Nature Creeped Up on Me

David Reynolds, former Kootenay and Yoho National Park Warden

Canada’s former National Park Warden Service had a well-earned reputation for handling troublesome and curious bears that reside in many of the country’s national parks. Park Wardens were known to stalk, track, pursue, trap, relocate, immobilize, dispatch; and, when necessary, chase bears away from frightened and/or foolish visitors who deliberately get too close to bears.

It seems for many former Park Wardens, trying to save humans from getting too close to a potentially dangerous and unpredictable bear was a never-ending task. Occasionally, bears would turn the tables on both visitors and Park Wardens by reversing roles by stalking and pursuing them. When that situation happened, it was both embarrassing and dangerous for visitors and Park Warden alike. It would have been particularly embarrassing for a Park Warden if he or she was totally oblivious to a bear standing right behind him or her. It has happened!

I was fortunate to be a National Park Warden for three years: one year in Kootenay National Park and two years in Yoho National Park before moving into the Western Regional Office. The Chief Park Wardens of both parks agreed to transfer me from Kootenay to Yoho to undertake a hydrology resource inventory of Yoho as part of my regular duties as a Park Warden. Back in the day, unlike today, a Park Warden’s job was multi-functional and included tasks related to resource management, public safety, trail maintenance, mountain rescue, search and rescue, public relations, fire fighting, poacher patrol and law enforcement, and any other job that needed being done. Handling problematic bears occupied a considerable amount of a Park Warden’s time.

The Chief Park Warden in Kootenay National Park told me when I first started working there that the principal role of all Park Wardens is to protect human visitors from the natural environment and the natural environment from human visitors. He didn’t say anything about protecting a Warden’s personal safety or self preservation when protecting the environment or humans. What he was really saying was my role would be to protect bears from visitors and visitors from bears, even if the foolish visitor insisted on getting chummy with a bear.

For the most part, being a Park Warden was a great job; in fact, when I look back over my 44-year career it was the best job I ever had! It wasn’t just a job, rather it was a way of life! But, the role of being a Park Warden came with many potential dangers. Particularly the danger of coping with inquisitive Black and Grizzly bears. I, like most every other Park Warden I know, have many harrowing bear stories to tell around a camp fire or over a couple of beers. The following
is just one true story that involved me.

It was the spring of 1976. I had just returned to Yoho National Park to carry on the second year of the hydrology study after completing a Master of Science degree at the University of Calgary. My wife and I had had our first child two months before our return. We didn’t have housing prearranged in the park like we had had in the past. At that time, residency was mandatory for Park Wardens, but all Warden houses were occupied. So, we decided to purchase a mobile home and park it in the Boulder Creek Compound trailer court. There were about seven or eight other trailers in the trailer court. None were as large as ours. Some trailers were just small travel trailers set up on blocks. Our mobile home was set up on blocks too, but the trailer was sufficiently high off the ground that the gap needed to be skirted with plywood to keep out animals and cold air from getting underneath.

Normally, a mobile home is skirted as soon as it is set up. I didn’t take care of that task in a timely manner. Skirting the mobile home meant building a wooden frame with plywood attached to enclose the gap between the bottom edge of the mobile home and the ground surface. Unfortunately, the ground surface was not a nice even surface, but rather it was an irregular surface of rocks, pebbles and dirt. Each piece of plywood had to be custom-cut with a jigsaw to match the uneven ground surface. That took multiple measurements and lots of my time in the evenings after work. After I had finished enclosing the two ends and the back side of the mobile home, I slacked off and was not in any big hurry to finish the front side. Simply stated, I was lazy. That would prove to be a big character flaw.

As a Park Warden, I had been made aware that a small black bear about two or three years old was hanging around the staff bunkhouse in the Boulder Creek Compound. This was not an unusual occurrence during the summer months. The bear was likely attracted to the cooking smells and the garbage in the compound area dumpsters, including odours and garbage in the trailer court. I wasn’t too concerned about human safety around the bunkhouse, but I was concerned about the safety of the numerous young children playing in the trailer court. The custom among the families in the trailer court was that if a bear shows up, all the children would quickly and quietly migrate to the nearest trailer and seek safety and shelter inside. The trailer owners usually left their doors unlocked just in case such an event occurred. The safety of the children was paramount.

There was an occasion early in the summer when another bear appeared in the trailer court and the neighbourhood children sought shelter in our mobile home at a time when my wife was enjoying a peaceful shower. The peace was quickly broken when one of the children whipped opened the shower curtain to let my wife know about the bear. There were five smiling faces looked up at her startled face. It was quite traumatising and embarrassing for my wife, but apparently not for the five cute children. But I digress, that is a story for another day.

As I have mentioned, I was aware there was a bear present in the compound and I planned to take steps to remove the bear by setting up a bear trap the next day. About 2 a.m. in the morning of the next day there was an unearthly loud noise in our mobile home. It was so loud that it startled both of us out of a deep sleep. I yelled, “what the hell is that noise?” Actually, my outburst was much more vulgar than that. My first thought as I came out of a deep sleep was that the furnace was acting up. The noise sounded like someone was running a finger along a guitar string accompanied by banging the floor and walls with the guitar. We both jumped out of bed and checked on our new-born son in his crib. He was sound asleep. The noise continued and got louder the further we cautiously crept down the mobile homes’ hallway. Finally, my brain cleared enough for me to realize the noise was coming from beneath the mobile home. I quickly deduced it had to be a bear … likely the same bear that had been seen in the compound for the past day. I jumped up and down on the floor and grabbed a flashlight and started opening the front door a crack to peer outside. It was pitch black. I directed the flashlight around, but all I could see in the dark, even with the aid of the flashlight beam, was a black ball of fur charging out from beneath the mobile home and disappearing into the darkness headed for the trailer where the Park Naturalists were sleeping. I cursed and swore loudly, maybe a little too loudly, at the audacity of the beast attacking me in my own home, failing to appreciate at that moment that I was intruding on the bear’s home turf. In my panicked state of mind, I thought to myself that the bear must have sensed I was planning to trap it and send it down the road the next day. I laughed at that stupid notion because I know bears can’t read minds! They can’t can they?

The noise I made yelling at the bear had awakened the neighbours as their lights came on, but no one ventured outside to see what the ruckus was all about. Good thing! The bear didn’t go very far I guess. My wife and I went back to bed knowing we couldn’t do anything about the intrusion into our private sanctuary until morning. Neither of us slept much for the remainder of the night. My son hadn’t even stirred in his crib; he would be awake soon enough to be fed.

At first light in the morning, I got dressed for work and headed outside to inspect whatever damage had occurred during the night. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised at the damage done, but I was. The plywood floor of the mobile home is insulated, and the insulation is held in place with a cover of thick black tar paper with parallel lines of string embedded in it to reinforce its strength. Part of the tar paper and some insulation was torn out of a small hole from under the
plywood floor directly beneath the small pantry in the mobile home. I can only surmise that the bear must have smelled food stored in the pantry and started to dig through the tar paper and the insulation to get at it. Or it could have been the bear smelled the pleasant scent from the pail holding my son’s dirty diapers. All we know is that we didn’t have any open food stored in the pantry, so we were at a loss to figure out what would have attracted the bear to that particular spot. I realized the funny guitar string noise we had heard the night before was caused by the bear exposing the string embedded in the tar paper and pulling it out of the tar paper along the length of the trailer. It was a strange twangy, tearing sound as it was ripped out of the tar paper. In the dead of night, it was a startling sound!

I set the bear trap up later that morning as soon as I was able to find a trap. By the end of my work day, the bear hadn’t shown its face in the trailer court. So, I changed into some work clothes and got out my tools and set to work cutting the plywood to attach to the wood frame. Rather than listen to me cursing the bear under my breath, my wife chose to take our son to visit the neighbours in the trailer next door. The noise from the jigsaw, hammering and my cursing pretty much drowned out most other ambient noises around me. I was determined to get the opening beneath the mobile home fully enclosed before dark. I wasn’t paying any attention to anything or anyone around me. That is never a wise strategy in a park where wild animals abound. Although I did hear the two crows in the tree in the next site commenting on the quality of my workmanship.

About an hour after I started cutting the plywood skirting to fit the open space, my neighbour’s 10-year old son, who had been observing me working from the safety of his home next door, walked up to me and said, “Mister Reynolds, you are a very brave man.” I asked why he thought that and he said, “That bear came right up behind you and sniffed you.”

I jumped up in shock and spun around on my toes to look behind me and yelled “WHAT BEAR?” He repeated, “yes, the bear that got under your trailer last night creeped up to you and smelled you.” I couldn’t believe my ears. I was shocked to within an inch of my life! I said, “I didn’t see the bear at all. It is a good thing it didn’t want to eat me.” He listened to me for a moment then shook his head and walked back to his parent’s trailer. As he walked in he said to his mother and my wife, “Mr. Reynolds is not so brave after all.” The rest of what he said about me is too humiliating for me to repeat here. My wife agreed with him. She felt it was fitting justice for trapping and relocating so many bears in the past.

I finally finished enclosing the skirting a day later. Meanwhile, being the brave Park Warden I was, I searched throughout the entire compound area for several days looking for that bear. I fully expected it to hang around and continue being a nuisance. I believed the bear had moved on to find other food sources. I never did catch it in the trap that was set for it. Obviously, it was one smart bear; smarter than me that’s for certain. Or was it?

That same summer, Yoho Park Wardens relocated 22 black bears from various parts of the park and Field townsite. Several Wardens teased me that it was probably the same bear that creeped up on me being relocated 22 different times. I felt some sense of satisfaction thinking it was possibly caught 22 times. It was fitting punishment for creeping up on me.

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