The Three Bears

Enjoy the latest story from the blog,
“Wrong Turns Write Life”

I have three bear stories to tell. Here they are.

Pool Bear

We were already running late. We attempted what should have been a two-day drive to Vermont in one herculean effort.

The motel we booked said we had to be there by a certain time to check in. Otherwise, we could camp out until they opened the office again in the morning. I looked at the clock and knew any setback would be nerve-racking. I was following GPS-guided directions, so I knew, by the minute, what little cushion remained.

That’s when we slowed to a turn and stopped at a little building with a big breezeway and a lake on the other side.

“Now, the ferry board, you must,” the GPS said in the Yoda voice she programmed for the trip to liven up the drive.

We all looked around. A storm was brewing. There were no signs of life. And a little sign out front said, “The Ferry is Closed.”

“Why in the world would the GPS route us on a ferry to cross the lake ^#%%$#!!!,” I added some color commentary at the end of that.

Clearly, there’s a command in the system I should have unchecked saying no ferry routes.

Bam! The skies opened, and it was a POURING of rain.

Every water-drenched turn and the GPS wanted to reroute us back to the ferry. I figured to hell with the GPS, hug the roads around the lake to the other side, and our road must pick back up there.

I was right, but we lost precious time.

We had ten minutes to spare when we finally rolled into the tucked-away place.

The lady at the desk was already looking like she was packed and ready to cut out five minutes early.

When I turned to head back out, key in hand, she warned, “It’s been slow lately, so the bears have moved in. I’d look around before walking out your door and if you take any walks on the property.”

I relayed the news to my family. They deadpanned, “Okay, so there’s that!”

And that there was!

Our unit was nice and spacious. It would be the perfect retreat from the hiking we had planned over the next few days. There was even a typical motel-sized pool with a little fence around it on top of a hill off to the side of our corner room of the one-story row of rooms.

Everyone in my family likes to sleep in. So, I’m up early with a couple of hours to kill before I get any company. I figured nothing like a morning swim.

I walked up the grassy lawn in my bathing trunks, key and towel in hand. I unlocked the waist-high gate, tossed my towel on a chair, and jumped in. When the water settled, the silence of nature at that hour was just what the doctor ordered. I was at peace. I found myself in a lazy back float, lapping the pool enough times that I learned when to flip around to go the other way without looking. The clouds in the sky drifting my speed hypnotized me. The relaxation was so deep I fantasized about adding a pool to our backyard at home.

Snap, crack.

I stood up in the shallow water to look around. I figured another guest discovered my secret spot and opened the gate. But there was nobody there. I shook the water from my ear and went back to my dreamlike existence.

I stood again, instinctively, as soon as I heard the crackling sound. That’s when my gaze scanned the wood line, studying it with vivid senses.

“Do I have company?” I asked out loud.

There was no sound. After a while, I laughed to myself. I must have been imagining things.

When I stood up the next time, I jumped out of the pool, leaned against the back fence, and looked into the woods intently. That’s when I saw about a seven- or eight-foot cluster of branches being disturbed.

“Hey there, big fella, am I in your pool?”

Silence.

“Are you just curious? You want to just watch from a distance?”

I looked at the long stretch of grass from the gate to the corner of the building I’d have to turn to get to the room.

I shouted for it to “Go! Git! Leave me be!”

For the moment, I reasoned, my safest place was the middle of the rectangular pool. I stayed there long enough. I looked around. I no longer wanted the rare solitude I discovered out there. Where are the damn people! I want people!

I hadn’t heard anything long enough to consider how fast I could run downhill if I got a good jump on the bear. I imagined this enormous, muscular, hairy beast thrusting from the brush with a roar as he barreled at his bear speed to catch up with me just as I got to the corner, front, and center for my family to awake to the noise to see me being mauled next to the car.

No sight, noise, or movement for a while now.

I readied my key card for a quick swipe, leaped the fence like an Olympic hurdler, and flew downhill. I thought I heard him behind me, but I’m sure now it was just the adrenaline unfurling. I slid on my feet in the dew-covered grass to slow without faceplanting to pivot the corner of the parking lot pavement. As my skin glided from a harmless slip-and-slide surface to asphalt with pebbles, I surely woke the whole damn place up. I flung open the door and jumped inside.

My wife opened her eyes to my commotion.

“Oh, hey there, Hun. Did ya go for a morning swim?”

When I Wrestled a Bear 

There was a time when I actually wrestled a bear!

We were minding our own business in a back room of a bar, shooting pool. We were celebrating Scott’s 21st birthday. We were fresh out of the Army, and our other best friend, Matt, was home from college.

A stranger walked in and casually asked if we wanted to wrestle a bear. No’s quickly turned to contemplation quickly turned to hell yeah, as long as we’re all in.

We were led to the parking lot to sign our “rights” away on some forms. Years later, the same owner of Caesar the Wrestling Bear would be in the news for one of his bears mauling a trainer to death. There were multiple bears that the outfit labeled as Caesar.  It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how a captive bear trained to bar fight week after week would turn. We were wrapped in a cocktail of invincibility that combined bravado with ignorance on this night.

We needed to capture this life experience, or death, for the record, so we called – of all people – my mom. There were no cell phones yet, and she was the only person nearby who would have a camera ready with film and all that. She agreed to drive across town, bringing her camera. Unfortunately, her camera had died. Later, we’d get very grainy copies of a videotape shot by a neighbor’s friend who was there that night. The neighbor thought he was just watching a bunch of crazies on film until he recognized me, so he dubbed a copy of a copy of the VHS tape to give to us. It was hardly watchable; the quality was so degraded.

Caesar was a full-grown black bear. He looked enormous, especially when he stood. Plus, he had his teeth, and his mouth was not taped closed as some anticipated. He also had massive bear paws and claws that were not restricted at all. The smell of real danger began to seep in as we were introduced to Caesar and given some pointers. Sudden movements, loud noise (remember, we were in a raucous bar atmosphere), and over-aggressiveness by any of us could make the bear “defensive” and not “playful.”

Oh, and one particular pointer stuck with me, “Just make sure he doesn’t accidentally hook you in the corner of the mouth with a claw because he’ll rip your cheek straight up without knowing it.”

The handler sized us up and looked at Matt, Scott, and me, saying, “Usually, smaller people have a better chance of pinning him down because he is more playful with them.” I was the smaller people.

The reward for doing so was something like a cool grand – certainly an incentive to give it our best shot. The pecking order went to Matt, Scott, and then me.

Matt was a tall guy with a solid build. He entered the closed-off mat (a.k.a. dance floor) and definitely had a serious look on his face. The bear must have gotten a bad vibe from Matt because he got rather aggressive. The trainer separated the bear from Matt and gave Caesar a firm reprimand, and took him outside to calm down. Meanwhile, Matt looked at us as if to say; I want out. But he was in – up to his neck in. The match continued. Matt tried hard, maybe too hard, and the bear got all crazy again – even rearing up on his hind legs. They ended the match and took the bear out to the parking lot to calm him down.

I was so happy Scott was next and not me. When that thing came rumbling back in, it was ready for business. Scott’s a scrappy fighter and wasn’t fazed by much in those days, but he quickly hit the mat hard and looked up …fazed and then some. You could tell there was nothing to be done once that bear had you. Its weight and strength determine your range of movement. What happened in there wasn’t up to you; it was entirely up to Caesar. Moving Caesar would be like trying to move a brick house. It wasn’t going to happen unless he allowed it to happen. He wasn’t allowing Scott to do much. When Scott came off the floor, he was dripping in sweat, exhausted from the energy he expended to move parts of his body mere inches.

My turn came. I had tried to learn from observing Matt and Scott, plus remembering the pointers the trainer gave us.

Once in the ring with this beast, a voice popped into my head screaming, “What the hell are you doing here?”

I wasn’t fairing much better than Scott and Matt. The bear used one paw and swatted me down like a rag doll. Before I knew it, he was on top of me, and I couldn’t budge. It took every bit of strength I could muster just to move my hand an inch; even then, I could only manage to do so because Caesar allowed it to happen. I talked with a friendly, playful, and calming voice. I moved slowly and didn’t look him in the eyes.

That’s when the unthinkable happened. We were both on our feet. I moved in, and he went down – because he was playing and took himself down. In an instant, I was on top of this massive creature.

Now, let me slow this description down and zoom in. I went from not knowing what happened to staring at powerful jaws inches from my face, breathing in the animal’s hot, stale breath. I slid one hand over, and Caesar let me press his paw to the mat. To get the other paw stretched out and down meant I’d basically have to get close enough to kiss Caesar on the mouth, my neck fully exposed.

“A-A-A-A-And we have a …” Before the DJ could say “winner,” Caesar was up, and I was down.

And that’s where I stayed for the rest of my time.

When I regrouped with my friends, none of us felt well. The acid in our stomachs, the exertion out on the floor, and the rancid bear smell all over us were all we could stand. We went behind the building, saturated in sweat, and heaved everything from our stomachs and then some.

When I looked up, one of my friends said, “Dude, your neck is bleeding.” 

My only other bear story also came about unexpectedly.

It was about 20 years later, and we were vacationing at Yellowstone National Park. Our first full day in Yellowstone started with sleeping in …late!

Once we were up and at ’em, we decided to do laundry before some afternoon sightseeing. There was a smaller rustic lodge nearby that had a Laundromat and restaurant. We drove over there and started our loads of laundry. Then we sat, sipped coffee, and played games in the oversized lobby filled with chairs and fireplaces.

“BEAR! BEAR! BEAR!” Came screams from all around.

Just like that, every guest and employee was in front of the lodge, staring at a very rare sight indeed. Not only was it a bear, but it was a grizzly. Not only was it a grizzly, but it was a mamma with two cubs out for a morning stroll.

Traffic on the road in front of the lodge stopped, and people flew from their cars in reckless abandon, cameras waving. I grabbed my wife’s camera and tried to get closer, then closer, then even closer still. Still, I was further back than many people. Before I knew it, I was in the grassy area and ….NOTHING! The camera froze.

“GET BACK RIGHT NOW OR GO TO JAIL,” a ranger yelled directly at me.

When I turned, there was my 8-year-old son at my side.

I quickly retreated to where my wife and daughter were watching from the crowd, a safe distance away.

“Fix the camera, hurry, hurry,” I said in a panic, watching the bears get further and further away.

Before the handoff was complete, I withdrew my hand prematurely, and the camera, which my wife so enjoyed, fell to the ground.

She had words for me that others had no trouble making them out. It wasn’t just the chipped camera she was upset about but putting myself and our son in harm’s way. I was going to argue that we were a safe distance. Instead, I faded away from her gaze. Her damaged camera had its scars, but she got a few pictures to prove we saw the grizzlies.

My wife cooled off around the time our laundry did, and then we were off to see an eruption of a different sort – geysers.

By Frank Rocco Satullo, The OhioTraveler, Your Tour Guide to Fun! 

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“Wrong Turns Write Life”