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In Those Days, Everyone Fed The Bears In Yellowstone

In Those Days, Everyone Fed The Bears In Yellowstone

Every writer secretly believes that, given the perfect setting, he or she could create a masterpiece.

Unfortunately, most of us are trying to unleash our creativity in sterile cubicles, at sticky kitchen tables or cluttered desks. 

All those novels and memoirs, unwritten due to improper writing conditions.

Pity.

This past weekend, with temperatures in the teens and southeastern Virginia looking like a frozen tundra, I set out to change that.

It was the perfect time to enlist my daughter to help me clear out 25 years worth of detritus from my home office: that quiet, sunny room with four windows, ceiling-high bookshelves and an oversized custom desk that a contractor built for me in 1991.

Over the years it’s become the final resting place for loose photos, old Christmas cards - who the heck are the Cartwrights, anyhow? - piles of cancelled checks, warranties for appliances that died a decade ago, and receipts. So many freaking receipts.

Did you know that a family dental plan cost just $11 a month in 1994? 

Using the Kondo method - Marie Kondo wrote “the life-changing magic of tidying up” - which urges followers to keep only items that “spark” joy, I ruthlessly discarded and shredded a mountain of clutter. Together, my kid and I tried to avoid falling into rabbit holes when we stumbled on her letters from camp, an envelope with my son’s ringlets from his first haircut, or the last will and testament of a cousin in Pennsylvania. 

“I still haven‘t gotten that bracelet she left me,” my daughter groused.

But she was quickly distracted by two faded snapshots in the bottom of a drawer.

“What’re these?” she asked.

“Oh my God,” I laughed, staring at the blurry photos I snapped half a century ago with my Brownie camera. “Those are pictures of the bear that charged my mother in Yellowstone.”

In 1964 we piled into the family station wagon and drove to Wyoming with the way back of the Dodge stocked with cartons of Vanilla Wafers and Graham crackers. 

A friend of my dad’s at work told him that’s what bears liked best. And he said we’d better be prepared for the famous “bear jams” when we got there. Families with insufficient supplies of junk food missed out on all the fun.

In those days, everyone fed the bears in Yellowstone, despite signs urging you to stay a safe distance away. The bears were fat and lazy. They sat along the roadsides like furry bums and waited for tourists to toss them snacks. 

In a long jam, a battalion of bears would amble from car to car looking for handouts.  

We’d had a good run during our week in the national park. We’d fed dozens of bears and even had a couple hang onto the windows of the car and run alongside when we tried to drive away.

My dad’s buddy was right. They were mad for Vanilla Wafers.

On our final day we were down to our last box of cookies when we spied a mama bear and two cubs behind a log not far from the road.

She wasn’t begging. But that didn’t deter the Doughertys.

“Get out and feed her,” my father urged my mother, as he picked up the 8mm movie camera to capture the heartwarming scene for a home movie.

Mom eagerly grabbed the box and jumped out. 

As expected, the mother bear was delighted with the Wafers. Maybe it was my imagination, but she seemed to be smiling at my mom. They were sharing some kind of mother-of-two connection.

“They’re so cute,” my mom called, pointing to the cubs. “I could just pet them.”

“Probably not a good idea,” Dad called back, but I could tell, he thought it would make a helluva highlight for the movie.

“Sorry, that’s all I have,” my mother apologized to the mama bear, turning to shake the box upside down for the camera.

 Mama bear charging my mama. 

Mama bear charging my mama. 

With that, the bear growled and barreled over the log, heading straight for Mom, who was still mugging for Dad.

“Run!” my father yelled, dropping his movie camera.

“Get this,” he ordered me.

Hands shaking on my point-and-shoot, I managed to snap one picture as the bear chased my mother.

I got another once she jumped breathlessly into the passenger side of the car. The bear thudded against the door and stuck her head in the open window.

Dad gunned the engine and we took off.

“That was great!”  he hooted, “I didn’t know you could run that fast.”

 Look closely. You can see the bear’s claws inside the car, and the reflection of an empty box of cookies...

Look closely. You can see the bear’s claws inside the car, and the reflection of an empty box of cookies...

“Tell your mother you’re proud of her,” he said to us.

“Proud of you, Mom,” we chorused from the back seat. 

The National Park Service put an end to bear feeding in Yellowstone in the early 1970s, after an average of 48 visitors a summer were injured by bears.

 We got there just in time.

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