That time I got attacked by a bear in Harney County, Oregon

by Angela Perez

Since I’ve moved back to my beloved Raleigh, NC, many of you have asked me about my recent, brief two-year stint in Oregon.  I’ve told the following story many times and a while back I wrote it down.  I’d like to share it with you now.

Scree, canyon, coyote and bear

Back in 2010, I decided to leave the South and move to Baker City, Oregon.  Before I moved to eastern Oregon, I had done my research.  I knew that the wild and remote area featured high desert country, no humidity, lots of snow in winter, a sparse population and no good places to find grits, sweet tea or fried chicken.  But I didn’t know of the drastic variety of the landscape.  One minute you’re cruising down the road through an endless vista of sagebrush flats, and the next, you’re maneuvering your way up the backside of an alpine forest-covered mountain.   There’s a canyon near Baker City, called Hell’s Canyon, along the border with western Idaho, that’s one of North America’s deepest river gorges.  The gorge was carved out by the ancient Snake River, alongside wheremany Oregon Trail pioneers met an unhappy demise.

One weekend, I went down into the southern parts of Harney County in the far southeast for a solo weekend camping trip.   I’d been to Burns, the county seat down there, many times for work reasons.  And I’d always marveled that Burns marks the border to some other universe – a doorway leading into a vast alien landscape of jagged rim rock and cooled lava beds stretching down into Nevada. The land there is a place where man is welcome to visit, but remain at his own peril if he doesn’t understand the laws of coyote, canyon, and scree.

 

Steens Mountain sits in Harney County, a remote and wild part of southeastern Oregon. Steens Mountain sits in Harney County, a remote and wild part of southeastern Oregon.

Steens Mountain sits in Harney County, a remote and wild part of southeastern Oregon.

As the summer was coming to a close, I noticed the calendar was edging dangerously close to snow season so, one Saturday, I got up bright and early, pulled out a map, loaded up the car with my camping gear and my dog – a half-beagle, half-basset hound named Tater, and headed to no-man’s land around noontime.  I decided that we were going to camp on Steens Mountain at Fish Lake, a little Aspen-speckled campground about 7,400 feet up the mountain.

Harney County is referred to by many Oregonians as no-man’s land. They have a point. Oregon’s largest county, with a total population of just over 7,400 hardy souls, is out there. Sagebrush and buttes.  Gorges and wild mustangs. Parched desert and hot springs.  But not a lot of people.

There in all of that solitude and epic ruggedness, one can almost hear geological formations happening and the gears of time moving the earth’s mantle.  The naked red basalt stacks and mountain-gouging winds move across the landscape, at different paces, but each as gnawing powerfully on your senses at any given moment.  Contemplating the Alvord Desert from atop the 9,700-foot peak of Steens Mountain, I stood small and silent and a little bit nervous as I felt the earth’s crust wrap itself around a core of seething magma.

But I digress into melodrama.  Back to the impromptu camping trip.

As I got to the little village of Frenchglen – population 12 – at the base of the mountain and turned left on a lonely dirt road knows as the Backcountry Byway, I began to question the wisdom of taking a camping trip alone.  Perhaps somewhere up there among those quaking aspens and cottonwood trees lurked a bear that would eat Tater as an appetizer and then have me as an entrée.  I was, however, sort of ready for bears at this point.  All summer I had been readying up on how to survive a bear attack.

My friends in Baker City found my fear of bears on the mountain hilarious.  “There aren’t any bears up there,” said one of my girlfriends one night a few weeks before as we sipped beers at Barley Brown’s, a local brewery in Baker City.  “But that doesn’t mean you should take camping trips alone.”   That evening, we hoped hot and lonely cowboys would saunter in for a cold beer and some warm company.  But none ever came through the door.

Back to the Steens.

As I got to the little village of Frenchglen – population 12 – at the base of the mountain and turned left on a lonely dirt road knows as the Backcountry Byway, I began to question the wisdom of taking a camping trip alone.  Perhaps somewhere up there among those quaking aspens and cottonwood trees lurked a bear that would eat Tater as an appetizer and then have me as an entrée.  I was, however, sort of ready for bears at this point.  All summer I had been readying up on how to survive a bear attack.

I wound my way up the mountain, Tater hanging out the passenger’s side window, and arrived at Fish Lake’s campground, a secluded little stretch that skirts all the way around a rather small, unremarkable lake.  I found the perfect camp spot among a little grotto of trees and soft tussocks of long grass, and pitched the tent just two feet from the lake’s abrupt edge.  I then set up a lounge chair.  Tater and I sat by the lake-side and watched fish jumping, while a nice fat ribeye steak sizzled on the portable grill.  Well, I watched the fish jump and Tater watched the ribeye.

I started to get nervous as the sun went down and families were leaving the campground to head home after a long day of fishing.  Eventually, there was just me about a half-dozen other families scattered around the lake’s shore.

After supper, I left my tent flap open, stretched out on my air mattress and marveled as the sun cast its warm golden glow onto the hills surrounding the eastern rim of the lake.  Then, without a warning, night fell and the wind started to blow like crazy.  I had read in one of my Harney County brochures I picked up at the chamber of commerce in Burns that winds come out of nowhere on the mountain at this elevation. I called my dog into the tent, zipped up the flap and proceeded to try and sleep.  The wind was whipping up little waves on the lake and the sound was so close I felt I was sleeping in a canoe.

“Ah, the sound of waves.  Perfect for inducing sleep!,” thought I.  What could there to be scared of?

And then it happened.  I heard a very distinct snuffling sound outside the tent.  I tensed up.  Tater was already sacked out snoring.  Was it a bear?   Paralyzed with fear, I sat straight up.  The snuffling got louder- it was definitely a bear.  Or a porcupine with a cold.  Either way, I was in a tight spot.

I briefly contemplated leaving my dog, Tater, behind to handle the intruder. Don't tell Tater about this.

I briefly contemplated leaving my dog, Tater, behind to handle the intruder. Don’t tell Tater about this.

The minutes dragged by as I frantically cooked up a plan of action, which was as follows:  unzip the tent as fast as lightening and quickly shine my flashlight into the eyes of the intruder, blinding whatever had invaded our campsite.  I would then make a mad dash for the car, hoping that Tater – who was still asleep – would spring into action. I wasn’t quite sure what would happen after that, but I figured it would all sort itself out.

As I yanked down hard on the zipper to open the tent flap, the zipper got caught in the fabric and ripped the lining all the way around the opening.  After finally tearing open the ripped flap, I whipped out my flashlight to blind whatever it was with the bright light.  With a frantic flourish, I clicked the “on” button, but instead of a flood of searing light, there was nothing but a weary trickle of tired yellow light that barely lit up the ground in front of the tent.

“What the…?!?” I shouted, shaking the flashlight until the light went out altogether.  Oh, good gracious, I’m going to die out here on this mountain all alone, I thought, while my dog is passed out on the air mattress.

I shook the flashlight again and shone it around.  There was just enough light to identify the trespasser.  It was, in fact, a paperback book.

To be exact, it was A Walk in the Woods, by travel writer Bill Bryson.  I had been reading his camping stories to see how Bill handled bear attacks while hiking the Appalachian Trail.  The book had fallen out of my backpack and the cover fluttered in the high winds, scraping the front of my tent.

To be fair, there is a bear on the cover of the book, so there was a bear attack element to the entire debacle.  Meanwhile, as I stood there feeling foolish, Tater snored even louder.  I sat down in front of my mangled tent and looked out over the lake, feeling the adrenaline leach away from limbs, head, and heart.  After an hour of staring up at the millions of stars in the ink-black sky above, I crawled back into my tent and promptly fell asleep, dreaming of the South and of camping trips where the biggest threat was a curious ‘possum.

 

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