We had finished setting up our tent in the woods and decided to take a quick look at the meadow a little ways down the hill. We wouldn’t be gone too long, we thought, and didn’t bring anything with us, not even a knife. After all, we weren’t expecting trouble.
“It looks pretty dry,” you said as we stepped out of the pines. “I don’t think there will be many wildflowers this year.”
A chill breeze swept by and I looked up at the overcast sky. Beyond the trees stood a range of mountains that would usually be covered in snow, but the winter had fallen short in that department. Drought was on everyone’s mind.
“Where did we find that bear cub a few years back?” I asked.
“It was up that way,” you said, pointing toward the far end of the long meadow. “We were camped on the other side of the hill that time.”
We had found an infant grizzly bear with his leg caught in a pile of dead branches and logs that had been stacked on the ground by someone, perhaps while clearing a trail. The cub’s front right leg was wedged in the crack of a split branch, which in turn was held in place by several logs. The bear had probably climbed up on the pile while exploring, then slipped and got stuck.
Claw marks on the wood showed where the cub’s mother had tried to free him. She was nowhere to be seen, so we approached the cub, who whimpered in pain. We worried that his leg might be broken, but managed to get it out by untangling some branches, then lifting up the forty-pound cub while easing his foreleg to a wider part of the crack — a tricky operation that couldn’t be accomplished by an adult bear, no matter how frantic or determined she was.
After we set him free the little guy looked us over then limped off, calling for his mama. We hoped he could recover from his injury. That was four years ago.
“Speaking of bears…” I said.
“Right. We’d better get back to camp to hang up our food.”
That’s when we noticed movement in the trees on the other side of the meadow. “Something’s over there,” I said.
We watched as three or four wolves appeared. They had caught our scent and stood gazing at us as a dozen more wound their way through the trees and joined the pack standing in the short, dry grass. They seemed intensely interested in us. A few began slinking forward in a hunting posture and the others followed.
“That’s unusual,” you said. “They’re heading this way.”
Wolves don’t normally attack people, but the winter had been hard on them. Rabbits and other game were scarce that year. Plus, it wasn’t a lone animal encountering a couple of humans, but a pack of about fifteen hungry wolves within sight of their next meal. We were on the menu, apparently.
“I’m not sure we should stay here in the open,” I said. You agreed.
We started to walk back toward the trees. The wolves broke into a run, some of them coming straight at us while others fanned out on either side. They quickly crossed the meadow and had us surrounded by the time we reached the edge of the woods. Most of them looked thin, almost emaciated, with ribs showing through mangy fur. They surveyed their prey with desperation in their eyes.
I found a fallen branch and broke off a good-sized stick, long enough to use as a spear. We stood back-to-back as the wolves closed in, circling around us. They were cautious and hesitant.
“Do you want a stick too?” I asked.
“No, I want a gun. A nine-millimeter pistol with a fifteen-round clip would do nicely.”
“Let me know when you find one. Till then, I’ve got a stick.” I didn’t really think you’d shoot any of the wolves, but I understood your sentiment. This could be life or death for us. I wished I at least had my knife.
Two of the wolves dashed forward, nipping at us then retreating in a test of our defenses. We shouted “Yah! Git!” and I swung my stick at them. Another one lunged at you. I turned and jabbed the beast in the side, forcing it to back away. It gave me an angry look.
“Okay,” you said, “I want a stick too.”
You kicked aside some pine needles and uncovered a piece of wood a little bigger than your arm. It would work as a club. You brushed it off and held it up, ready to strike. The pack kept circling around, taunting us and snapping at us, growing bolder. A few made low-pitched, breathy whuf sounds — their version of a bark.
“They must think you’d make a tasty meal,” I said.
“And you wouldn’t?”
“I’m a bit gristly and unsavory. Lacking refinement — you know the type. But you’ve got a healthy body, good heart, agreeable disposition. Any wolf would find you desirable.”
“Is that a compliment? Um… thank you, I guess.”
There was no time to respond. Four of the wolves mounted an attack, two on each side of us. One sprang at me, going for the throat — I caught it in the chest with the thick end of the spear. Another nipped me in the ankle and I whacked its nose. You thunked a wolf in its side with your club and hit another on the head. We let them know that humans with tools can be dangerous. The four wolves retreated, wary and respectful.
“If we could climb a tree,” I said.
“Not these little pines down here. Maybe up near our camp, but we’d never get that far.”
The pack was regrouping, considering a new strategy, when we heard a snuffling and growling coming from up the hill in the direction of our campsite.
“That doesn’t sound like a wolf,” I said. “Something bigger.”
“Grizzly bear,” you said as it came into view.
Great, I thought, just what we need — someone else who wants us for dinner.
“Is this it, then?” I asked, looking up at the gray clouds, wondering if this was the sky we were going to die under. “It’s all over for us?”
“Maybe not.” You peered at the bear, studying it. “Let’s see what happens.”
I knew things couldn’t get much worse — unless some raptors came swooping down to pick our eyes out, followed by a swarm of locusts for good measure. And what had this bear been doing up near our camp? Rummaging through our food, no doubt, before following our scent here to torment us further.
“Nature is sure acting strange,” I said. “Wolves don’t usually roam these parts, or hunt people in broad daylight. And now the bear. What’s going on?”
“Must be the drought. But aren’t we lucky to see so much wildlife today?” You were being ironic.
The wolves glared at the intruder, baring their teeth, displeased with having competition for their prey. There was going to be a tussle over us. I wasn’t sure whose side should we root for — in the end it might be all the same as far as we were concerned.
The grizzly padded forward, head swinging from side to side in that casual, no-one-messes-with-me gait that bears have. He looked at us carefully and sniffed the air, gave a deep-throated growl, and charged through the pack of wolves, coming right at us. We raised our weapons, but as soon as the bear got within striking distance he turned and stood his ground against the wolves, as if claiming us for his own.
The wolves moved in and tried to get between us and the bear. He swiped his long claws at one that got too close, then stood on his hind legs and gave a roar to shake the trees. A few of the wolves backed off, but others tried to get around him and separate us.
A grizzly can kill a wolf with a single blow, but wolves are clever and know how to gang up on a lone animal. In situations like this, the bear doesn’t always win.
“We have to help him,” you said. “It’s our best chance.”
I admit, I had felt some relief when the bear took up his stance, like he was protecting us. I looked around at the pack of wolves intent on making a meal of us. The odds weren’t in our favor on that front. Still, I sympathized with them — in other circumstances we’d be on their side.
“Okay,” I said. “As long as we don’t get eaten by anyone.”
“That’s the plan.”
We tried to coordinate our efforts with the bear — standing with our backs as close to him as we dared — to fend off the wolves from all directions. The bear didn’t seem to mind us. He reached out and batted a wolf away, rammed another with his shoulder, and bit a third on the rump, while we did our best to hold back the ones coming at us.
I swung at a big gray wolf. It sidestepped, turned and chomped down on the stick, nearly wrenching it from my hand. The wolf had a powerful grip and pulled at the stick while I struggled to hang on, each of us tugging against the other. You saw what was happening and brought your club down on the wolf’s snout. It let go of the stick with a yelp and I lost my balance, stumbling backward onto the bear’s rear end, nearly landing on his back. He raised himself up and shrugged me off with barely a glance. I regained my footing, still holding the stick.
You gave me a questioning look. “You okay?”
“Yeah. Thanks for—”
A wolf to my right leapt at me. The bear came down on all fours and wheeled around to snap at it, unintentionally knocking me sideways. I went sprawling to the ground — just what the wolves wanted. Five of them swarmed on me and I was seconds away from getting my throat ripped out.
Both you and the bear sprang to my rescue. You swung your club at anything that got too close while the bear thrashed from side to side, clacking his teeth. I managed to sit up and jab a wolf in the chest, then scrambled to my feet, giving the bear plenty of room so I wouldn’t get in his way again.
The fight had reached a fever pitch. The bear seemed to gain more confidence with us at his back — like a badass kingpin with his two henchmen, both of whom were armed, irritated, and in no mood to be dinner for a pack of scruffy curs. We attacked with ferocity.
You gave a yell — “Haaaah!” — as you forced two wolves back with a sweep of your club. I responded with “Yah! Yaaarh!” while thrusting my stick at a snarling wolf, letting my cry descend into a throaty growl — primitive man in a fight for survival, where the weapons were claws, teeth, muscles and minds. Sweat ran into my eyes, my arms ached, my heart pounded. I was full of adrenalin, my legs bleeding and stinging from bites and scratches. I felt great.
We soon gained the upper hand. Some of the wolves were keeping back now, out of reach. The bear chased a few others away, and most of the pack regrouped farther off, reviewing their options. We could tell they were giving up.
The rest of the wolves dashed off to join the others. The bear snapped at one as it went by, then rose on his haunches and bellowed at the retreating pack. The wolves were soon out of sight in the woods.
We sank to our knees, out of breath, exhausted, unsure of what would happen next. The bear walked slowly toward us and stopped a few yards away, moving his head from side to side, eyeing us.
“I don’t have any fight left in me,” I said.
You dropped your club. “Maybe he doesn’t either.”
The bear lifted his nose and sniffed the air, made a grunting sound, and waited. When we didn’t respond he gave a long moan, gazed at us a moment, then turned and lumbered off. We watched as he crossed the meadow.
“Is it my imagination,” I asked, “or does that bear have a slight limp?”
“Front right leg. I noticed that too when he first showed up, so it wasn’t from the wolves.”
“From an old injury, maybe?”
That gave us something to think about as we staggered to our feet and headed back to our campsite, where we found everything just as we had left it.