Beware Of Grizzly Bears In Montana
“You’re in that part of the Lower 48 that has the highest concentration of Grizzly bears, so don’t burn or bury your garbage,” said Ranger Ralph. My wife, Laurie, and I did our best to disguise our reactions.
He went on to inform us that we’d be living in a one-room log cabin—sans running water or electricity (there were no cell phones at the time, either, mind you)—30 miles outside of town, the last 4 miles of which was a state road, nothing more than a couple of parallel, gravely ruts leading deep into a dense forest of lodgepole pines.
A Moose Sighting We Will Never Forget
We hadn’t gotten more than a half mile into the forest before I abruptly stopped our little Toyota hatchback. There, not more than a few yards off to our right, staring at us through a handful of trees and some brush, was a large male moose about the size of our car. It felt like we were in a zoo–only we were the ones being observed. We slowly drove on without saying a word to each other.
It was the summer of 1982. Laurie and I had volunteered with the U.S. National Forest Service to spend a month clearing trails, as well as to help out around the West Yellowstone, Montana, District smoke-jump center which trained and dispatched folks to parachute in to fight raging forest fires. Crazy, I know.
Staring Down The Barrel Of A Gun
Outlanders from Washington, DC, we had no idea what we were in for.
The stories that came out of that summer are endless, but one in particular stands out to me, and it isn’t about Grizzlies, smoke-jumpers or forest fires.
We met while I was staring down the 8-inch barrel of his .357 magnum Dan-Wesson six- gun revolver, complete with wooden handle.
Laurie and I had just returned to our cabin in the woods after spending one of our days off in Bozeman (it took us a while to get used to our primitive abode and majestic, rugged surroundings, but now it was our home and we were quite fond and possessive of it). It was 10:30 pm. A pitch dark, ugly night, made even darker and uglier by a heavy, steady rainfall.
From our headlights Laurie noticed a horse trailer, then a horse hitched to one of the posts that held up the overhang in front of our cabin. I spotted a dog, which looked more like a wolf, lying chained under the trailer, large but quiet. On the porch, under the overhang, was a hulk wrapped in a blanket.
“Howdy,” I yelled to the hulk from the car.”
“Where do you come from back East?” the hulk replied.
“Is the dog OK?” I asked.
“Are you the ranger?” the hulk responded.
“Is the dog OK?” I repeated.
“Yeah, he’s OK”, the hulk said in a raspy, sleepy voice.
By the time I made it to the porch I noticed this large pistol that had been tracking me getting put back into its holster.
“Hey, you didn’t have to do that,” I said leaning back, with a slight quiver in my voice.
“Didn’t mean to scare ya, but you can never be certain out here.”
The Hulk’s Identity Revealed
And so we met Pat Meagher.
He was very apologetic about “bargin’ in” on us. Yet here was this stranger who stood over 6’ tall, probably weighing in at 220 pounds, with a pock-marked face, a few teeth missing, sporting an unkempt beard and a wool cap covering his scraggly hair—not to mention packing a gun he wasn’t hesitant to take out of its holster.
Laurie was still in the car. What to do?
Sifting through options, my mind was racing a mile a minute. I could play the heavy, tell him to take his horse and dog and move on—and risk raising his ire. Or welcome him in out of the rain and go with what I hoped would be a positive flow. Besides, I wanted to believe that if he was truly up to no good he could have easily busted the lock on our door and made himself comfortable right from the start. Quite frankly I felt cornered.
A Conversation Over Tea
So, with fingers crossed I called Laurie from the car, stoked the cook stove with wood, boiled water for tea—and the conversation just flowed from there.
Pat said he found out about our cabin from someone in town who had given him directions as to how to get here. How he found the place on such a dark and rainy night still baffles me.
Pat said he was from upstate New York—Laurie’s and my home state—and identified himself as an Irish-Catholic- French Canadian-left-handed Democrat. Said he was a boilermaker by trade, and that it took him 11 years of going to school part time to get a degree in geophysics, after which he worked on seismic boats all over the world, charting and examining the ocean floors.
Sometime during the 1970s, he made his way to Alaska to work on the pipeline as a boilermaker, walked away a couple of years later with a fist full of dollars and bought a bunch of land in Colorado where he built a log cabin. He and a couple of his buddies started a packing/outfitting business that guided wealthy clients during the hunting season. When we encountered him, he was traveling to northern Montana to meet up with some clients.
The hours went by quickly and we talked about everything from literature to the arts, science and music. On top of it all, Pat had a fine sense of humor.
“Excuse my whistling,” he joked at one point when the air passed through his upper lip. He must have had at least four or five missing teeth, and when he smiled he revealed this gaping wind tunnel.
It was getting on to 2 am. The butter-yellow light still emanating from our Coleman lantern silhouetted the three of us on the walls of our remote mountain retreat. But by then we were all exhausted.
Feeling much more comfortable than when we first met, I offered Pat our loft for the night. He politely refused.
“You’ve got bears around here. Bears and horses don’t mix well,” he said, smiling. “I’d feel better sleeping outside with my horse and my dog.”
In full disclosure I slept with one eye open that night, yet excited that we were going to wake up to this very interesting character.
Seeing Pat In The Daylight
Next morning, I convinced Pat to spend the day with us, and after a hearty breakfast we went fishing in the beaver pond just a hundred or so yards from our cabin where most mornings Laurie and I would spot a family of moose as we brushed our teeth in our outdoor water basin.
Between us Pat and I caught 15 six-inch rainbow trout. We popped those trout on our cook stove, and the three of us enjoyed a midday meal worthy of our mutual experience—extraordinary!
Pat left shortly thereafter. “Now all I need is another place for a man, a horse and his dog.” He hugged Laurie, laughed and said she must have the patience of Job. And off he went.
By the way, we didn’t see a bear the entire summer.