly” Ben was weirdly confident of this plan, apparently he had watched one episode too many of Wild America on PBS, and had spent time in Alaska I was previously unaware of. We had not consumed nearly enough cheap beer to justify the level of confidence.
There were another few minutes of deliberation, then the inevitable count of three was engaged, which everyone knows is go time.
On three we went into the breach. We charged the bear as loudly as possible, desperate men waving our fly rods menacingly and hollering like Apache warriors. The bear held its ground silently, unimpressed. “Into the valley of death the rode the fishermen”
When we finally closed on the bear, we heard Ben’s parents hollering in the distance and we froze. We were face to face with a large black
bear stump. The stump showed amazing courage by not even flinching.
“Boys! Can you hear us?” His mom hollered from the top of a nearby hill.
“Yeah, we’re coming to you!” Ben hollered back.
We looked at each other, then we looked at the stump. We made an agreement not to discuss our heroic charge. We trudged to the top of the hill.
Ben’s parents ran up, a ranger leaned against a green pickup truck. “Looks like we got our lost fishermen,” he said into a radio. Then drove off to deal with whatever new problem the tourists had cooked up.
On the ride back, Ben’s sister asked “So you guys see any bears?”
“NO,” we said in unison.