Our group of eight hiked down the Pacific Crest Trail deep in the Angeles National Forest. When the well-worn trail crossed the creek, we switched directions and started boulder hopping down the mostly dry steam bed. This was day two of our three-day survey and we had stashed all the heavy gear in the creek a half-mile downstream overnight.
This particular survey was designed to assist the recovery of the endangered mountain yellow-legged frog. A healthy population of frogs was located upstream of our survey area in a fishless section of the creek. Below where the trail crosses the creek, the stream was loaded with stocked trout, placed there decades before by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. After years of field data, it was clear that the frogs were being kept from expanding their habitat downstream by the trout which would prey upon all life stages of the endangered amphibian. Now, the same agency that put the trout in the creek was leading a survey to remove them.
We arrived at the gear in the dry creek bed. Three backpack electrofishers sat next to waders, small coolers and day packs. As we got things ready, I noticed several of the waters had we left behind were scattered around the gear. Closer inspection revealed that they were all empty, punctured by the teeth of a bear. A large scat pile and prints in the wet sand confirmed that we had a visitor earlier that morning. I shrugged it off. After all, we were in bear country, and I seriously didn’t think much of it.
We attached the charged batteries we had brought down with us to the electro-fishers, suited up in waders, grabbed data sheets and lunches and headed downstream. Since I
had worn the heavy shocker and waders the day before, I assigned someone else to the task and I left my day pack, waders and other non-essentials behind at our gear-staging area. The unseen bear encounter was all but forgotten.
About a half-mile downstream I noticed that Manna, the volunteer leading the group downstream, was stopped and pointing towards a tree to the right. We had caught up the bear that had messed with or gear and he was now taking refuge in a large tree just off the creek. Most of the group were excited for the sighting and simply watching from afar. That is not my style so I grabbed my digital camera and ran up to the base of the tree. While I snapped photos, the bear made it very clear that I was too close for his liking.
The bear began to huff at me loudly, followed by the sharp crack of what is called jaw popping — the quick closing of the bears jaws to demonstrate he wasn’t messing around. After snapping a few more photos and at the urging of the rest of the group, I disengaged and hiked back down to the creek. We regrouped and continued downstream. I had no idea that I had pissed the bear off enough to change his plans for the day.
Reaching the downstream starting point of the survey, we started electro-shocking the water removing trout and working our way upstream. The survey portion of the day was uneventful and within several hours we had shocked all sections of the creek and were hiking back to the gear-staging area. I was leading the way and as soon as I approached the dry sandbar where we had left our gear, I knew something wasn’t right.
Gear, packs and all of their contents were strewn across the sand and dragged through the mud. My waders were pulled from the groups and chunks of boot rubber were ripped from the shoe, leaving them completely useless. My pack had been turned inside out and ripped open. The contents were literally stomped into the muddy bank. My extra pair of sunglasses had teeth marks chewed into the lens and were caked with mud. All of our spare waters were chewed or stomped, leaving all of them empty.
As we cleaned up, I found the bear’s prints on top of ours coming back up the drainage. After the encounter he had waited for us to leave, came out of the tree and went back upstream to our gear to exact his revenge.
It wasn’t until we had everything cleaned up that we realized that the bear had had a specific target for his destruction and that target was me. Of all the packs and waders resting unattended in the dry creek bed, the only gear that was removed and damaged was mine. No one else’s stuff was even touched. Earlier when the bear was in the tree, I had gotten the photos, but the bear had apparently gotten my scent. Back at the gear, he found the items covered with the camera-wielding idiot’s stink and took out his frustration on what was easily $300 worth of fisheries gear that belonged to me.
Touché bear, touché!
Sometimes I think of the rage that bear had at the gear pile. My waders had some pretty thick soles and he ripped fist-sized chunks of rubber out that we never found. Stomping my gear six inches into the mud took effort, and likely some legitimate anger. And deliberate destruction of a dozen water bottles pretty much stamped out the incident as personal.
I still smile when I think about the encounter, and I did get some cool photos!