I came around a bend heading north and immediately noticed the white SUV parked high above the highway on a fire control path. Could this be officer D. Olenko?
Of course it was. And I could so easily imagine him hunched over his radar gun hoping to nab scores of unsuspecting speeders. I shook my head, feeling bad for him. Again, flawed technique. After placing himself 150 feet above the highway, no easy feat by the way, and backing up on high and narrow fire control road, he was probably wondering why he hadn't written more tickets. Well first of all, his "set-up" and that's what speed cops call it, was an obvious 12x6 buzzard so high above the highway that only a double cataraced Mr.Magoo could miss it. Secondly the precarious dirt he chose had a downward slope which made his rack of overhead lights stand out like Rudolph's red nose, multiplied by eight.
Better would've been to park down on the flat below where my friends and I do when visiting the area we refer to as "The Lagoon". Just a white SUV, then, no need to hit the brakes. At this rate he was never going impress his supervisor, much less gain the attention of state level people I had offered to put him in touch with the day before (previous blog entry). But in the course of my educational career, I've worked with many special needs individuals and realized you have to let them find their own way.
I gave an affectionate wave as I passed though he was apparently too absorbed with his radar gun to acknowledge me.
I passed him and made a decision not be distracted by his deficiencies, instead focusing on the green and blue beauty of this wonderful spring day. I romped on the gas anxious to visit another beach today, happy that Officer Olenko had found a way to occupy himself while I pursued my own interests.
Roping myself down a steeper descent than yesterday, I bounced around, got a little roughed up. A reminder, I thought, there was no guarantee of balance and coordination at my age.
But the beach was good. The beach is always good. If you think otherwise, then you're not paying attention to the beach.
I sat down, observing the waves trying to mentally sync with their rhythm. I closed my eyes and enjoyed the warmth of a soon to be setting sun. Sadly, a part of my mind was listening for the errant walkie-talkie sounds l heard yesterday. Hearing none, I focused instead on the screeching interplay of gulls hovering above me.
In time, I forgot all about Officer Olenko, and got up to collect some geologic samples, always hopeful that these little rocks might be transformed into jewelry. Then I returned to my backpack, sat down and pulled out a tin of sardines. Just a weird ritual I enjoy when sitting on a deserted beach, not sure why. I was down to my last sardine and two more crackers when I detected significant movement off to my right.
Fully expecting to see the khaki outline of a uniformed officer (and thinking No F-ing way), it took a second or two for me to remember the rules bifocals. Up for distance, down for close up shit. Upon further inspection, I determined the object in question in this case about 25 yards away, was a tawny-coated juvenile sea lion. Did this wondrous creature beach because he/she smelled my fish? Possibly.
And, oh man!
This sea lion was looking at me with same laser intensity as my dog Stewart when I'm eating a snack. It's a telepathic thing, I've decided, and he makes the message clear, "Don't be a jerk, John, share with the family dog!"
For a moment, I actually considered forking over that last sardine. But my aged and chemically compromised brain still managed to remember some training from my late-life ranger days.
First of all by providing the sardine I would be placing myself in danger. The sea lion would undoubtedly enjoy it. Afterwards, though, he might turn on me and think, "Hey Fat Man, is that all you got, one lousy sardine? Open up another of those containers or I'll chew you ankles off."
Now I'm not sure sea lions actually get that aggressive, having never been a beach ranger, but who wants to find out?
But secondly, by feeding this animal I could create a chain of events, an expectation of highly caloric foods associated with humans. And this could ultimately make me an accessory in the death of a higher order mammal. Unintentional, of course, but throwing out that sardine might be the first step, I told myself, in creating a "problem" sea lion.
Not absolutely sure this works with the otariidae family (seals and sea lions), but I know it holds true in the ursus family (bears). "Feed a bear, kill a bear" was a statement I remember from a poster at the Ash Mountain visitor center where I was briefly employed as a seasonal ranger at SEKI (Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park).
Simplistic phrasing, typical of most posters I thought , beginning my employment there, but I came to know its truth. It happens slowly. You report to the station, one day, and a supervisor casually says, bear #232 is now yellow tagged. You understand that bear technicians have probably captured #232 in their tube traps, sedated her with a tranquilizer dart and changed out the color of a plastic tag stapled into one of the bear's ears. No one pays much attention, you've got a lot of work to do and little sympathy for the person who initiated this event, another dumb-assed "guest" who left his food out and somehow had the temerity to complain, despite all signs and warnings, that it was missing.
Maybe it's just a month or two later when your supervisor says, "Bear #232 has been red tagged." Everybody gets quiet. If you've done patrol lately, in my case just a short stretch along the Kaweah River and up to the Potwisha campground, you pause. Normally, I make every effort to keep healthy distance between myself and bears. But if things are slow at the visitor center and your supervisor tired of looking at you, he will entrust you with keys and send you out on missions where you are guaranteed to have close encounters of the bear kind.
Now I was 15 years younger then, just getting used to wearing my glasses on a regular basis, but when I came around a sharp turn and braked hard for a surprise bear, I'm pretty sure I saw a green ear tag labeled #232. And I'm just as certain that it was bear #232 I shot with paintballs while sitting in a white SUV cruiser. After all, there she was standing on a campground table scarfing KFC because some of our "guests" decided hiking was more important than clean-up. What I did that day, is called "bear harassment," an officially sanctioned method in the hope of modifying bear behavior. Still, I bet it hurts and in the safety of my government issue SUV, and I noticed she had now been accessorized with a yellow tag. I also remembered that several months ago my wife and I were walking along a meadow in the vicinity of Morrow Rock. We saw a bear and two cubs playing in a meadow. I'd forgotten my binoculars, couldn't see a number but the bear and her the yellow tag was unmistakable.
All memories, moot points after my supervisor announced the red tagging. She's displayed aggressive behavior, maybe despite loud shouting from outraged guests, she'd refused to put down the ice chest they'd left out. Mybe she initiated a bluff charge or punched through a car window because a guests decided to store food inside his car rather than use the provided our bear locker storage.compartments That's all and seldom are our guests physically harmed except in cases of astonishing stupidity.
And just forget about relocating "problem" bears. It never works. Drop them in the remotest section of back country and one of two things happen. They find their way back to familiar campgrounds (sometimes traveling a hundred miles to do so) and resume those fatal habits learned through negligent human contact. Or they die violently, usually in less than a week's time, torn apart by local bears in the drop off area who decide to defend their territory.
And the day comes, all to often, when you enter the visitor center after some mundane task, maybe you've flipped over the closed sign or raised the flag, and your supervisor says, "Bear #232 has been put down." It's sad. Few in the station have ever heard the gunshot, fewer still have ever watched it happen, but many of us have assisted bear techs in the field, attaching tracking devices to these noble creatures in the hope that this research will promote a better interspecies understanding. And it's very hard to do this kind of work, working hand in hand with the bear techs, without being infected by a reverence for these fellow travelers.
We talked less on the days when a bear had been put down and in quieter tones.
I can't speak for the thoughts of my coworkers during those days. But I remember being angry at homo sapiens, crappy conservators of this magnificent earth and pitifully unable to coexist with species that mean us no harm.
If anyone is still with me at this point, you're probably wondering what all this had to do with the sudden appearance of a sea lion--and whether I should share that last sardine. Guest what? So am I. But I need to reveal the final event that led to the execution of #232.
I know I should've use the word "execution" in the previous sentence but considering the freak circumstances, the term seems too mild. Ironically it was not a thoughtless guest, but one of our own that brought about this tragedy. An employee parked his vehicle at the day-use are adjacent to the Potwisha campground. He wanted to use the restroom and was in a hurry. He did not see the bear behind a nearby car, and he did not register the unsupervised child standing on the sidewalk with a tuna fish sandwich in her hand. But he did manage to walk right between bear and child. Except for a huffing sound to his left, that's all he remembered. The ambulance took him out the park with a forehead laceration. Just four or five stitches. Bears sometimes just cuff as when reprimanding their offspring, but when really pissed or threatened, they extend those enormous claws. The man in the middle was lucky to have received only one swipe of that extended cuff. Two cubs were shipped to appropriate agencies.
A summer later I found myself maneuvered into an overnight inservice for seasonal rangers, a group of 20-24 year olds along with a supervisor who was easily half my age. As is the custom (and fun) of telling strange tales around a campfire, one of the young'ns retold an exaggerated account of the ranger stood bravely between the bear and little girl with the tuna fish sandwich. After the telling, it was quiet and I realized everyone was looking at me. Don't be paranoid. I'm an old guy, I said to myself, it's natural that people focus the extreme differences. I was doing my best to be calm.
"You're him aren't you?" A question was spoken by someone so young she could have been in my senior English class three weeks ago.
"You're the one who stood between the bear and a little girl, weren't you?"
Everyone was looking straight at me, expecting something. My supervisor who had been around long enough know it wasn't me, was disguising a quiet belly laugh. Yet he was the one who had hand repeatedly asked me, "So how did you get that scar?"
"Eric," I told him on those occasions, "it's not a scar, nothing happened. Just some kind of hereditary wrinkle kind of like you might get yourself--should you get lucky and live that long."
But people don't want truth, they want romance.
So I looked back at the expectant sets of eyes around the campfire and told them what they wanted to hear.
"Hell no! This scar didn't come from standing between a bear and a tuna fish sandwich! I was attacked by an eagle. And I'm too tired to tell that story right now. Goodnight everyone. This old boy is tired."
And so I left them, staggering two or three trees into the underbrush because I really needed to pee.
My family knows the truth. If there truly is a scar on the left side of my forehead--and I'm not sure since looking at myself in the mirror this morning, a practice I abandoned in my teens. I have a vague memory of climbing the steps up to the Big Meadow Lookout and failing to duck below a barrier of jagged wire. My family members were sympathetic and helped me invent the more heroic eagle story just so I wouldn't be embarrassed by my innate clumsiness. Nice people, my family.
I'd really like to end this digression, right now, a story about a sea lion on the beach several days ago but there's one more event I have to reveal. Now or never a voice says to me. You see, after taking care of my business behind that tree, I found the way to my tent and collapsed. And awoke to a slippery sensation on my pillow. Sweat I told myself until I could no longer ignore the oppery odor. I touched my forehead and held out my fingers, blurry having not yet located my glasses. Looking a lot like blood. Yep.
I made my way to the campground restroom and looked into a wavy mirror. Blood had at some at time pored down the left side of my forehead. I was being watched by several college kids/wannabe rangers at the time. They said nothing, neither did I.
During the rest of the day, I was grateful for once about the ridiculous flat that rangers are forced to wear. Making every effort to achieve invisibility, I said nothing (though I knew most of the answers to our leader's questions). All the while, I was very aware that everyone was looking at me, studying the gash on my forehead. And I'm thinking, too many beers, must have fallen against some branch, clumsy old fart that I am. A likely explanation but I had no memory of such events (weak proof indeed after a bunch of beers). Stigmata, maybe, a wound so intently felt in your mind that your body creates it. An explanation not likely to be well received by my young atheistic supervisor.
Must have been about then that I realized that my khaki wearing days were numbered. Certainly other events occurred that insured my departure from federal employment, but those will have to wait.
I guess the point of this enormous intersection of "All Creatures Great and Small" and how I parted ways with the national parks system must return once again to my food-begging dog and how the sea lion to my right reminded me of him. It really comes down to this: there was no way that sea lion would get my last sardine .
And wow, didn't see those last 20 paragraphs coming!
So I slid the last sardine down my throat, after which I put the tin can in my backpack, zipped it shut, and got out my camera. Approaching my target indirectly, I was hoping the sea lion wouldn't bolt leaving me without any proof of his visitation. After only a few frames he returned to the water, clearly not appreciating my proximity. And this was good. Despite his surprise visit, he had demonstrated a healthy threat level. Any wild animal should be shy of humans and rightly so. If they're not, watch out. Things are wrong:
1. The has animal has become accustomed to humans, having received food from them indirectly or directly. Not a problem if you're talking cute little squirrels. They seldom have attitudes. Larger animals like coyotes, cougars, and bears are unpredictable. They have bad days, behaving erratically and will attack their
own species. In this they just like us, humans, so watch out for them.
2. Animals may also reduce their proximity levels because of disease, like rabies, which can so erode their central nervous systems that Skippy the family dog becomes Cujo. Consider also the cuddly campground squirrels who allow you to feed them, offering no aggression but all the while harboring black death infested fleas happy to
desert a cooling squirrel body and jump right on to you.
3. A older animal or one so injured that it can no longer acquire food through normal methods. You are its prey. This is bad, very bad. Do the usual posturing to
demonstrate width and size, but do not look directly at its eyes, a sign
of imminent attack in both the animal and human world. And only when well out of
sight, run like hell, which your body had pleading for you to do all along.
These photos aren't very good--not because I'm lousy photographer--but because the sea lion moved away before I could get close enough. Again, threat level, a signature of a healthy organism.
He's quickly off, not wishing to dick with an untrustworthy species.
So stay away from animals who do not display an expected threat level.
And after all of these mammal hugging thoughts, I am lead me to consider my behavior yesterday. Seriously, talking near smack to a law enforcement officer, someone able to incarcerate me or, if really pissed off in this remote location, make me disappear? How wise was that and what was it all about?
I climbed the cliff and took one last photo. It would be several weeks before I could return.
And my during my return to San Simeon, the weird circularity of my life asserted itself again. Coming at me was the white SUV of Officer Olenko. At 5:00 pm, he was likely returning from a dinner at one of Cambria's fine eateries. I waved furiously at him as we passed each other, but he never responded. Maybe he'd read some rules forbidding a lawman like himself to take his hand off the wheel. Or maybe he just thought that's what he read, confused by too many big words.
I've decided to close this weird blog entry by taking the high road. I will never again use the "D" word to describe Officer Olenko.
Still I doubt he'll ever receive an award for being the sharpest tool in any law-enforcement shed...
And, seriously, who am I to criticize a well meaning public servant? I count myself lucky to know one man who is willing to camp with me and endure this kind of drivel and more fortunate to have married a woman who listens to it all--but still insists she loves me.