Bears, Bare Arms, and a Sidearm Bared
A Socal Bear Hunt is Interrupted by a Naked man, then a Staredown with 3 ‘Hikers’
By Tim E. Hovey
Whether I’m outside for work or pleasure, I’m always looking for new places to hunt.
As a field biologist, I get the opportunity to see quite a bit of the backcountry of Southern California. When I’m out conducting surveys, I make sure I pay attention to game sign and the surrounding habitat so I can return come hunting season.
A few years ago, I was leading an endangered frog survey up a remote tributary during the late summer. Adam, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, was with me, counting frogs and assessing the health of the population as we moved.
We were about a mile up the side creek, with Adam leading the way. He rounded a bend and startled something in the creek. By the time I got there, the black bear was aggressively climbing the bank to the top of the ridge. He looked back at us and then disappeared into the thick brush at the top.
Adam turned around smiling. I returned the smile and nodded slowly. He knew I hunted and knew exactly where I’d be when bear season opened up.
Indeed, a week after the start of bear season, I was back at the trailhead loading up my pack. This time I’d be hiking for pleasure, and with a bear tag in my pocket I wasn’t going to be counting frogs.
With over 2 miles of hiking ahead of me, I loaded my pack with my game-processing gear, some water and called it good. I strapped my rifle to the outside of the pack, locked up the truck and headed out.
Since I frequently hunt alone, as long as I stay within my own limitations, I’m never apprehensive when hiking the back hills. I have a firm respect for the wildlife and I’m never afraid when I head out to hunt. Before the end of that day, I’d be served another example of how man is really the only animal that I need to be leery of when I’m by myself in the woods.
I WAS MAKING good time while hiking up the dry riverbed and was maybe a quarter of a mile from the tributary when I spotted movement up ahead of me. The old man was looking down into a portion of the wetted creek and slowly moving my way. He had a bucket strung up on a shovel, resting the handle on his shoulder as he walked.
Seeing someone in this lower section of the river wasn’t terribly unusual. The spot was located an hour’s drive from the nearest city and a popular hiking area. I wasn’t surprised at all to see someone else out enjoying the wilderness. What did startle me was something that I wasn’t expecting: The old man was naked.
Except for a thin button-up shirt that was unbuttoned and his hiking boots, he didn’t have anything else on. I moved to the other side of the creek as I approached and we exchanged pleasantries. He wanted to know what I was hunting for and I decided to leave his
activities a mystery. Just before I continued, he mentioned that I’d probably run into three other hikers he had seen earlier moving upstream.
About 30 minutes after running into the mysterious naked man, I found the bear tributary. During the hike I had seen several sets of footprints in the dry sand of the main river. These were probably the hikers the old gentleman had mentioned. However, the tracks hadn’t been left by hiking boots – they looked more like slip-on tennis shoes, certainly not the footwear for hiking the back country.
I continued up the side creek, convinced I had left the three hikers in the main river. I worked my way to the frog area where the first signs of water appear in the drainage. I switched hats for a few minutes and looked in on the endangered frogs. I saw a few large adults basking in the sun in one of the larger pools. I watched them for a bit and then continued hiking up the steep creek.
Referencing my GPS, I knew I was about 200 meters from where we had bumped the bear. While staring into the screen of my Garmin, I thought I heard voices. Up ahead was a bend in the creek, which obscured my view upstream. I quickly hiked to the bend and peered around it, and the sight of the three individuals and how they were dressed sent a cold pulse through me.
HOPPING DOWN THE creek in street clothes were three men in their 20s. Their attire was more suited for a day at the mall, and they each wore slip-on sneakers that looked brand new. They carried no packs, no water and no gear of any sort. I instantly got a nervous feeling in my chest. They didn’t have any gear because they were sightseeing, and I knew exactly what they were looking for. My one advantage was that I had spotted them first.
High mountain creeks that sustain a year-round supply of water are not only attractive to wildlife; those looking to start an illegal crop often seek out these remote headwaters to hide their plants and their activities. All plants need water, and finding a remote creek that can supply that is usually the first step in cultivation.
The three individuals hiking down to me were a scouting party that was looking for a place to grow and hide illegal marijuana plants.
I stepped around the bend and was instantly spotted. The lead guy said something in Spanish to the trailing guy and they instantly swapped positions. When they were about 25 feet from me, I spoke with the hope of keeping them at that distance. It worked. The lead guy put on a fake smile and sized me up. He could see I was by myself, and my rifle, securely strapped to my pack, was clearly out of play. As it stood to him, it was three against one.
I asked them what they were doing up in the creek. They said they were scouting for when deer season opened up. His response was a lie. I knew deer season in the area had opened up six weeks earlier.
They asked what I was doing and I told them I was bear hunting. The lead guy mentioned that they had scared a bear out of the creek on the way in. That did frustrate me, but in the span of a few minutes my day and my focus had changed. I was clearly speaking with the leader of the small group. The other two remained quiet and never met my eye. That didn’t put me at ease at all. I knew if things got serious, they wouldn’t just sit back and watch.
The leader again looked me up and down and smiled. He then made a statement that surprised and angered me. He said that it was dangerous to hunt in this area alone. To me it sounded like a warning, and I glared at the smiling leader.
This was no longer a friendly encounter, and all that was left was to see who’d blink first. I told him I had a buddy hunting the lower section and that we were meeting up in a few hours. He kept smiling.
We stared at each other for a few moments when I decided I was done being nice. With my left hand I pointed up the drainage behind the three and asked if they had come down the side fork above them. As predicted, in unison they all turned to look where I was pointing. Seamlessly and with a practiced motion, I lifted my shirt on my right side that had thus far hidden my dirty little secret. I flipped the hammer strap off the .357 revolver holstered on my hip and
rested my hand on the weapon in one motion. I turned slightly so that all could see the odds in our little encounter had just changed.
When the leader turned around, I saw his eyes drop to the revolver. His smile instantly faded, replaced with the look of complete defeat. Even though I had answered his last
question about being alone in the creek, I didn’t like the tone of the warning and that made me mad.
I was no longer cordial or polite. I gave him my best Wild West stare and looked at only him for a full 30 seconds before I spoke. In a gravelly voice, I told all of them it was time for them to leave, now!
No other words were shared during this encounter. I watched them slowly make their way down the creek. Occasionally, the lead guy would look back, but I had hiked off the creek and was watching them through binoculars. He had no idea where I was and I knew that troubled him. I didn’t leave that spot until they were completely out of sight.
BACK IN THE CREEK, I could feel I wasn’t in much of a hunting mood. I decided to push on upstream despite the confrontation. About 100 yards up, I found wet and muddy bear prints near a bank and a dead rattlesnake with its head chewed off. I guess at least one of their statements was true.
I goofed off for about an hour but my heart wasn’t in it. I decided I was done and started making my way back to the trailhead. Down on the main river, I stalked to within 40 yards of a group of bighorn sheep drinking from small pools in the main creek. For some reason, having my last interaction on that day be a wildlife encounter calmed me.
I made it back to the truck an hour before dark and unloaded my pack. I got in the car and started for home. As I drove, I thought about all that had occurred during my hunt. Thankfully I was prepared. I can say this: In over 20 years of hunting and hiking the remote sections of California, that day remains the most tense and strangest of them all.