1966: Billy and the Bear

It is the nature of most frontiers to have boom-or-bust economies. Alaska is no different than any other frontier, but in some ways that boom-or bust mentality has permeated throughout the whole population in both mind and heart. It brings to mind a bumper sticker I saw on a car in the late 80s when the state was still reeling from a devastating downturn caused by OPEC’s reduction of the price of oil: “Lord, please give us another boom. I promise not to p*ss this one away too.”  I kind of doubt the driver followed through on that oath; as I said that all –or-nothing mindset is totally ingrained in the Alaskan psyche. Private industry investment, purchasing new vehicles, individuals’ spending money –there was rarely any in between. One night you’re sleeping on satin sheets and the next night you’re sacking out on steam grates.

With the Boy Scouts it was a little bit different, but still a matter of cyclic extremes. In the summer of 1965 Soldotna sent two Scout troops to camp: Troops 151 and 262. Troop 262 had been formed when parents of some of the scouts in 151 got perturbed in the petty way in which only a Scout’s parents can, but even if there was a chill between leaders we boys got along great. The friendly competition was a great motivation towards working on advancement as we in 151 vowed to stay ahead of the renegades in 262 …but in the true hot/cold Alaskan manner by the time for camp came around the next summer both troops had imploded. The only way we were able meet the six-scout minimum to go to Camp Gorsuch was to combine the two troops along with a single Scout from Hope (AK) and two boys from Eagle River.

It was not a peak scouting experience. IN addition to being thrown into camp life with people we didn’t know, we did not have the benefit of effective adult leadership.  Oh, we had great leaders – but none of them could stay longer than two days at a time.  We stumbled rather than marched through camp so when I was voted in as patrol leader my first action was to dub our bunch “F Troop” after the western-themed situation comedy popular at the time. It got some laughs, though I doubt the adult camp staff would have appreciated our private interpretation of the letter “F” in the title.  About the only mitigating  factor was our location at Beluga campsite; unlike most of the campsites down in amongst the trees, Beluga was located up on a slight ridge which gave us a constant breeze  which in turn kept the ever-present mosquitoes away

(How bad are the mosquitoes in Alaska? One night I heard two of them talking to each other. One of the skeeters said “Do we eat ‘em here or take ‘em back to the lake?”. The other one replied “Naw. If we take ‘em back to the lake the big guys will take ‘em away from us.”)

The only problem with the campsite was that it was located on a major game trail that large animals used to go up and down the mountain behind to the south of camp – but to date that summer there had been little to no critter problems to speak of, all of which added to severe boredom. The frequent changes in adult leaders left us to fend for ourselves and we were all completely ignorant of the wide selection of merit badge classes available. Consequently camp life was crushingly dull – except when it involved Billy.

Billy was a member of the other Soldotna troop. Billy was a round peg in a square hole at a time when we were all square pegs in round holes. He had a hard time fitting in but was blessedly oblivious to the fact. When I first met him two years earlier he had been alternately obsessed with the German battleship Bismarck and Snoopy the Beagle from the “Peanuts” comic strip. That was all in the past by the time we got to camp that summer. Now Billy was an escape artist.

Because he talked all the time (even in his sleep) you learned early on to tune him out, so at first I didn’t think much of his professed Houdini-inspired talents. It was only after freeing him from several of his self-imposed traps in succession that I began to worry. Without consistent adult leadership I could see problems coming up. I thought I had faced my major Billy-crisis when we had to bandage a second degree burn on his wrist that came from his attempts to melt through the knot in the nylon 550 cord he was tied with (the knot he was supposed to untie) but the true test was yet to come.

It was on the fifth day of camp. Another Scout had gone with me down to the trading post kill some time and as we were walking toward camp we kept running into people on the trail, far more people than usual given our remote site. As we neared the campsite enough people had gathered to form a small crowd so we had to elbow our way in the last couple of yards, and as we were fighting those last few yards to the campsite I overheard the dreaded word:

Bear!

It seems that in addition to missing out on merit-badge classes I had been missing out on the nightly Senior Patrol Leader’s meeting. Had I been there, I would have known about the bear problem that had cropped up earlier in the week. The nightly ursine forays varied in degree from a simple matter of food taken from a table to an outhouse getting knocked over (with a scoutmaster still in it) but up to this point there hadn’t been any trouble during daylight hours or around scouts actively moving about and making noise. I crept closer. Beluga campsite was in the same semi-organized state of disarray that ‘F troop” usually left it in – with three exceptions.

  1. A medium-sized black bear was rummaging between grease and bits of in the fire-pit and the remnants of a peanut butter & jelly sandwich on the camp table
  2. An adult camp staff member down on his hands and knees whispering to
  3. What looked like a large brown caterpillar slowly rolling about and emitting low moans.

Luckily I had emerged at the edge of the crowd right where another other scout from “F” troop was standing and he filled me in on what was happening. Billy had badgered the other scouts into providing him with a real test of his skill in escape artistry – to which they readily agreed, though more to shut him up more than to test his skill.  They had tied him hand and foot, then put him into a sleeping back head-first and tied a rope around that bag. Next they put him into another sleeping bag feet first, tied ropes around that outer bag, and then took the free end of the rope and tied it to a tree-stump just outside the fire-ring. The slow rolling and low moaning were the result of Billy trying to free himself – and giving a non-stop commentary during the effort.

…and he had absolutely no clue that there was a bear in camp.

The bear finally moved away from the fire pit, which allowed the adult leader to slowly crab-walk closer to Billy doing his caterpillar-in-the-chrysalis imitation. In a low voice the leader quietly said “Billy – now don’t be afraid but there is a bear in the camp” Billy’s commentary went on for another 10 or 15 seconds – then the light-bulb flashed on:

‘A BEAR? AGGGGHHHHHHHHH”

At this point the written word fails do justice to what happened next (Works better/looks funnier when I can use my hands)
scan0004< The Billy chrysalis started to bounce around like a Mexican jumping bean – but since the bottom of the outer sleeping bag was tied to the tree stump with the remaining six feet of the rope tied around the outer bag Billy couldn’t go anywhere but back and forth around a small circle, with muffled “oofs” interrupting the non-stop muffled screaming each time he hit the ground.

As I was wondering how a rather slender person like Billy (0% body fat) could bounce around like that without breaking a bone I looked over to see that the bear had finally been chased out of camp and along the game trail and up the mountain.  The crowd slowly dispersed, including the adult leaders who gave us a stern warning against leaving food unsecured again, and  right on cue Billy emerged from the second  sleeping bag after the other guys had pulled him out of that first one…and the minute he hit fresh air his non-stop commentary resumed.

At that point we just let him talk, figuring that he’d earned the right after his harrowing experience with the bear, but in retrospect we should have done something to get him to stop. Fifteen months later the alphabetical proximity of our last names doomed me to be his locker-mate during my freshman year of high school and he was still talking about it then – and kept talking about it the entire year.

Twenty years later he stopped by to visit my family and me, and a major portion of the conversation dealt with his escape artistry that year. I live in dread of getting a Facebook request with a picture of a bear attached to it, and when I think about it all I wonder – would it have been that bad had I taken some of that peanut butter and smeared on the outside of the outer sleeping bag when the bear was looking for food?

3 thoughts on “1966: Billy and the Bear

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