The Black Bears of Pickering Lumber
By Lars Sanders
By the middle of April in 1951 the Pickering Lumber Company had opened its logging camp at Skull Creek for the summer. Some people called it the Standard Lumber Company, but that was only because their mill and office were at the town of Standard in Tuolumne County. My partner Lea and I were on the first crew of six sets of timber-fallers that went to work on the logging-side on upper Griswold Creek. We stayed in camp and rode the crew truck (called the crummy) till the roads dried up some, then we drove (taking our turn) from our homes in Avery and Paradise Lake.
There was still a lot of snow on the ground in shady places, and we started seeing bear tracks, and once in a while a bear. I believe they were still in hibernation when we started, but the sound of chain-saws and trees falling woke them up and they were hungry. Not for a bite of a lumber-jock, but some scraps from his lunch, or all the lunch for that matter. Each day the bears became braver and soon some of us had our lunch-pails smashed and our lunch eaten up before lunch time. That didn’t make the men very happy. We couldn’t leave our lunches in the crew truck because it was too far to walk back. So we started hiding them in piles of saw-dust, that worked for a day or two, but the bears soon wised up. Next we tied our lunches to a bent-over sapling and then let it spring up again, that worked for a few days too, but we soon started losing our lunches again.
The next spring I went back to work cutting timber up at Skull Creek, and my partner’s name was Dale. He was a big redheaded Irishman that weighed 270 lbs., but by fall was down to 240, I worked him so hard that all his fat was gone by that time! If the woods was still and he had something to laugh about you could hear him for a quarter mile. Also he was so strong and had a quick temper, and if he wasn’t careful when he got the saw stuck in a log, he could break that big saw in half at the trans.
When he and I went to work that spring, the first strip of timber that Charley Martin gave us took about two weeks to finish. The day before we would finish (if we had no breakdown) he told us that if we could finish by noon, or a little after, he would wait for us at our pickup and show us our new strip of timber so we would be ready to go to work early the next morning.
That day we worked harder than usual and were almost done when it was time to eat. There was one large leaning pine tree left and I told Dale that while he finished his tree, I would go down in this draw and see where we could try to fall that leaning pine without breaking it. I said we would fall it, then eat our lunch and head for the pickup with our tools.
The hillside draw was filled with chinky-pin oak brush, almost as hard to climb through as manzanita. There also was a couple of big alder trees there too, that I had to try to miss. I was almost down to the first alder tree when a large bear raised up out of the chinky-pin, where it had been laying down. It was only about 75 or 80 feet from me and then I saw 2 cubs stand up on their hind legs. Then I knew that it was a big black mother bear with cubs. She gave a grunt and the cubs started up that closest alder tree and she stood up on her hind feet and hit the tree with her front paws.
Two of my brothers, as we grew up in Minnesota, had had a very exciting meeting with a mother bear and cubs. Morton, then two years older than I and Oscar, four years younger than I, had these happenings years apart, but I remembered what could happen, so I shagged out. I looked back once to see if she was after me, but I could still see her looking at the cubs up in the alder tree.
When I got up to where Dale was, he had finished the tree and was sitting on the log waiting for me. Dale said in his big voice, “Who is your buddy?” I looked back and there about 50 feet back was that big old bear. She had stopped though, maybe because she heard or saw Dale. Anyway, she stood there and watched us, and we sat there and talked about her and what we should do. I could see the cubs up in the tree, and showed them to Dale. I told him that we couldn’t fall the pine with those cubs in that alder because even if we missed it the limbs could hurt or kill them.
Our tools and lunch was right there by that last big pine, so we decided to eat our lunch and maybe she would go out and get her babies and get out of there. The only problem was that she must of known about lunches, because when we started to eat she came up within about 20 feet of us and sat there licking her drooling lips. She was a beautiful bear, the blackest that I had ever seen, there was almost a blue tip to her fur because it was so black. We each threw her a piece of sandwich and a cookie and she even moved a few steps closer.
We decided that we had to fall that pine and try to miss those cubs because we had to go down and meet Charley, so we could get our new strip. I put in the under-cut and then looked things over before I started the back cut. I took a piece of the undercut and used it as a kicker (also called a Dutchman) to push the tree as far away from the cubs as possible. The mother bear was still there, but very nervous, walking back and forth in front of us.
I started the back cut, hoping for the best, I cornered one side and started back around and kept an eye on the bear and also on the back-cut. I sawed the cut open a little, and out of the corner of my eye I saw her turn and go tearing down the hill toward her cubs. I shut the saw off and we watched her head into the brush and soon heard her grunt and slap the tree with her front paws. The cubs started down fast and in less than a minute we saw all three of them cross a ridge down the hill and safely go into some timber. I said to Dale, “Mothers are fantastic,” and he said, “I agree.”
I started the saw and in about 20 seconds the tree headed for the ground. It brushed the alder tree a little and could have hurt or killed the cubs. I don’t know how she knew that the pine was falling and why she thought that her babies were in danger. She could of possibly heard the fibers in the tree pop, over the sound of the chain saw. The only way I figure is that she has had trees fall near her in her life in the world and felt the vibration in the roots under her feet as the back-cut opened up. She was close enough that the ends of the roots were under her.
We were a little late getting down to meet Charley Martin, but when we told him about the mother bear and her cubs he was real glad that we had taken the time to try and save them. This might just be my imagination, but it seemed to Dale and I that Charley watched out for us the whole season and gave us the nicest strips of timber he could, without it being obvious to the rest of the crew. He and I always did get along good though.
Dale and his family came from Medford, Oregon and on his way home that fall he got a job working on the landing cutting limbs and bumping knots near Redding, CA. The heel-boom loader operator was swinging a log over to the truck and he didn’t see Dale cutting some limbs and the log hit him and killed him instantly. I can count on one hand, the nicest men I have ever worked with and he was one of them.