I taught with Ralph Henson for many years in the wilds of the San Juan Ridge. I am the "Ken" in this story. We were teaching eighth grade that year, and we took the class on a field trip to Yosemite. (His idea, not mine. I would have gone to Reno. Everyone needs to know about fleshpots.) We had hiked from the valley floor to a camp site near the foot of Half Dome by a flowing river.
The kids set up their tents near a fire pit while Ralph and I set up our tents by the river. We camped there two nights. On the first of them a bear snuffled at my tent and I reflected on what a poor barrier a nylon dome tent made against a determined bear. Or even a negligent one. I also said a prayer of thanks that I didn't have any Fritos with me.
But the next night provided Ralph and me with our brightest, shiningest hour. We had climbed Half Dome that day, and then climbed back down again. What else are you going to do? We were all fairly tired. Ra;lph and I retired to our tents as the kids began to turn in. A few stayed by the diminishing camp fire to tell ghost stories. It looked like the end of a good day.
I hadn't been secured in my nylon mushroom for very long when I heard a whisper. “Ralph. Ralph.”
Ralph and I both came out of our tents to see what was amiss, and there stood Jolene, one of our eighth grade girls, let's call her Karen. “Ralph,” she continued at the whisper, “there's a bear in our camp.” And just to verify her story, a bear stood up behind the girl. The bear, a female, had left two cubs behind to terrorize the children's camp while she followed Karen.
Ralph, thinking quickly, picked up some pine cones and threw them at the bear, shouting, “Go away! Go away!” The bear decided we didn't have any bacon and were very rude besides, and went away.
Meanwhile, Karen bowed her head and said, “All right, Ralph,” and slowly turned away. It made perfect sense to her that she could come to Ralph and complain about a bear in camp and he would throw pine cones at her and tell her to go away. That Ralph. Sometimes he was in such a bad mood. By the time she had turned around, the bear had gone. Karen never knew the bear was there.
Ralph and I took off for the kids' camp armed with nothing more than good intentions. Authorities recommend we don't shoot bears but frighten them away with noise, like banging sauce pans with wooden spoons. We didn't have a sauce pan and wooden spoon. I don't know what we thought we were going to do.
When we arrived at the kid's camp, what a sight greeted our eyes. The she bear and her cubs wandered around the camp as though they owned it. Four girls jumped up and down on a fallen tree shouting, “Bear, bear, bear.” Two boys climbed a tree, but the tree was so small that the top bent down. Josh, the unfortunate bottom boy, kept hitting the bear with his own bottom. Fortunately, this confused rather than irritated the bear.
Many of the other campers, meanwhile, ran around like Keystone Kops, running into each other, cursing, screaming. One boy, Kyle, who had retired early, came out of his tent wondering what all the uproar was. Daniel decided to settle some old scores and smacked Kyle in the nose with bloody, satisfactory results. There was Kyle bleeding all over the place and people were screaming, “My God, the bear got Kyle!” Actually, the only thing the bear got was the marshmallows in Kyle's backpack. He had to carry his stuff back home in a trash bag. He did not have a good day.
And through it all, three sleeping beauties, eighth grade girl children who had brought some funny looking cigarettes with them, slept peacefully through the whole affair. “Bears? What bears?” they asked the next morning.
Amid all the pandemonium, the bear decided that she wasn't going to find any bacon anywhere and she really didn't want to have her cubs hanging around eighth graders anyway. She and her tribe left leaving behind 25 bug-eyed kids and a trashed backpack. And everybody had a good bear story to tell.