Where did it all begin? There’s a natural history center over on the coast, one of the many overlooked gems in our vicinity, that includes an excellent bear. Rancho del Oso, at Waddell Creek in Big Basin Redwoods State Park – if you haven’t yet visited, proceed with all due haste. Along with nice exhibits there was a very well informed cool guy there who gave us the low-down on the area, including the fairly recent human habitation. They had a really good taxidermied bear, too.
Maybe due to the special qualities of this place and the local history involving the California Grizzly, but we just got on a bit of a bear kick after this. Look how they even have bears on the outside of the building.
The idea began its hibernation here, although we did not know it yet. It was on a flight to Cincinnati, Ohio a few weeks later that it started to take shape. During that long economy-class flight we talked of many things, including carved wooden bears. I don’t now recall how we reached that point in the conversation – possibly it was the very last topic available. But it did come up. We circled Cincinnati and landed, surrounded by violent storms at midnight. The power of the bear was gathering. We drove to a distant suburb and met our good friends at a T.G.I.Fridays. Thank god for T.G.I.Fridays, right? Everything else in town had long since closed, but they cheerfully provided us with large food portions and cool refreshing beverages. The goodwill and fellowship were abundant. And this is where it was first said out loud, “I want to have a carved wooden bear in the front yard.”
People were generally supportive of the idea, as they are when speaking with toddlers, the mad, and newly arrived visitors to Cincinnati. No more was said about it at the time, but it could not be taken back. The bear was loose.
For home entertainment, the Resident Expert and I have a few long-running shared narratives. They usually involve me mistakenly ordering huge numbers of animals from a web site, such as Badgers Unlimited dot com or some slight variation of that. But then I got the idea that a “problem bear” at Yosemite had to stay at our house overnight so that he wouldn’t break into cars at the campgrounds. This was Bear 474, who we eventually referred to as simply “474”. I mean, he was obviously a bear. Just one of the micro-mythologies that add so much enjoyment to our daily lives.
Flash forward a few months, and we’re on a trip to the North Coast at Christmastime. What better place to find a carved wooden bear than at one of the many roadside attractions in Mendocino and Humboldt counties? As memory served, you can’t go 10 miles without seeing a rain-sodden platoon of these guys, brazenly staring as you speed past on the Redwood Highway. I never would have stopped before, but now I was ready for them. But I guess the carved bear era has truly passed, even way up here. There were few bears on offer, and the few we did see were of the comical, message-driven variety.
Let’s get this straight right now. We were not looking for one of the carved bears with a cartoonish face holding a “welcome” sign. Those are fine outside of your vacation rental cabin – even necessary, in that scenario. Here’s a vacation cabin bear from a few years ago in Yosemite – and he’s not bad at all. No signage, and a proper bear-like posture. An altogether admirable bear.
Here’s an impressive message-bear, up in the Sonora Pass the year before last. Nice, but a little big for the front yard.
The concept is really starting to solidify now. Not too big, natural posture, and a regular bear face. I found a web site that showed you how to draw a good bear, and got right to it. We wanted a seated bear. They usually make them standing upright – I suppose that’s a more efficient use of wood, but it’s a relatively uncommon posture for a bear. The drawing site just showed you how to draw a walking bear, but they provide some basic bear anatomy and I used that to come up with a picture of our bear.
It was 474. Look how contemplative he is. Probably thinking about all of the Coleman ice chests he’s busted into.
So we have our bear, but only in two dimensions. Still looking for that magical wood carver, who would bring him to life. And wouldn’t you know, there was one right nearby. We were passing by Firewood Farms in Half Moon Bay and saw some carved figures in their yard. It was right at their closing time, but we stopped in to take a look – they had the realistic, rough-hewn, natural look we had in mind. I emailed the picture to them and asked if they could make a bear out of it. Sure, they said. And so we placed our order.
We asked for a bear that was between 2 and 3 feet tall, and with a natural, ‘bearish” face, rather than the anthropomorphic style. That didn’t appear to be their approach anyway, but I figured it would be best to say so at the outset.
A few weeks went by and we got the call. “Your bear is ready. He’s outside the office now, and is attracting a lot of attention. He’s a very cute bear.” I guess we’re really doing this. The bear is ready. But, “very cute”? Not, “very contemplative”? I was very nervous on the drive over there. What have we gotten ourselves into? But then, I could see him down in the Firewood Farms yard from Highway 92. He looked exactly like the drawing. But, also, I could see him from the highway. How big is this bear?
He was really big.
We were delighted to meet the talented woodcarver, Stefan. He’s from Germany. It’s really kind of amazing that he did this with a chainsaw. “Except for the eyes”, he said. We were kind of stunned by the size of the bear, but bonded with him right away. Our next challenge was to bring him home. It looked like he’d be a tight fit in the Forester, and once in I’d not be able to get him out. He’s a hefty fellow – at least 200 lbs., I’d guess. And so we scheduled a delivery and started working on establishing his new habitat in the front yard.
He’s still settling in. Once the surrounding native plants fill in he will feel more at home.
It wasn’t really that long ago that the bears made their homes here. There’s evidence all around in street and place names; Bear Gulch Road, Bear Ridge Trail, Grizzly Peak, and Rancho del Oso, where we began. When our grandfathers’ fathers were young it would not have been all that surprising to see a bear foraging on our hillside. It’s even possible that one of them sat right where 474 sits today, in contemplation.