Bearing down

Dawn had just cracked, birdsong had started to sound and chaos was already streaming through the Sands family household.

“Help!” my mother-in-law cried in her lilting English accent. “Wake up! We’re in the midst of an emergency!”

As a quick aside, I’ll explain that I am that guy – the one with the typical mom-in-law. My wife Rachael’s mother visits frequently, always stays within earshot of the master bedroom and considers monthlong stopovers perfectly normal. Consequently, I’ve learned admirable flexibility in the past 10-plus years of marriage (i.e. I know how to bend over).

And so I bent over and heeded the distress call on the fateful morning, jumping out of bed, adjusting my boxer shorts to avoid any uncomfortable encounters and running downstairs. Her eyes wide and tears forming, my mother-by-marriage grasped my chest and squealed, “Where is the baby?! You must help. Where is the baby?!”

The baby in question – my 5-year-old daughter Skyler – was plainly humming a song and working on an art project in her adjacent bedroom. But deranged by fear, my house guest was completely oblivious and eerily pointed out the window. “I fear for the worst,” she bluthered. “I think … I think Skyler’s been eaten.”

The woman’s long finger aimed at my daughter’s trampoline where a truly disturbing sight greeted our eyes. There, tucked inside the tramp’s safety enclosure and sitting atop the springy nylon, was a large black bear. “I only let her out of my sight for a minute,” the woman said in her defense. The large, furry animal answered by happily licking its claws.

Before this goes too far allow me to repeat that Skyler was safely arting around in her bedroom. Second, black bears usually don’t eat small children. Third, my wife’s mom was in a state of total bear paralysis, but this was not the Sands family’s first rodeo. Rachael and I have spent two seasons in the Alaskan bush, successfully sharing space with both grizzly and brown bears. For the last five years, we’ve also lived at Ground Zero for Durango bear problems – County Road 203. In that time, we’ve chased off no fewer than nine black bears, a relationship that climaxed last fall when, as some may recall, a sow and two cubs tried to become permanent residents in our home. Doing our best to keep those bears off the euthanasia list, we chased them off with pots and pans; we used sticks; we used stones; and finally, I discharged more than a couple shots from the trusty 12-gauge in the threesome’s general direction. The blasts did the trick and sent the family of three off for greener, gun-powder-free pastures.

And so all was happy in our bear-free but mother-in-law infested world. That is, all was happy until late June, when one of the offspring – now a robust teen-ager – decided to return for a little early morning recreation on the trampoline.

Looking out at the animal, my wife’s mother virtually frothed at the mouth, her speech devolving into a series of grunts and expletives. “Go … Shit … Just … Now … Dammit … Christ.”

The mad woman’s howls were enough to force the bear from the tramp, but we weren’t out the woods yet. Instead, the inquisitive animal started sniffing around the front door of the house, forcing me to dig deep and employ a technique essential to earning your “bear badge” – the art of thrown objects.

As luck would have it, the only handy projectile was one of my beloved Sidi cycling shoes (Imelda was right, there’s simply nothing like Italian footwear). Grabbing the size 44 cm, I darted out the front door, wound up my best Oil Can Boyd and let it fly. As you might expect, the leather cycling slipper lacked the requisite machismo. Instead of inflicting a mortal wound and landing a bearskin rug in the living room, the dainty shoe bounced off the bear’s thick hide and elicited a look of mild disdain from the animal.

Still believing we could retrieve my daughter whole and unscathed from the belly of the beast – Little Red Riding Hood style – my wife’s mom chimed in, “Get a gun!,” she cried out. “Aim for the head!”

Fortunately the shotgun was safely stashed well out of harm’s way. Within arm’s reach, however, was a large commemorative tin of tea from Harrod’s of London, a gift brought by the same woman now in the midst of wildlife breakdown. As I grabbed the square tin – handsomely decorated with the palace guard parading in Beefeater regalia – she magically regained her sensibilities.

“Not the Harrod’s,” the woman pleaded. “Please. Is nothing sacred? Just please leave the Earl Grey.”

I apologized with a shrug of the shoulders, took aim and pitched the tin at the head of the beast (the bear not the mother-in-law). The fates smiled and the corner of the tin met its mark right between the bear’s eyes. More than a dozen bags of high-grade British tea exploded at the moment of impact, and the poor creature let out a woeful howl before darting off into the woods.

Just as the animal was defeated with a little unorthodox help from the Brits, my daughter magically appeared behind us. “Look dad, a bear!” Skyler called happily as the black form vanished into the scrub.

Three weeks later, I’m pleased that we haven’t heard those words since, courtesy of a long visit from the mother-in-law and a tin of the Empire’s finest.

– Will Sands