A Bear for Lunch

Robert Walton

© Copyright 2018 by Robert Walton


Photo of a bear eating a picnic lunch.
Photo by Robert Walton.
 Kids learn best from doing and watching their elders do, so early on in fatherhood I sought help in teaching my sons: the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Camping entails shared work, shared hardship, shared fun, shared adventure – and shared secrets. You inevitably end up in situations of which mothers would not approve.  Most fathers and sons tend to lapse into patterns of behavior, rituals even. This can be a destructive thing, I know, but I’ve seen our camping rituals enhance my friendship with my sons.  One of the best rituals is our annual end–of–Sierras-trip stop at Tenaya Lake. Tenaya Lake is a cold, green glacial jewel in the heart of Yosemite.  Its serenity and beauty sooth the stresses, aches and blisters begotten by mountain adventures.  Also, the lake and its cradle of crags are a standing promise that the mountains will abide until our next visit.
 We needed soothing that summer of 2003.  Though neither Jeremy nor Jon is much interested in rock climbing, we’d climbed some long, strenuous face routes in Tuolumne Meadows. They’ll rope up and put on the climbing shoes to please their climber dad.  We’d hiked to the 10,856’ summit of Mt. Hoffman just because we hadn’t done it before.  Our ascent of 14,200’ White Mountain – the trip’s biggest adventure - was more grueling than we’d imagined. We drove up the winding, treacherous (had I seen it in daylight I’d have turned back!) road in the dark, camped near the locked gate and slept beneath tarps.  We awoke before dawn and found our water bottles frozen solid. The fourteen-mile walk through a moonscape of shattered rock to the top and back, all above 12,000’, wore us out.
 Therefore we settled onto Tenaya’s warm sands with sighs of relief and bliss. It was a mild and perfect morning, windless, cloudless.  Naps, swims, and reading ensued.  A French couple in their thirties settled in the shade of a tree ten yards or so from our patch of sand.  They broke out a substantial lunch of cheese, wine, bread, fruit, and – an American touch – potato chips.  As they spread their repast upon a flowered tablecloth, I arose and went into the lake for a swim. Being an older gentleman, I now enter freezing lakes at a pace befitting my dignity.  This pace is slow.  I do much mountain gazing while inching into the fish-freezing waters.  After suitable meditation upon Tenaya Peak (the Northwest Buttress of which I would dearly love to climb with both sons can I but induce them to climb slowly enough!), I turned to regard the beach.  
Both sons were stretched out in lean and total repose.  My eyes drifted to the feasting couple. They were focused upon their obviously delicious dainties and did not notice an imminent visitor, a brown and furry visitor.  The bear – smallish and cocoa-colored - exhibited neither snarling fierceness nor swaggering hostility.  On the contrary, he was the picture of confident conviviality.  Acting the part of a late but invited guest, he squeezed between the munching couple and lay down in front of the paté.  
After an initial moment of frozen shock, the somewhat portly man and the dark-haired woman departed in an explosion of sand, leaving the bear with wine and accoutrements.  Mr. Oso made himself comfy and began to eat. My sons, aroused by the heartfelt screams of the departing couple, leapt to their feet.  Both boys have long experience of ursine intrusions and immediately surged into defense mode.  Both of them also have great affection for bears and understood that this bear’s somewhat less than innocent presumption in joining human picnics would quickly and inevitably lead to his demise.  Their appropriate actions – screams, threatening postures and accurately chucked pinecones – did not faze this bear.  He finished the paté and moved on to the cheese. 
I sighed.  This stubborn animal obviously needed the attentions of a master bear-baiter:  myself.  Aside from techniques garnered from many bear-encounters, I’m pretty scary-looking in a bathing suit.  I left the water, strolled slowly, but with stiff-legged determination toward Bruin. I stepped three or four feet inside of that invisible circle which he regarded as his own space.  This almost always makes a black bear decide to leave. Bruin looked at me calmly and did not budge. 
Level two of bear intimidation was called for.  I jumped and howled like a rabid chimp.  Bruin looked at me critically, almost as if he was disappointed that Las Vegas showgirls had not supplemented my dance. 
I sighed and moved on to level three.  I screamed at the top of my lungs, pelted him with pinecones and jumped toward him.  Bruin tilted his head and his eyes glittered with a certain red spark, a gleam that told me he didn’t think my act was funny anymore.  I gave up and stepped back.
Show over, bruin settled back to his repast. Finished munching at last, he tipped over the wine bottle and his long - as long as my forearm at least - active tongue slurped most of the gurgling liquid – a piquant chardonnay, I believe. Utterly defeated, I gathered my tattered shreds of dignity about me and walked back into the lake. I was not terribly surprised by my defeat, however. Once a bruin possesses the food, he considers it his and you’d best bug off. Besides, the wine was a good vintage and worth fighting for.  
A crowd gathered to take photos while Jeremy made friends with the French couple.  The Frenchman, an artist, hurriedly sketched the bear on a notepad.  Mr. Bear at last skulked into the woods.  In five minutes or so, he emerged farther along the beach looking for another picnic.  Jon and Jeremy made him retreat, but we knew he wouldn’t stay gone long.  
It was time for us to hit the road.  We left Mr. Oso nose a-tilt, lingering in the shade of pines.   As we made the left turn onto Highway 120, a ranger carrying a big shotgun got out of his patrol car. 
 I'm an experienced writer.   My SF novella "Vienna Station" won the Galaxy prize and was published as an e-book.  It is available for Kindle on Amazon.  I co-wrote The Man Who Murdered Mozart with Barry Malzberg and it was published in F & SF.  Most recently, my novel Dawn Drums won both the Tony Hillerman best fiction award and first place in the Arizona Authors 2014 competition.  Most recently, my “Uriah” was included Assisi, a literary journal associated with St. Francis College, Brooklyn.

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