Bears of the Adirondacks, Part II

By Lt. Ken Didion

Well, in the last installment of this continuing saga you heard about some of the summertime encounters between people and the bears of the Adirondacks. Those stories are quite numerous and you only received a sampling of them in Part 1.  For instance, I did not mention my neighbor. He owns the diner on the main road in town, and one summer he was having difficulty with bears. Bears were regularly breaking into the flimsy shed that was attached to the back of the diner and making a mess of the garbage that was stored there. My neighbor secured the door with a sturdy 2×4; the bears broke it. He installed a hasp and lock; the bears ripped it off. It seemed that nothing he did would keep the bears out. With what he considered to be a stroke of genius, my neighbor drove the Chevy pickup truck that he had recently purchased up to the shed and gently nosed the bumper of the truck against the door. Let’s see a bear beat this tactic!

In the morning–when all of us local coffee drinkers showed up–the shed door was secure, the garbage was unmolested, and the Chevy pickup truck was covered with deep scratches where the bear had climbed all over it trying to figure out how to get at the garbage in the shed. I hope that bear learned his lesson!

But, let’s not get sidetracked here. I understand you wanted to hear about what happens in the fall between hunters, bears, and game wardens. Well, first of all, you must understand that what follows are not stories about the average sportsmen who venture out each fall to pursue game in an ethical and legal manner. Those stories you can read in Outdoor Life, Field and Stream, or other such magazines. These stories are about the less-than-honest individuals that we, as game wardens, come to know so well. These are the people who, with the coming of the first frosts in the mountains, venture from their suburban confines and mundane existence to pursue high adventure and what they perceive as dangerous game–the dump bears of the Adirondacks. They arrive heavily armed, with big bore rifles for the hunting, long barreled pistols for backup, and huge Bowie knifes for the final preparation of their trophy. Immediately, upon arrival in town, they seek out the location most likely to provide up-to-date, detailed, and accurate information on the numbers and size of the bears, their feeding times, and travel habits. This location, of course, is the tavern closest to the town dump. There, sitting faithfully at the bar, are possibly the best guides in the vicinity( at least in the minds of the city boys loaded for bear). Of course the last time one of these particular guides was anywhere near the woods was a number of years earlier, when they were the object of an extensive search conducted by the Forest Rangers.

Well, you get the idea of the caliber of people we are dealing with here. These are not the educated, professional men who are pillars of the community. Fortunately, for those of us enforcing the laws that protect the bears from unethical hunting practices, things have settled down considerably in the North Country compared to years past. The town dumps have all closed down and have been replaced by transfer stations. This has dealt a lethal blow to the successful pursuit of trophy garbage eaters by urban cowboys with guns. But, prior to the shutdown of the landfills, there was plenty of excitement for the bears, the dump hunters, and the game wardens.

Bear in Landfill

Like the night, many years ago, when Officer Dick Matzell and his Lieutenant, Larry Kring, responded to a complaint of someone hunting in the Cranberry Lake dump. Cautiously approaching the area, they found a car parked on Tooley Pond Road not too far from the entrance to the dump. Proceeding quietly on foot and observing the dump from the edge of the woods for a time produced no indication of any activity in the vicinity. Retrieving his K-9 partner, Paws, from the truck, Dick decided to track the violator from his car. Paws, being an exceptional tracking dog, wasted no time at all leading the wardens quickly from the car to a spot in the middle of the dump and immediately sitting down, which was his “alert” signal to indicate that he had found the object of his search. Dick and Paws had conducted many, many successful searches over the years, and Dick had unwavering faith in the dog’s abilities. He looked around and was completely mystified because he could see no indication of the violator. Turning on his flashlight to look more closely for signs, Dick shined the light in front of where Paws sat. There, to his and Larry’s amazement, was the hunter’s hat and the muzzle end of his gun barrel protruding from the garbage. Lifting up the hat, Dick’s light shone right into the hunter’s eyes. He was buried up to his neck in the garbage! Once extracted, the hunter was allowed to drive his own car to the court for his arraignment. Normally, the judge held these middle-of-the-night court sessions right at his kitchen table. He conducted this session in the courtroom at the town office building.

On another night, in another dump, Officer Lance Maly had an encounter that time has not erased from his memory. Lance, who patrols the Old Forge area in the southern Adirondacks, proceeded to the local dump one night on a routine patrol for illegal hunting activity during the early bear season. Lance, with many years of experience, is known for his stealth and competence in the woods. Concealing his patrol vehicle some distance from the dump, he quietly worked his way to its perimeter on foot. Stepping silently out of the woods, Lance stood at the edge of the dump looking around. His night vision was excellent after negotiating the darker woods getting to the dump. With the stars twinkling overhead, he could just make out the vague outline of the woods around the dump. The air was cold but still. It was very quiet. A rustling noise from across the dump caught his attention. Focusing in the direction of the noise, Lance was able to make out a form that was just a little blacker than the dump. A bear was making its way into the dump from the other side. Lance stood slowly shifting his gaze around the dump. As he looked to his left, there was a horrendous explosion and a blinding flash of light just a short distance away. When he finally settled back to earth, Lance stood blinking in an attempt to restore his vision. Without realizing it, Lance had silently crept to within twenty feet of a dump hunter and had been unlucky enough to be looking right at him when he discharged his 30-06 at the bear.

Listening to the bear crash off into the woods, Lance imagined the hunter’s shot had not come close. Later investigation revealed that he had missed by about ten feet. With his night vision reasonably restored, and the hunter still not aware of his presence, it was now Lance’s opportunity to turn the tables. Can you imagine the violator’s surprise at being arrested for attempting to illegally shoot a bear in the middle of the night by a game warden who was standing next to him the entire time? Small wonder that some game wardens develop legendary reputations.

A few years ago, not long before the Long Lake landfill closed its doors for good, ECO Bruce Perry and I teamed up for a patrol. It was the night before the opening day of early bear season. We had adjoining patrol sectors back then, and Bruce covered Long Lake and the surrounding country. The Long Lake dump was one of the last dumps in the North Country to close down and had become a problem area with lots of bears and lots of so-called hunters.

I met Bruce at about 11:00 p.m. at his house and we loaded his GMC Jimmy with all our gear and supplies. Bruce had made popcorn to go along with his other provisions. I had a big thermos full of coffee and a whole carrot cake that my wife had baked to carry us through the night. With ticket books and flashlights in our packs, we were ready to go. We parked the truck in a secluded area and gathered up our stuff to head to the dump on foot. Bruce had made arrangements to use the weigh-in station building for surveillance. This would be great! We could keep an eye on the dump, stay warm and comfortable, and even make fresh coffee if we needed it. We set off with our packs full of essential equipment and goodies. Like a waiter in a fine restaurant, I carried the carrot cake in my hand. It was in one of those big baking tins, so I couldn’t put it in the pack. At the weigh-in station, Bruce worked on the combination lock that secured the door of the building. After about the fifth attempt, he began to grumble. Gradually, not having any luck opening the lock, his grumbling got pretty heated and quite profane. Bruce is one of those people that have the exceptional insight and inherent ability to see the worst in any situation. I guess that was the case here, because he was getting downright mad. I suggested that we simply modify our strategy and use his truck for surveillance. We had a location where we could park it and watch the main entrance of the dump for activity. Bruce eventually calmed down and agreed to the plan. He thought, however, that we should quickly scout the dump before we adjourned to the truck. So off we went, packs full of equipment and goodies, and me carrying the carrot cake like the proud owner of a bakery presenting it to a customer.

The Long Lake dump has the distinction of being equipped with mercury vapor lighting in the main area, which made our job pretty easy. You could see much of the dump fairly well. We went around the end of the high chain-link fence that guarded the entrance past the weigh-in station. There were some buildings and heavy equipment off to our right, along with some open trailers where some recyclable materials were collected. Bruce slowly moved off in that direction. I wandered off to the left, carefully cradling the carrot cake. Off in that direction was the open dump itself, somewhat shadowy and indistinct. I approached the rim of the huge pit that was the dump and stood looking out over its dark expanse. I could see a big black spot off in the distance and would have sworn it was a bear, but there was no movement. All was quiet.

“Police, don’t move!”, Bruce suddenly shouted off to my right. I looked over to see what was going on and could see that Bruce was in the back of one of the open trailers. He was shining his flashlight down into a pile of clothing. I put the carrot cake down on a big rock and quickly ran over to the trailer and climbed the wooden steps that had been placed at the back of it. There in the beam of Bruce’s flashlight, cuddled comfortably in the huge pile of cast off clothing, were two mighty hunters clad in camouflage. They had a shotgun, a rifle, a bow, and a backpack, and were settled in for a night of hunting in the dump. The back of the open trailer overlooked the huge pit where the garbage was dumped. A perfect setup, until we came along. Bruce and I gathered up the perpetrators. I picked up the rifle and unloaded it, putting the shells in my pocket. Bruce did the same with the shotgun. We left the bow and the pack behind for the time being, and began to escort our charges from the dump. I was walking in front, keeping my guy in front of me, when, in the glow of the mercury vapor lighting, I noticed about six individuals walking toward the chain link fence from the dump entrance. They were not carrying any firearms and we already had our hands full, so I informed them that they were trespassing and that, if they did not leave the premises immediately, they would be arrested. At that very instant, I heard shouting behind me. I turned to see Bruce and his guy beginning to wrestle. Things were going downhill fast. First things first. I tossed the rifle into the darkness and pushed my guy up against the fence. I quickly handcuffed him, told him to stay right where he was, and raced off to help Bruce. The six guys on the other side of the fence were transfixed by the events unfolding before them. Bruce and I scuffled with the other mutt briefly and got him handcuffed. We stood there panting for a moment, and I asked Bruce what had happened. Apparently, his guy had decided he did not want to be arrested and had attempted to depart for places unknown. We questioned him as to why he had made such a foolish decision. Turned out he was a convicted felon and was somewhat concerned about the consequences of being arrested again and being in possession of a firearm. We assured him that he would find out soon enough.

We gathered ourselves and the rest of our parade, and departed the dump. Little did we realize, our night was just beginning. As we traveled to the town court in Bruce’s truck, the pungent odor of urine became overwhelming. The wrestler confessed to peeing in his pants in the excitement. I was glad we were using Bruce’s truck. Our discussion on toilet practices was cut short when Bruce slammed on his brakes. The bear that had run across the road in front of the truck was just disappearing into the woods when the violators pulled their foreheads out of the dashboard and seat back respectively. In spite of being seat belted in, they had been jolted pretty good. It did not phase them, though. They cursed their luck that they had not gotten a shot at that bear.

It took us awhile to get our boys arraigned at the court, because the judge first had to deal with a loud, obnoxious drunk that the State Police had arrested a short time earlier. While waiting, Bruce and I passed the time of day with our new found dump-hunting buddies. One apologized for the marijuana we had found on him, and the other expressed amazement that we hadn’t beat him up after he tried to escape and we had to wrestle him down and handcuff him. Puzzled, we inquired as to why he would think we would beat him. Because, he explained, he had been arrested many times in the past and the police had always beaten him up if he resisted arrest. We pointed out that not all law enforcement officers operated in that manner. He thanked us again.

At their court appearance, our boys promised the judge that they would, forthwith, send him the hundreds of dollars they owed in fines. They thanked him profusely for his kindness and for not sending them to jail. These were some of the most grateful and appreciative crooks Bruce and I had ever dealt with. We were starting to like these knuckleheads. We headed back to the dump to collect the rest of the violators’ equipment that had been left behind. On the way, we pulled down a side road near the dump to a roadside camping area to pick up the perpetrators’ truck. The area was filled with bear hunters, camped out and eagerly awaiting the first pink hue of dawn to spread its glow over the garbage in the dump. Picking their way around the embers of dying campfires, our poachers got in their truck and backed it out to head for the dump. We followed.

As we drove along behind their beat up truck, a head popped up over the tailgate and looked around. My fondness for our new-found poaching buddies quickly evaporated. They had assured me that there was no one else involved in their nighttime escapade and that just the two of them had come up from downstate for a wilderness experience. It now appeared that they had blatantly lied to me, and I don’t like being lied to. The third party in the back of the truck continued to gaze around at his surroundings as he whizzed down the highway. I would have thought that he would be cold, dressed in only a t-shirt as he was. It was about 2:00 a.m. and around 30 degrees. The hardy soul seemed unaffected by the lateness of the hour or the coldness of the air. He continued to be fascinated by the passing scenery.

Arriving at the dump entrance, we stopped behind the old truck and our defendants stepped out into the night. The passenger spotted the guy in the back of the truck and jumped back with a start. When I began to admonish them, rather loudly, for lying to me about not having any friends with them, our boys assured me that they did not know the guy in the back of their truck. Bruce and I conducted a brief interrogation, and the real story emerged. In a very drunken state, and completely comfortable in his t-shirt, undershorts, and socks, the passenger in the back of the truck managed to tell his story. He was, of course, a bear hunter by profession, and had set up camp with all his friends and the other bear hunters on the side of the road. He had spent that afternoon and evening drinking beer, and may have consumed one or two more than was prudent. (Those may not have been his exact words.) Finally tiring of this sport, and being a dedicated bear hunter, he had left the campfire and his friends, and gone off to bed. At least that was what he had thought that he did. He had apparently mistaken the back of a stranger’s pickup truck for his sleeping bag and crawled in. When he awoke, he was unable to figure out why trees were zooming through his tent. We explained the unusual phenomenon to him and drove him back to the camping area. I believe he probably woke up thinking that he had been in an episode of the X Files.

Well, we retrieved the rest of the criminals’ gear and sent them on their way. It was time to regroup, assess our situation and re-deploy. The carrot cake!   #%@&** !!!  Surely the bears had made short work of it. Bruce and I hustled into the dump. There it was, still perched peacefully on its rock. It looked like something grandma had just set out on her windowsill. We grabbed it and headed back to the truck. Parking back in our secluded spot, where we could watch the entrance to the dump, we poured the first cups of coffee of the night and dug into the cake. As we were about to take our first bite, a car slowed to a crawl by the dump entrance and two shadowy figures quickly disappeared into the dump. The car drove off and Bruce started to jump out of the truck. Bruce is one of those officers that is always eager to foil a criminal in the act. He is ever vigilant, always coiled and ready to strike. He is the first one into the fray without a hint of hesitation. Me, I need some coffee and carrot cake. I convinced Bruce to give these guys a couple of minutes while we completed our late night snack.

I deserve some credit here. You have to know ECO Bruce Perry. Keeping him from immediately pursuing a couple of criminals is like holding back an unleashed beagle after a rabbit just ran past its nose. I managed to contain him just long enough to consume most of a cup of coffee and a little carrot cake and off we went. It did not take us long to retrieve two more would-be bear poachers. These guys had added an interesting twist to the nighttime sport. Apparently, jack lighting bears with a spotlight and a rifle was not enough of a challenge for these two wingnuts. To add some sporting element to their illegal pursuit, they were using a small flashlight and a black powder rifle. Very noble of them. It made no difference to the judge, however. He levied the same stiff fines he did for all bear poachers. Degree of difficulty was not a factor in his sentencing, he explained to the guilty parties.

That was an exciting and eventful evening for Bruce and me. After our final court appearance of the night, the sky was gray with the beginning of daylight. We retired to the local diner for some breakfast and made plans for future patrols. Little did we realize that these exciting times were coming to a close. A unique poaching methodology was gradually disappearing. The dumps were closing and being replaced by solid waste transfer stations.

The following fall, we entered the Long Lake dump in the dead of night prior to the opening morning of early bear season. We inspected the new, huge metal roll-off containers that held the garbage, and the quarter inch thick steel plates that covered them. Not even a grizzly could break into one of those things. The dump was gone forever. We were standing in the new Long Lake Transfer Station.

Not one to give up easily, Bruce insisted we continue with our planned patrol. There might still be some bears around, and that meant the possibility of poachers and the action he craved. We located a couple of cast off lawn chairs and, it being an unusually warm evening, we set them up and got comfortable in the shadows of one of the buildings to keep an eye on things. It was only a short time before two well-intended, determined criminals approached the roll-off containers and inspected them just as we had. We were seated only a short distance behind them as one of the two kicked the steel container cover, making a noise that resonated loudly into the night. In a distinctly “downstate” accent, the kicker loudly proclaimed, “The  #%$%^@*  hunting is over now! I don’t even know how to hunt these $#^&*@& bears in the woods!” As they wandered dejectedly away, Bruce and I burst into laughter that I know they must have heard.

Bear season is a much quieter time of the year for us Adirondack game wardens, now. However, we still have a lot of stories we haven’t told you about the bears of the Adirondacks. So count on us to return with a few you haven’t heard, and maybe we can get some of our Catskill brethren to tell us some of their bear stories too.

To be continued…