5 min read

The Scouting Life

Don't feed the bears
The Scouting Life
My Boy Scout uniform. The merit badge sash has 31 patches, each lovingly sewn on by my grandmother. I was unable to find a photo from this era, a prodigy (2b) if there ever was one.

Back in the 90s, I ended my run as a Boy Scout when I got my Eagle Scout merit badge. The BSA has disappointed me many times then and since, but you don’t get the highest award in the Boy Scouts by not participating.

I went to camp every summer in the days before I had my driver’s license. I slogged through countless camping trips and day hikes—all with undiagnosed asthma. I learned (and forgot) all the knots. I came to the awareness that newts are the best. I conned my way into so many merit badges. I’ve eaten some of the worst food in North America, some of it prepared by me.

Which isn’t to say that I think I’ve gained some important life lessons or even valuable skills through these acts of natural privation. But boy do I have stories. Some of them involve bears.

An American black bear

Bears are big

The stats for the North American black bear don’t sound overly impressive. An average male is only 190 lb (86 kg) according to the legendarily accurate website, Wikipedia. The same site says that a white patch on their chest is uncommon, occurring in only 25% of bears.

So if we were going by the book, bears would be big and scary, but we’ve all met humans who would outweigh a bear on any given Sunday.

So that isn’t the proper way to describe a bear. Let’s try it from the perspective of a young human boy, approximately 12 years old, though below average in height and weight for a North American male of similar age. He’s dusty and tired. He’s subsisting entirely on peanuts, the only edible provision for miles around despite the existence of a cafeteria at the bottom of a steep hill. His campsite is on top of that hill, a difficult climb made all the worse by shortness of breath and a nose full of camp boogers.

This boy walks into his camp, weary, ready for a nap, when he notices that the campsite is eerily quiet. Nobody is playing cards with peanuts as poker chips. The fire isn’t being tended by the pyromaniacs. Something is amiss.

Bears are awesome!

A pack of boys are huddled on a fallen redwood tree, all looking my way. An unfamiliar sound clued me in that they weren’t looking at my improperly-tied neckerchief, but at something else nearby.

I turned my head to the snuffing noises to my left and beheld an enormous black bear. He was about thirty feet away, sniffing around one of the tents. He had a white patch on his chest, like a diamond. He was much, much bigger than I. In my memory, he was the size of a sedan. He was super furry, had incredible fangs, and his big black nose was kind of cute.

I should have been terrified, and I would be later. But in the moment, I calmly kept walking and joined the boys on the log. Nobody was panicking yet. We knew who this was. He was “the bear”. The camp director warned us about this bear. He was getting acclimated to humans, and we were told that the normal precaution of “no food your tent” was not a drill this year.

He obviously didn’t like peanuts. They were were still on the table in a small pile. I was getting sick of them myself.

He was interested in a tent which belonged to our scoutmaster, Mr Fulsom. That was odd. Surely, the most senior member of troop and only adult would follow the rules.

The bear went right into Mr. Fulsom’s canvas tent. The tent collapsed as he dragged out a backpack in his incredible maw.

Bears always win

Bear claws are the reason you’ll never win in a fight with a bear. A surprising number of people are deluded into thinking they’d survive a pugilistic encounter with a bear. I assure you, the actual number is 0.

This black bear, with two quick slashes of his paws, eviscerated Mr. Fulsom’s backpack, sending its contents all over our camp. Underwear, shirts, pants, toothbrush, and mess kit were quickly scattered and shredded.

But the bear had found what he had come for. In the heart of the pack, in a ziplock bag, was a Snickers bar. The bear picked it up in its paws, sat back on his haunches, and licked and ate that chocolatey treat, plastic and all, like he was a kid in a candy store—which he kinda was.

When the bear was sated, he ambled off into the woods, not to be seen again til dinner time, when he raided a different campsite’s larder for a can of chili.

Bears, and boy scouts, are selfish

Mr. Fulsom didn’t want the job of Scoutmaster. It was kind of forced onto him when the previous scoutmaster retired.

Under the care of the previous scoutmaster, our troop had achieved greatness in skill and awards. He cared for the boys like a gentle shepherd tends to his sheep. Since his retirement, our troop was in a slump and morale and membership were low.

Mr. Fulsom wasn’t even the first replacement. The Great Scoutmaster’s son took over at first, but he didn’t want the job, either. As a semi-closeted gay man, the Boy Scouts of the 1990s wasn’t a great fit for him, and he was clearly uncomfortable, though I adored him—He was kind to me while the other scouts bullied me.

Mr. Fulsom was a substitute until we could find better leadership. He had trouble connecting with the boys. While he didn’t hate us, and laughed and smiled a lot, his heart was elsewhere. And this was the 90s. This wasn’t an era of compassion.

After we took a short break to freak out, we had to decide what to do. Our ostensible leader had broken a cardinal rule and paid a really high price. What did our Boy Scout training teach us?

We went back to our own activities. Mr. Fulsom would have to clean up his own shit. He left that evening—very upset. I think he blamed us. After dark, a scout mother swooped into provide adult supervision. She was extremely unhappy to have to spend a few days of her summer babysitting a bunch of kids, only two of whom were hers. But, she brought more peanuts and was pretty good at poker.

Standard issue Boy Scout camp rations. Yes, the shells burn. Photo by Isai Dzib on Unsplash

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