It was the summer of 1953, and I was fifteen. My dad contracted with the U.S. Forest Service to eradicate various types of plants that carried half the life cycle of a disease called Blisterthat’s. Blisterthat’s disease killed white pines in the California Sierra Nevada Mountains. The white pines were a major resource and economic driver of the timber industry at the time.
Dad and I worked the previous summer as contractors, and we had a great track record as partners.
We recently were awarded a contract from the forest service through competitive bidding. Our job site was in the Bearskin Meadows about four miles south of Hume Lake in Sequoia National Forest. We estimated it would take about two weeks to clear the required eighty acres in our contract.
One of the hazards we learned to deal with was bears. We saw numerous signs of bears daily, and once we learned how to identify those signs, we knew what they were eating, where they liked to hang out, and how many there were in our immediate area. In Bearskin Meadows there was a dense population of bears.
When you study a bear’s anatomy more closely, it becomes clear the skeletal configuration is similar to that of humans. When we see them in and around the National Parks, they are a slow moving and seemingly gentle. Their scat (droppings) indicate they consume large amounts of berries, plants in blossom, worms, and grubs. So why should one be concerned with a gentle vegetarian?
Dad and I discovered after careful analysis of their scat that the bears in the area ate large amounts of deer meat. “How could that be?”, we wondered. If they are lovable, slow moving creatures, then how do they catch deer? Dad and I would soon find out they can chase them down and kill them.
About 7:30 a.m. one morning, Dad and I were headed back to work in Bearskin Meadows, and to our delight a young black bear ambled out into the dirt road. Dad drove our old Chevy pickup, and said excitedly, “I wonder how fast he can run?” There were embankments on either side, because the road was cut through a rise to keep it fairly level. Dad eased up behind the bear so as to get him running, but he did not apply too much pressure for the bear to bolt to the side of the embankment. The bear shot off like a rocket!
“Steve, I would never believe this unless we saw it now with our own eyes. He’s doing 38 miles per hour!” Dad exclaimed. We ran him down the road for over a quarter of a mile before he headed up a steep road bank to escape. By the time he exited, he was breathing heavily and had started to slow quickly. His sudden burst of speed during his sprint was incredible. “No wonder we found whitetail deer. They simply out run them in short sprints!” Dad volunteered. I was really impressed.
As we drove toward our work site I thought of how much danger tourists unknowingly placed themselves when they feed bears candy and bread in the parks and even get out and close to the bears for photos. What if those bears wanted more to eat? Humans would have no chance to outrun if deer could not do so. People would be killed in an instant!
From that time on, Dad and I would sing and whistle loudly as we walked through the woods. It was easy for the government inspectors and forest rangers to find us when they came out to check our work or check on our safety. They would say “You guys are the happiest crew in the woods!” Dad and I would smile and reply “Yes we are!”
How fast can bears run? After our bear chase, we knew it was very fast. We studied all about bears, and we knew if bears could hear you coming, they would avoid your location. The chances of any confrontation are small. That day our young bear friend would likely have happily signed onto that motto of avoidance instead of sprinting with two excited humans and a machine on his tail.