Scene: a dark, frigid night on the outskirts of Mammoth Lakes, a town in the Eastern Sierra. A young mother, scratch that, a late-30-something mother is home alone with her two daughters while her husband is out of town.
Time: 10:45 at night.
DRAMATIS PERSONAE (Cast of Characters:) one adorable 6 year old girl, we’ll call her ‘C,’ and one darling 4 year old girl, we’ll call her, ‘L,’ are both sound asleep in their bunk beds.
Charlotte, the mother (that's me) – 5’4”, 133lbs. Can do lots of push-ups. Has strong mama-bear instincts.
MISSING: Eric, the husband, is out of town. Eric is strong and brave and as far as I’m concerned, he is our body guard.
He has muscles too. You can see them here.
They’re peeking out of his sleeves, see?
Muscles. He has them.
What was I talking about? I got distracted. Oh yes, bears. Mammoth. Right. So Eric wasn’t in town. Got it?
1. the 911 operator
2. the police officer
3. and the BEAR.
Scene 1: The mother is in her bed about to fall asleep for the evening.
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I had been sick as a dog for the last five days. I’m talking the kind of sick that nobody likes to talk or read about. Coughing, hacking, sputum, and mounds of tissues were left in my wake. My throat was still raw and my voice was froggy. While I normally describe myself as a strong person, I was physically weak and fatigued. Eric had gone out of town for work so I soldiered on, parenting while sick, which always blows.
After getting the girls to sleep, then doing the dishes, and preparing for the next day of parenting and life, I had finally gotten into bed. It was the first night in four nights that I thought I could sleep without Nyquil, so I turned out the lights, put on my sleep mask and popped in my ear plugs (I sleep best when I can deaden out my senses.) I was just on the precipice of a delicious slumber when I heard a loud bang. It was muffled through the ear plugs, but it was a sound I couldn’t ignore. If Eric had been home, I would have assumed he was upstairs causing a racket, but alas, I was the only adult in the house, and both of my kids were snoring in their bedroom. It was the kind of sound that one knew immediately they would have to go investigate.
Deep down, I knew it was a bear. I jumped from bed, whipped off my eye mask and tried to think of other rational reasons for the sound. Perhaps it had gotten windy outside and something had been knocked down. A quick glance out my window showed the trees still and un-moving. No wind.
Bam, Bam, Bam.
Someone or something was banging on the house. A pure surge of adrenaline coursed through my body starting from my stomach and bursting up my spine, past my heart, and into my mouth. I could taste the adrenaline on my tongue and had an immediate urge to vomit.
It’s a bear. Where are the kids? You know where the kids are. Get the bear spray. Get the phone. Go.
But where the fuck was the bear? It was making a huge racket and I was scared it was upstairs in the house.
Earlier that day I had picked up the mail and in it, I kid you not, were two cans of bear spray I had ordered for the upstairs and downstairs and two holders for the canisters. Of course, I hadn’t unwrapped the cans. They were both upstairs tightly wrapped in bubble wrap on the kitchen counter.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
I ran upstairs and quickly glanced to the front door and patio door. Nothing open or broken. I poked my head around to see if it had come in the kitchen window, no. Good. I quickly grabbed a pair of scissors and sliced up the bubble wrap and grabbed one of the cans. Then I ran back downstairs and planted myself in the hallway in front of the girls’ bedroom door. I could see the downstairs entrance at the other end of the hallway.
The banging continued. It sounded like it was trying to get IN to something. I couldn’t pinpoint its exact location but it was loud and forceful and either the dumbest fucking robber in the world, or a bear.
“911, what is your emergency?”
“There’s a bear outside my house. I’m home alone with two small children.” My voice was shaky and gravely from the chest cold.
“A bear? What’s it doing? Just walking around?” She seemed nonchalant.
“NO! It’s banging!”
“Like on the door?” her voice grew more interested, but still not that concerned.
“YES! I mean it’s banging on something. I don’t know what it’s trying to do. I’m home alone!”
“Okay, we’ll send an officer right out.” And then she hung up.
WTF? Aren’t they supposed to stay on the line with you and tell you it will all be okay? OMG, I need comfort here, lady! My back was wet with a cold sweat.
I stood shaking at the end of that hallway with the can of bear spray just pointed forward in the general direction of the sound.
I called Eric. I cannot believe he picked up. He usually goes to bed really early when he is out traveling but he answered and my words spilled out over themselves, “There’s a bear, there’s a bear, I called 911, the police are coming, please stay on the phone with me.”
He immediately began assessing the situation and trying to get me to answer questions. I knew it was his way of getting me to calm down. Are the girls safe? Yes. Are the doors locked? YES (lol). He kept asking questions and then I heard C’s voice, she was crying.
Unsurprisingly, my panicked phone calls to 911 and then to Eric had woken her up. L, our 4 year old, slept through the ENTIRE event. Kids amaze me. C was scared because I was scared. She had heard the banging too. It stopped while I was on the phone call with Eric but we all waited, expecting for it to start up again.
“Stay in your bed so I know you and L are in the same room. I’m going to go wait for the police to come, ok?”
I ventured upstairs and scanned all the windows for any movement. From the top stair I could see our driveway and our cars. This reminded me that this wasn’t our first encounter with a bear. No, last November, a black bear got into my Subaru and the door shut behind him. He couldn’t get out and he destroyed the car trying to escape. You can read about that little escapade here. As a quick visual reminder of what a bear can do, here are just a few photos of my now defunct vehicle.
Scene 2: The police officer arrives
I saw his headlights and a very bright spotlight bouncing up the road and felt instant relief. Thank god there was a responsible adult headed my way. What would we do without brave-ass first-responders? Seriously? So thankful for them. I hung up with Eric but did not go out to meet him. Instead I waited until he cased the driveway and I heard him walk up the front steps. What if the bear is on the front porch? But the officer had a gun so I waited for him to knock on the door which told me that at least the front porch was clear.
I can only imagine how I looked when I opened the door. Small, in fuzzy pajamas, hair askew, soaked in sweat, and clutching a can of bear spray, my finger firmly on the nozzle top. I explained what had happened and almost burst into tears from relief at seeing him.
“Will you check the back porch too?” my voice croaked.
“Take deep breaths. You’re going to be okay.” He was reassuring and in charge of the situation and it was exactly the attitude I needed at that second. “Are there any fire arms in the house?” (Translation, are you going to shoot me while I’m walking around inspecting your house outside?) Smart man.
“No.” I quivered in response.
“Okay, I’m going to walk around the perimeter and see if it’s gone. I’ll come back to this door and knock again.”
The level of relief I had now that he was there was palpable. His flashlight was unbelievably bright, so I surveyed the property with him, but from inside the house, moving from window to window and following his light as he flashed it all around outside. He came back and knocked.
“Where does that downstairs door lead to?”
“To our house!”
“Oh, is it okay if I come in and inspect it?”
All I could think was, are you kidding? Can you come in? How about can you STAY tonight? I will make you cookies and coffee and let you play the PS4 to your heart’s content, just stay here and keep watch while we sleep!!!!
But I didn’t say that. That would have been inappropriate and police officers have to police stuff and protect the rest of the town from these crazy ass bears.
I just said, ‘yes, of course!’ and showed him downstairs. He opened the door and stepped out onto the porch. In a second I heard him say, ‘ah!’ and then he poked his head around and gestured to me.
“Do you have food stored down there?” We were both outside looking at the side of the house. The bear had ripped off a bunch of wood paneling from the side of the house. It looked like he was trying to get IN to the unfinished crawl space under the house. We had nothing stored under there. We could also see the bear’s tracks walking away from the house which gave me some measure of relief.
I asked the officer if he would say hello to C and tell her everything was okay and he agreed. We went into her room and at first I thought she had fallen back asleep.
“C, are you awake?”
She shot up to a seated position, throwing the covers off from over her head. This flashed me back to childhood and times when I had been scared and the only thing I could do was put the blankets over my head too.
The Sergeant was super kind and he spoke to her in a calm voice talking about his two children. He told her it would be okay and she could go back to sleep and then he and I went upstairs.
His presence had been supremely reassuring but I knew he needed to go and I hated the thought of trying to sleep the rest of the night not knowing if the bear was going to come back and do more Ursid home décor.
“I don’t know your personal views on fire arms, but living in an area like this, you might want to consider getting some guns. I’d suggest a 12 gauge shotgun, nothing less than 12 gauge.”
I nodded. We weren’t opposed to guns, but it wasn’t something we had yet looked into for the house up here. “Or consider getting a revolver. This is a semi-automatic,” he motioned to the fire arm on his waist. “But I practice with it all the time. If you needed to grab a gun and you were shaking or upset, you might drop the clip. If you get a revolver, you could just bang, bang, bang, but you’d need to get a big enough one to take down a bear.”
I kept nodding and the adrenaline that that finally started to ease began to ball up again my stomach.
“If we had been stalled getting here and the bear had broken down the door, you’d need something to stop it. I don’t think that bear spray would do much good. Consider barricading yourself in a room with the girls. Move a bed in front of the door.”
Now he was freaking me out. I mean, these are the kind of scenarios I play out in my head. This is why I had bought the two bear spray canisters to have on the top and bottom levels of the house. Here he was literally playing out my worst fears blow by blow.
“Okay, thank you officer. I’ll talk to my husband about it.”
“If the bear comes back, just call 911 again and we’ll be back here.”
The rest of the night was hard. C couldn’t get to sleep and I was wired. I called Eric back to let him know it had indeed been a bear and to tell him about the damage to the house.
“Take a sleeping pill,” he urged. “You need to get some sleep.”
“ARE YOU CRAZY? I HAVE TO PROTECT MY FAMILY.” I felt like I was literally saying what my adrenaline was thinking. “I'll have to sleep with one eye open!” : cue Metallica :
“The bear isn’t coming back. It’s probably halfway down Old Mammoth road and getting into the dumpsters down there.”
C slept in bed with me but try as I might, I couldn’t sleep. Around 2am I finally decided to take a half dose of Nyquil. I figured it would tranquilize me enough to maybe, possibly, sleep, but I wouldn’t be too groggy if I had to spring up and go into action. I slept fitfully for a few hours, coughing and hacking, and generally bemoaning the entire evening’s events.
Scene 3: In the Light of Day
This morning I woke up and after getting the girls ready for the day and imbibing coffee, I headed out to see the damage.
Dang, bear. Why are you so angry?
This was at least confirmation as to what had sounded like the bear ripping into something. He was. He was ripping into the side of my house!
You can see a couple scratches on the top left of this photo below. That is the door to the crawl space. The bear didn’t seem to know where the actual entrance was. And to think it is just held in place with one loose screw...
I decided to follow his tracks and see where he went after our place.
He headed down the slope and I followed. I made sure to look up into the trees as I walked because black bears can climb trees like they’re freaking super heroes.
: shudder :
I found this tree with all the bark pulled off it, but there were no bear tracks nearby, so perhaps that just happened naturally? It was twinning with the side of my house.
The dude apparently sauntered away to my neighbor’s yard and then circled back to the other side of the street. See his tracks in this photo?
Here, let me zoom in. The tracks are above the yellow line.
The girls and I headed into town and sure enough, Eric was right. The bear had hit the first dumpster we encountered. Trash was everywhere.
I talked to my friend, Rosanne, about what had happened and she suggested I call Steve Searles. Steve is called ‘The Bear Whisperer.’ There’s even a show about him and his work with bears in Mammoth on YouTube.
I left him a voicemail, introduced myself, and asked if he would be willing to come see why he thought the bear was attacking the side of the house and if there was anything we could do to bear-proof our house further. A little while later he called me back. He had laryngitis but he briefly croaked out that I should get some moth balls and place them by where the bear had tried to dig.
Right. So, mothballs as a rec from the bear expert.
A 12 gauge as a rec from the police officer.
And every study I had ever read said that bear spray was extremely effective as a last ditch deterrent.
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Post script: for as much comedy as I used in this writing, I will tell you that I don’t take any of last night’s events lightly. I was really fucking scared, and sometimes using humor can help you work through fear and get you back to a rational mindset.
For anyone who is going to say that they wouldn’t be scared being alone, with two small kids, while a bear was doing who knows what to the exterior of their house, I will respond simply with ‘you literally have no idea what you are talking about.’ So zip it.
For anyone who is going to suggest that we ‘just get a dog.’ No. The answer is no. We don’t want a dog. You go get a dog and pet it and give it a treat for me.
For anyone who is going to suggest we don’t get guns, zip it. If we get guns, we’ll do it responsibly.
For anyone who is going to yell at the people telling us not to get guns, zip it. We’re grown ass adults and there’s no need to berate anyone about their choice to not use fire arms.
We are really glad we moved here. I get it that bears come with living in the Sierras.
I still wish they wouldn’t attack my car and my house.
Me + a can of bear spray didn’t feel like much protection when it came down to it, but them’s the breaks. We’re all safe which is what matters.
I did go and buy some moth balls. And yes, I know they are dangerous for children, and no, my children don't go by that part of the of the house, and yes, we talked about why they are dangerous, and yes, I know these could hurt little critters. The Bear Whisperer himself suggested this. Sooooooo zip it.
For good measure, I also bought a sturdy dowel and cut it to size to fit in the sliding glass doors of the house. I should have done that sooner, so now that's taken care of too.
Here's hoping my bear stories have come to a forever end.
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