Campsite Six – Black Bear
Dark, dusty clouds puffed up behind the crackling, curving tires as the park ranger drove slowly along the gravel road. It was 6:00 p.m., dusk, and he had to get his rounds in before sunset, then back to the station and waiting game of euchre.
The rounds were routine, especially after eight years on the job. A nod to a set of campers here, a stop to secure a bear-proof garbage bin there. It didn’t pay much, but it was relaxing and enjoyable work.
Once in a while he had to evict campers who brought their troubles with them. Too much beer and open air often led to unbridled tongues most came to escape.
He’d make one more round at 10:30 p.m., after curfew, to defuse any issues or loud exchanges. With park policy delivered in a friendly manner, and a small pistol that looked bigger in its holster, Pete was pretty effective. Calmed rowdies beat it to their canvas cells in order to preserve a second chance the next morning.
He enjoyed mornings at camp the most. Dogs strung to owners walking the gravel road, fishermen coming back from their early catch, and weak grins on pickled faces still recovering from the night before. But Stu had morning rounds this weekend, leaving Pete peering through the dusk.
Just a few more spots to check along the horseshoe-shaped loop as campers started evening fires. Sites were evenly spaced, with a good amount of land in between.
A camper’s happy place.
A few sites at the northern bend of the horseshoe were set farther back, making his cruiser tiptoe over rocky crevices to reach them. Pete drove around the bend to Campsite #6, squinting to see any activity. Flashing his high-powered lantern across the tree-shadowed lot, he spotted the Jeep and license plate, matching it to the occupant’s registration. He didn’t see anyone building a fire for an evening meal. He made a mental note as he turned to slope out of the secluded area and back to the station.
“All’s quiet at the gate,” Pete said. The area got its nickname from the tall twin pines that shot up side by side like a daunting entrance to forbidden grounds. Most campers didn’t notice them, focusing on those closest to the path instead. Anyone who did stood with head raised and gasped, “Look at how tall those trees are!”
“Just one empty site, and one wandering camper,” Pete said, dropping his keys heavily on the worn wood table. “I’ll check again at 10:30.”
The group of rangers returning from rounds made similar remarks.
“Can you believe the folks who leave their garbage scraps and bags of Doritos laying around?” Stu said with a shake of his head. “Serves ’em right if they meet a black bear poking around for dessert.”
His cohorts found it just as frustrating. Campers who came to escape the city seldom bothered themselves with the dangers of the forest, even when numerous signs were posted about fast water and wildlife: “YOU ARE IN BEAR COUNTRY. Please keep all food and garbage in bear-proof containers or in your vehicle.”
Stu wanted to tag the sign, “OR YOU’LL MEET YOUR MAKER!”
“Whose deal is it?” an anonymous voice said to get the euchre game back in motion.
Pete sat down at the small table with a mug of coffee, ready to play for the next few hours. When it was quiet in the camp, the rangers settled into sleepy routine; then most headed home leaving the 10:30 rounds to the late shift. They had to be back to sweep for black bears before the early birds, mostly fishermen, popped sleepy heads out of tents in the morning.
If bears were around, it was better to steer them away before word got out.
Curious campers, with their Isn’t the cub so cute? statements, and cameras drawing them just a little closer! made the rangers concerned for safety—and, God forbid, any big stories hitting the morning news.
Campsite #6 was quiet and shadowed by nightfall, with heavy claw prints impressed firmly in the forest floor.
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Camping in Death Valley by Paxson Woelber. Used with permission.