“Bear!” Kaylene Patton, a primly proper pre-teen, probably in the woods for the first time in her life, stood in the dining hall doorway and shouted at the top of her lungs. The girls in her cabin jumped up from their table and raced to greet her, squealing as they ran. Three or four counselors followed, but refrained from screaming.
Ritch watched the spectacle from a distance while dumping ketchup onto a skinny cheeseburger patty.
Shane, one of the campers in the Mustang cabin looked over at Ritch and said, "Some girls sure do act kinda crazy, don't they?"
“Guess so," Ritch responded.
Paul and Pete Stone were rookie counselors from Daytona Beach, Florida. As Counselors in Training, or CITs, they didn’t have specific responsibilities for any single cabin, but helped out here and there, wherever needed. They both fancied themselves as avid surfers, skateboarders, and professional videographers, even paparazzi. In their first week at camp, they proclaimed themselves the camp historians, filming every major event, and lots of minor events, throughout the summer. For reasons only known by the camp staff, the two had been dubbed, the “stoner brothers.” Paul chased after the crowd that had surrounded Kaylene while Pete filmed the incident with his video camera.
“There’s a bear on the trail!” Kaylene yelled again, pointing to the east, adding a bit of dramatic flair, a trait she had obviously mastered long ago.
Christine was the first adult to reach the hysterical eleven-year-old. “It’s okay, Kaylene. Now tell me what happened.” Christine wore the official camp director T-Shirt – a Camp Safe Harbor shirt with the words, “Camp Director” on the back and knee-length pink shorts. A gleaming silver whistle dangled from a lanyard around her neck.
Kaylene was out of breath, or at least appeared to be out of breath. “My cabin hiked to the waterfall this morning. My counselors and the other girls came back, but I took a little longer. Eventually, I came across a giant bear on the trail. Oh, my God, I was so scared.”
“Did the bear chase you?”
“I don’t know. I think so. As soon as I saw him, I ran back to camp. He was so mean, with big fangs and claws.”
Paul pointed a microphone at Kaylene and asked, “Was the attacking carnivore gigantuous? You know, as tall as Grey Rollen?” His brother kept the camera rolling during the interview.
“I don’t know.”
“Was he big? Say, as big as….” He turned to look at a heavy-set counselor. Then he continued, “As big as Billy?” Everyone knew Billy was one of the laziest and largest of the camp horses.
Pete focused the camera on the crowd of girls and continued filming the interview, shifting back and forth from Kaylene to the other campers.
“Is anyone else still out there, Kaylene?” Christine asked.
“No. I was the last one.”
"Yes, camper fans, the sole survivor of a confrontation with the evil predator of Camp Safe Harbor tells her story exclusively to us, the Stone brothers," Paul said into the microphone.
Melinda, who never hung around with Kaylene, was not one to let her have all of the attention. At the first break in the conversation, she announced, “Last year, I was walking down the trail and a giant deer attacked me! I thought he was going to eat me alive.”
Pete didn’t bother filming Melinda’s story. Paul didn’t comment on it. The campers seemed just as disinterested.
Christine took advantage of the awkward moment. “Let that be a lesson to all of us." She raised her head and voice so everyone in the dining hall could hear.
Pete crouched down, shooting up at Christine. Ritch realized that angle would make her look almost cartoonish.
"We should not leave our cabin groups. We should stay together at all times. There are lots of dangers in the woods and we have to be careful and always look out for each other.” She emphasized her words with jabs in the air with one finger. “None of us wants to be hurt.”
“What a crock.” Grey said. He got up from the table, threw his napkin onto his plate and marched toward the small crowd of girls.
Ritch followed from a distance.
Christine’s voice was rising in intensity as more and more people gathered around her. "This summer alone, we've had children stumble upon poison ivy, get lost in the woods and one child broke his leg."
“He fell out of her bunk in his cabin,” Grey grumbled. "C'mon. Let’s all go back to our seats. Break it up, girls. Cheeseburgers today. And Melinda, there is no such thing as a man-eating deer.”
“It scared me,” she insisted.
Pete zoomed in on Grey who stared, wide eyed, into the lens and then stuck his tongue out. The amateur cameraman backed away. He and his brother returned to the CIT table.
As the group began to disperse, Grey pulled Kaylene by the elbow to one side. “Where exactly were you when you saw the bear?”
She seemed surprised by his question. “I, uh, we were on the trail coming back from the waterfall.”
“Were you on this side of the water tank or the other side?”
Kaylene had to stop and think about her answer. “The other side.”
“Okay. Got it.” He let her elbow go and turned to Christine. “Ritch and I will go check it out.”
Christine seemed a bit surprised that a counselor was taking such initiative without her direction. “What are you going to do?”
“If there’s a bear on the trail, we’ll chase it off.”
“Wait. We should call the forest rangers.”
“That’s not necessary. We’ll be back in fifteen minutes.” He gave a head nod to Ritch and headed out one of the side doors of the dining room. Ritch followed Grey.
“Where are we going?” Ritch asked.
“We’re goin’ on a bear hunt.”
“Jeez. I didn’t sign up for this,” Ritch said under his breath.
“Well, we could just let the man-eating deer chase it off,” Grey said.
The dining hall and other camp facilities were located in the center of the camp property. A small trail meandered its way to the west, eventually ending around the area of Junkins’ Cave, where Ritch and Grey had taken their group that morning. On the opposite side of the camp a trail wound through the woods to the waterfall, a pleasant little three-foot drop in the river where kids came to wade in the cool mountain stream on hot summer afternoons. The water tank that provided water for all of the camp’s needs was about two hundred yards up the trail from the waterfall.
The camp was surrounded on three sides by the Chattahoochee National Forest. It wasn’t unusual for rabbits, raccoons, opossums and even deer to wander through the camp from time to time. This summer, a drought drove even more animals than usual onto camp property in search of food.
The two young men began to jog down the trail. “She said she saw the bear just the other side of the water tank. Let’s start there.”
The water tank was a huge, gray cistern just off the trail. A small pump house stood beside it. When they reached the tank, both young men slowed to a walk. Grey scanned the woods to the left of the trail and Ritch scanned the right side. Halfway between the tank and the waterfall, they came upon a small open field. Far down the hill, ambling through a small grove of pine trees, was a young black bear.
“That’s a bear,” Ritch said in his non-descriptive manner.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Grey said. “I thought she was lying.”
“You know campers never lie.”
“Look over there,” Grey pointed. A small dirt road skirted the border of the camp property on the other side of the field. Locals used the road to access the small waterfall. Camp authorities didn’t mind, as long as they cleaned up after themselves. The remains of several white plastic bags were scattered here and there near the road. “Somebody probably dumped some garbage over there and the bear was just digging through it looking for something to eat.”
“So, what now?” Ritch asked.
“We chase the bear away.”
With that, both counselors ran through the meadow waving their arms and screaming as they ran.
The bear turned and watched the running pair with little interest.
Without stopping, Ritch reached down and scooped up a large stick that had fallen from one of the nearby trees. He hurled it toward the bear. “Get on out of here.”
It landed close enough to the bear to catch her attention. She turned toward the charging counselors for a moment, causing them to slow their pace a bit, but turned and picked up her gait to a loping gallop heading back into the woods.
Grey stopped and grabbed some stones. He tried throwing them at the bear, but each one missed. Eventually, she disappeared through the pine trees at the edge of the camp property line and into the forest.
Ritch and Grey stopped to catch their breath. “Think she’s gone for good?” Ritch asked.
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