Monday, April 20, 2020

Fire Tower Bear Attack, 1958

 image public domain from forest service, cropped and scaled by Dean Weingarten

It was dark outside the little cabin near the fire tower in the Oregon mountains in 1958. Eight year old David Conner and his two younger sisters had gone to bed. He had not yet fallen asleep. It was quiet.

His mother's screams sundered the peaceful night.  Time and memories would be divided into two parts. Before the night of the bear, and after.

He jumped from bed and scrambled toward the kitchen. The kitchen light was on. On his left was his mother. On the right was the kitchen window over the sink, with a black bear pushing its head through the window screen.

David's father had been in the army in World War II. In 1958 he took a job working fire watch in the mountains near the Rock Creek area, outside of Baker City, Oregon. The Forest Service supplied a surplus WWII Dodge Power Wagon, which was used to get in and out from the fire tower. The previous day, David's father had spotted smoke, probably from a lightning strike the night before. Triangulation with other towers had pinpointed the location. It was closest to their tower, so David's father and older brother had left the cabin, in the Power Wagon, to put out the fire. 

David's Father going to a fire, 1958. Photo courtesy David Conner, cropped and scaled by Dean Weingarten

There was electricity at the cabin. Water had to be hauled up to it. Indoor plumbing was limited to the sink. There were two outhouses, and a woodshed. The fire tower was about 50 yards away from the cabin.

David loved living there. His father allowed him to help watch for fires from the fire tower, and feed the half tamed chipmunks that shared the tower. A couple of mule deer does hung around the cabin, and sometimes clattered on the porch.

In the cabin, there was a gun rack. David's father left four guns hanging on it when he went to fight the fire. There was a double barreled LC Smith 12 gauge shotgun; a surplus O3-A3 Springfield .30-06, sporterized by Sedgely; a Remington model 721 .300 H&H Magnum; and a Winchester model 61 pump action .22 rifle. David's father kept the .22 loaded for when it was necessary to dispatch a porcupine (porcupines do enormous damage to timber) or to harvest a grouse for the pot.

Fire Tower guns in Pendleton, Oregon. The 61 Winchester is the lowest long gun. David did not remember the Remington bolt action .22 or the H&R revolver at the cabin the night of the bear. All of the guns, except the Remington .22 bolt action, are still owned by family members.

David's mother had put the children to bed when she heard a noise outside the cabin. She was a petite woman about five feet tall. She was in the master bedroom of the two bedrooms in the cabin. She thought one of the mule deer does was responsible for the noise. 

She took a look into the kitchen.  A bear was trying to get in through the window over the sink!

She screamed at the bear, Get Out!, and grabbed the little Winchester .22 pump from the gun rack. She knew it was loaded.

David looked at his mother. She had the .22 rifle in her hands. She screamed at the bear again. Get Out!

The bear ignored the screams and started working its way in through the window. 

David's mother stopped screaming. She brought the rifle to her shoulder and started shooting. 

Pow! Pow! Pow! Pow! Pow!

The little rifle was unusually loud inside the kitchen. The shots only took a couple of seconds. The bear dropped back out the window. David's little sisters had joined David at the doorway. 

Eventually, David and his sisters went back to bed. Somehow, they went back to sleep. 

David's mother stayed up the rest of the night. She kept the rifle handy. 

In July, near Baker City, it starts getting light by 5 a.m. David and his mother looked out the window to see if the bear was nearby. There was blood on the sink, on the window sill, and on the porch outside. 

After a careful visual search, David and his mother went out onto the porch. The blood trail lead toward the woodshed. 

David's Mother made an executive decision. They would wait inside, until David's father and brother returned. 

Two hours later, the older men in the family returned in the Dodge Power Wagon. 

David's mother explained what had happened. The two men loaded the .30-06 and the .300 H&H Magnum, and followed the blood trail. 

There, behind the woodshed, was the bear, dead, only 30 yards from the kitchen window.

David watched his father and brother skin out the bear. As he watched, his father pointed to the wounds his mother had inflicted on the bear with the .22 Winchester model 61 pump-gun. 

One shot went into the upper left jaw. Another shot went through the left eye. A third shot was just above the left eye. A fourth shot was in the nose, and a fifth shot was just below the right side of the jaw, in the neck, cutting the carotid artery on the right side. That shot was fatal. Blood had squirted from the artery, spraying the kitchen sink, the window frame, and on to the porch. The blood trail was heavy, and lead to the dead bear behind the woodshed. 

A bear's brain is located low, between and behind the eyes. A shot to or above the eye will often miss the brain. 

David's mother had gathered four empty .22 cartridges off the kitchen floor and put them on the table. David's father went to the Winchester model 61. He worked the slide. Out popped another empty .22 cartridge. David's mother had shot five shots. She had hit the bear five times.

David's father and brother tacked the hide to the side of the wood shed and put the skull inside.  Word spread around the mountains. A couple of days later, a ranger showed up to visit. David's father explained what had happened. They examined the bear hide and the bear skull. David's father went inside and retrieved the .22 Winchester. 

He and the ranger expended a couple of boxes of .22 cartridges plinking near the cabin. 

There never was a newspaper article or an official report. David's father and the ranger agreed the bear was a young male. 

David's account fits the profile of a predatory attack. Most predatory attacks are by young male black bears. The bear was persistent, and would not leave. 

Bears have extraordinary noses. Its nose told the bear the big males of the strange animal group were not present. Only the small female and her young were in the nest with the delicious odors coming out the window. Small females and young of prey species are often eaten by black bears.

Once wounded, the young male bear realized the strange animals were too dangerous to be prey. It was too late. 

There were only two fatal black bear attacks in the 1940s and 1950s in the lower 48 states. Carol Ann Poveranky, 3 years old, was taken in Michigan, in 1948, outside her home. A bear was implicated in the death of a hunter, Carl Herrick, 37, in Vermont, in 1943.

Bears were considered pests. Bear populations were low. People tended to be armed in the woods, and bears were shot on sight. 

How many predatory attacks simply ended as did the one at the Oregon fire tower? The bear underestimated its unfamiliar prey, and was killed before any person was injured. It might have been different without the little .22 rifle.

David's family talked about the attack and the bear for years. 

David says he must have heard it or told it hundreds of times. He was there, and he will never forget his mother shooting the black bear with the .22 as it tried to force its way into the little cabin. 

.22 rimfire cartridges are often underestimated. Bella Twin, a small, 63 year old Cree woman, shot and killed a world record grizzly bear with a single  shot .22 rifle, a Cooey Ace 1. 

©2020 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice and link are included.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

in the picture I have the shot gun on the top and the 22 pump rifle on the bottom