Dateline: June 1, 2001 - On the road to Texas
Recently, while making a marathon 3000 mile road trip from Western Oregon to the Texas Gulf Coast where I was about to begin a new job, I had ample opportunity to reflect on my career as a professional chef.
As the miles clicked off my odometer and I sped past side roads leading to some of America’s most remote and beautiful National Parks I couldn’t help but remember some of my experiences of cooking in out-of-way, back-country kitchens.
For some reason, bears have played a significant part in my culinary training.
I was born and raised in Montana. Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks were in my backyard, and camping was a normal part of my summer.
My family and I frequently had encounters with bears around the campground, and I learned early the wisdom of putting the food coolers in the car or hanging the food high up tree at night.
More than once I remember seeing the “city folks”anxiously rolling up their car windows while the cute bear tried to get in the car for more treats. You would have thought that I had learned my lessons.
Since those idyllic days of my youth I have continually had encounters with bears. I suppose it’s the price I had to pay to work in such beautiful places.
My first professional chef experience with a bear was in a restaurant (they were called “Supper Clubs” in those days) overlooking pristine Swan Lake near Glacier National Park in Northern Montana.
I was the Dinner Cook and came in early to prep for a big Friday night. I had unlocked the back kitchen door and left it open while I went to the bar to get a soda. When I returned to the kitchen, I was quite surprised to find that there was a full grown Black Bear Sow with two cubs in my kitchen! I had only been gone for five minutes but in that time those bears had managed to make a real mess and were having a great time knocking over anything that might even remotely contain food.
Nothing in a previous culinary training had quite prepared me for this moment. However, my childhood experience paid off as I shouted “get out of here” while grabbing the nearest CO 2 fire extinguisher and quickly figuring out where I should run to.
Momma Bear wasn’t really happy about all this and rose up on her hind feet to impressive height while she eyed this crazy intruder. Fortunately for me, the cubs had the good sense to run out the back door, AND the fire extinguisher worked when I pulled the lever. All this noise, combined with the full spray of CO 2 fogging up the kitchen convinced the bear that she too should leave.
All that remained was for me to shut (and lock) the back door and clean up the mess. The worst part was the fine powder that I had stupidly sprayed all over my immaculate kitchen. Thanks to a full load of adrenaline I managed to get everything cleaned and ready to go by opening time.
About two weeks later one of the customers left the main dinning room door open, and the same bear managed to amble into the dining room for a quick look-see. However, the screams and shouts of about forty people convinced the bear of the error of her ways. She never did come back, least ways not INTO the restaurant. However, I knew she was out there watching me every night when I went to the garbage cans. Kinda keeps you on your toes and adds a new dimension to cooking.
It was about ten years later when I had my next culinary bear encounter. This time I was the Chef at a remote fly-in fishing Lodge in Northern Alaska.
Now the bears in Alaska aren’t those cute little Black Bear variety. These are BIG bears, and I do mean BIG. They are called Alaskan Brown Bears (a very large type of Grizzly Bear) that frequently weigh over 1000 lbs.! Not something you want to casually “run into.”
Our nearest neighbor was about 10 miles up-river, and the Lodge had a resident “family” of around 8 to 10 bears that routinely fished in the same waters that our clients did. Naturally, we kept all the doors shut at this lodge. The guides routinely carried a loaded 12 gauge shotgun with them at all times and were always looking over their shoulder for any bear activity.
At night, after we were all securely locked in our rooms, the bears had the run of the camp and it was quite common to hear them walking around outside your room.
For three seasons we never had a problem with a bear. Then it happened. We got a bad one, and he wouldn’t stay away. One night he stood on top of a full-size chest-type freezer and pulled one end of the freezer top up, as easily as you would open a can of sardines!
This wasn’t really cool as far as we were concerned but the next night it got worse. The bear decided that he would break the door down on the Manager’s cabin and come inside. This resulted in the sudden and unexpected demise of the bear.
Well by now bear fever was running wildly among the crew and I was equally afflicted, especially since I was the first man up each morning and had to open up the kitchen at 4:00 AM.
My cabin was about 50 yards from the main lodge which required that each day I make the dreadful walk in the dark from my cabin to the back door of the lodge. I accomplished this daily ritual first by carefully opening my door a crack and then painstakingly shining my high-powered flashlight around my immediate environment. Next, I would open the door wider and repeat the flashlight procedure until I was satisfied that I wasn’t about to meet MR. BEAR.
I would then chamber a round in my twelve gauge shotgun, lay the barrel on top of the flashlight I held in my left hand and carefully, quietly, walk those dreadful 50 yards to the back door of the lodge.
The morning after the Manager’s encounter I awoke with some trepidation about my morning walk. After carefully following my standard routine I began my fateful journey to work.
I walked the first 40 yards and all that remained was for me to make a right turn in front of the guides quarters, step on the boardwalk, and walk the remaining ten yards to the kitchen door.
Unknown to me, the night before, one of the guides had hung his chest-high fishing waders upside down from overhang outside his door.
As I rounded the corner of the guides quarters, I saw this HUGE BROWN object directly in front of me and was immediately convinced that I was about to be devoured.
Not about to go down without a fight, I pulled the trigger thinking that it was either him or me.
A twelve-gauge shotgun slug makes a significant hole and a major sound. Immediately, the entire camp was awakened.
The guides ran fully armed and unclothed from their quarters to find the camp cook grinning sheepishly while I proudly held up my kill; the huge brown rubber waders with the biggest hole in them anyone ever saw!
If you ever visit this Lodge in Alaska, you will find these waders proudly mounted on the wall for all to see.
This summer watch out for the bears....