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Rated: E · Short Story · Animal · #2312675
One dark night the skills of trained BSA Scoutmasters were challenged by a curious bear.
SMOKEY'S LESSON
By James Fox


One dark night the skills of three Boy Scouts of America trained scoutmasters were challenged by a wayward bear. During the years our sons were in a Boy Scout troop, a week each summer was usually devoted to Summer Camp in the mountains.

Because I seemed to be perpetually on the parents' committee, I was often drafted to go along as one of the adult leaders. And eventually cajoled into taking scoutmaster training.

Our scout troop parents' committee usually selected BSA Camp Wolfeboro, a rustic camp in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. The main reason was we wouldn't be limited to mess hall food. We would sign up for the campsite that had an old rock chimney and grill. It also had a dry goods storage locker and several heavy-duty cedar picnic tables near the fire ring. At the campsite the boys would spend the week cooking their own meals, which we discovered was a magnet for camp counselors tired of the mess hall fare. We also feared cooking meals outdoors might become attractive for bears that occasionally wandered into camp. But the troop's previous scoutmaster had added an extra rinse bucket to the Boy Scout dish washing system and had established a camp clean-up regimen that usually kept our site bear-free.

One summer, through a fluke, three of the adult leaders going to camp with the troop were named “Jim”. The scouts quickly remedied that with nicknames. Jim Davis became Jimbo and I became Foxman. However, through logic that is understood only by the adolescent mind, Jim Schwartzenberger stayed "Schwartzenberger" or occasionally "Schwartz-B."

Jim Schwartzenberger had a wry sense of humor and an unusual skill that intrigued the scouts. At any time, he would string a hammock between two trees, ease into the netting and doze off within five minutes. And to the delight of the scouts within another five minutes he would be snoring louder than a freight train!

One evening the perfect campfire built by "Jimbo" Davis had dwindled to glowing embers, Jim Schwartz-B's snores had died down and the scouts had run out of jokes, stories and ghost tales. One by one everyone had drifted off to their tent, until I was the only one left to douse the campfire and turn out the lantern. I shook the hammock to wake up Jim so he wouldn't be left to the mosquitoes and morning frost.

I began stirring the dead campfire with an iron rake, looking for hot-spots, and Jim made one final round of the campsite before heading for his tent. He discovered this night the kitchen crew had forgotten to take the ice-chest back across the river to the bear-proof storage of the main camp. "We will have to bear-bag this," he suggested as he strung a rope high off the ground between two trees.

Through training and experience we had learned that a clean campsite needed to have all edibles removed, or “Bear-Bagged” which is, to put in a pack or container strung high out of reach. A nighttime campsite free from any available food usually encourages any curious bears to keep on trudging down the path.

I double-looped the rope around the ice-chest to form a sling, tied off one end and Jim began to tug on the other end to hoist the bundle up out of reach. The task was harder than we thought due to the weight of the full ice-chest. I dragged over one of the log-ends a scout had used as a fireside chair. Balancing on this improvised stool, I used the iron rake I'd been stirring the fire with to push upwards on the ice-chest. Jim heaved on the rope to draw it taut. As the bundle inched higher and higher, I stepped down from the log and used the rake to tug at the chest to see if we had hoisted the food securely out of a bear's reach. The chest swung to and fro, but didn't slip from its rope cradle.

Suddenly Jim Schwartz-B stopped tugging on the rope and cocked his head to stare past me. He quietly said, "Turn slowly and look what's at the table." I turned and peered into the darkness where just beyond the light from the lantern I saw a bear, a very large bear. Without us hearing it, the animal had crept into the campsite and had gotten as close as the end of the picnic table where it sat back on its haunches to intently watch us at work. Like a dog waiting for its master, the bear had rested its muzzle on the tabletop where the lantern light glinted off its black nose and reflected from its dark eyes as it curiously watched us at our task.

The bear’s head was covered with dark brown fur, but its muzzle was tan, creating a living replica of the US Forestry's famous Smokey Bear. When I pointed out this similarity to Jim, he reacted with alarm. "Smokey?" He gasped, "Oh no, oh no, what have you done?" I was confused by Jim's behavior. "What," I asked, "What's wrong?"

The twinkle in Schwartz-B's eyes told me I'd just been suckered as, just before he tossed a tin can that sent the bear scurrying away, he replied, "You know Smokey can already handle a shovel - and now you've taught him how to use a rake!"


Originally published in The Front Porch Periodical, 2005


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