Golfing with Bears and Ursus Horribilis – A Grizzly tale of greens management

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Fatha Haeman kista coona ruskit. Go home and kiss the cow's arse. The latter is Icelandic and the former its translation. This is the picture of my Grizzly bear encounter. Fun eh? No not really. Life's like this working on a golf course in the Canadian Rockies. Or partying with Charles Sheen! Photo by Jerry West.

How Joe Two Rivers Saved my Life

By Terrance Gavan

One of the perks wrapped around a job as irrigation manager on a golf course deep in the heart of cottage country, in the East Kootenays, includes gazing up at the Fairmont Range.

A jackdaw jumble of jagged clefts, which hiccups nimbly from Invermere to Cranbrook. It’s celebrated as one of the five prettiest ranges in the Rocky Mountain Chain.

Another perk includes serene holes played out on the back nine, overlooking the Columbia River, in those hours just between dusk and full moon. No one else on the course. The sprinkler heads already dispersed on the front nine. The John Deere Turf Pro four wheeler acting as ersatz cart. There is jazz playing through the sound system in the John Deere.

Dave Koz, Jacksoul and Steely Dan float mellifluously over the green parapet toward the high arching cliffs on the east and down the steep sides of the wide drooping Columbia Valley on the west.

I play two balls per hole. Never look for a ball. Another perk of working irrigation in the heart of the Rockies on an upscale course. In three days without even breaking stride we can collect 150 balls. Nice balls mind. High-end Titleists, Srixons, Top-Flites.
When it gets too dark to see the pin I plot a course of sprinklers on the back nine, always making sure to head out to 14 and shoo the herd of 37 or so elk from the greens and fairways and back down the steep terminus of the Columbia Valley.

One year, work included another perk. Getting to know a family of Black Bears who had made Mountainside Golf Course their summer home. We worked the same hours, the bears and I. Molly was the mum and Polly and Lolly were her two yearling cubs. They, like me, seldom ventured onto the course in the heat of the day, when the course was busy with shouts of fore, madly swaying carts and the crack and crumble of underbrush ingenuously cleared by mashie-wielding plaid and pastel colored lumberjacks.

Molly, Polly and Lolly preferred the late evening and the pitch of night. When it was quiet, except for the nuance and sway of tenor sax and Bradford Marsalis wafting above the gentle spzzt-spzzt-shzzzz-sprttt of the sprinkler heads. We were never what you might call fast friends, Molly, Lolly, Polly and I, but we did, after a few weeks, come to an understanding of sorts. Molly would “rowfff” deeply when Lolly or Polly ventured too close to my cart, and she would stamp the ground and indulge in some mock charges when I got a little too familiar.

But mostly I could go about my business with little fear. Twenty-five feet was the chosen buffer. Any closer and we both got a little nervous. Twice, the cubs attempted to broach the recognized “Maginot Line” and both times I simply turned a sprinkler head on them and they soon learned to keep their distance. Bears hate water, especially when fired from a sprinkler head at 600 psi.

Now bears are not generally regarded as a perk of night work on a golf course, especially in the heart of the Rockies where bear vigilance often goes hand-in-hand with self-preservation. In fact, because we were working alone in open cart at night, night irrigation staff were treated each year to a “Bear Aware” class held by legendary BC Natural Resources Officer Wombat Kerzinski.
I took the course for three seasons and Wombat started each seminar with the same bold spark. He would unbutton his light brown BC Resources khaki shirt, revealing the upper part of his torso, and a nasty alabaster scar stretching from shoulder to belt line. Then he would pull up his trouser leg revealing an equally hideous ankle to thigh ragged and sallow rip.

“And that ladies is how Ursus Horribilis says hello,” chuckled Wombat. “For those of you who never took Latin in high school, ursus means bear and horribilis … well you get the picture. We call them Grizzlies and you don’t ever want to meet one alone on a lonely trail at sunset. And if you do, well, I hope you are right with your god, have your papers in order and are carrying a change of underwear.” And here Wombat would laugh, gently, knowingly. “The clean shorts will come in handy, just in case you’re one of the lucky few that come away from this little tête-à-tête with Ursus Horribilis unscathed.”

And then he would proceed to take us through our paces. The tips came like staccato burps from a popgun.

Wombat’s tip number one: “Never run from a bear, because you will be mistaken for prey. Remember that bears are like people, they just love fast food,” chuckled Wombat, a joke that is met with the usual smack and smatter of nervous giggles, especially from the new staffers who have just arrived for the summer from Great Britain.

Wombat’s tip number two: “Popular misconceptions. Please my ladies, don’t climb a tree. Bears can climb trees and they do it faster than most humans. You are not Tarzan ladies. And also, don’t run downhill … we have heard that bears don’t run downhill very well … news flash here ladies … humans are not particularly good at it either … and you don’t want to be rolling downhill in front of a tumbling bear, because when you reach the bottom and you both stand up, that bear is going to be very, very angry, because bears get pissed when you make ‘em look stupid. And when that happens you will want to have your bear spray handy. You will want to point it at the bear and press the button when the bear is within three feet. That way when the wind blows it back in your face and blinds you, you will not be able to see as the bear runs you down and proceeds to swat away at your noggin like Sugar Ray Robinson on a speed bag.” Wombat was not a big fan of the bear spray.

Wombat’s tip number three: “Challenge a Black Bear … yell, shout, whistle, stand on your tiptoes, wave your arms, stomp the ground, make a few fake charges. And now … listen very carefully,” Wombat would say ominously, leaning into the group. “When you meet a Grizzly, avert your eyes, get small, say a prayer, and never assume a challenging posture … oh … and if you have a cell … the number to call is 911. Just so they’ll know where to send the coroner.” This last bon mot, followed by a large guffaw.
Johnny Elton, the summer worker from Liverpool, asks: “How, do we know it’s a Grizzly, Wombat?”

“Well, ladies,” whispers Wombat, “I could give you the textbook flash, but let’s just say … you’ll know … and we’ll leave it at that.”
And of course Wombat was right. A night in August, back in 2001. It was 10 pm. I was just popping out to chase the elks off the back holes. Usually they required some urging. But not this night. The herd was skittish and had already started toward the bank sloping to the valley.

In hindsight this should have presented a warning. Instead I decided to play a ball onto 15 at the very back edge of the course. My ball wandered just off the fringe and I detoured into the brush. My cart was 100 feet away and so was my walkie-talkie. I had a seven iron and two provisional balls in my hand when I heard the noise. I peered through the brush and noticed the dark form. “Molly … what are you doing back here,” I yelled, at the same time looking around for signs of Lolly and Polly. The shape moved again, and so did every hair on my body. Wombat’s words came back like the cold hard crack and slap of a wet towel in a grade-nine gym class.
“You’ll know.” And in that nano-second blink, I knew.

This was not Molly. Molly liked to spend her time on the front nine, near the cottages and the time-shares and the berry trees. I was on the back nine, in the gentle folds of a Rockie night, alone, seven feet from Ursus Horribilis. He was on his hind legs and he was sniffing the air. The wind was at his back. He (she?) had been stalking the Elk on the far fringes of the course. The Elk had picked up his scent and that’s why they had moved off. I cursed my stupidity. The hairs on the back of my neck were up and I had a tingling sensation of raised flesh up and down my spine.
The clouds suddenly drew back revealing a full moon and it fell on us like a theatrical spot. We were suddenly etched against the night. I gripped the seven iron. I forgot all I had ever read about Grizzly bears, anything that Wombat had said in three years of bear aware tutelage.
What popped into my head was a long-forgotten call sign. “XNY556 A for Apple calling XNY556 G for George … come in George.” The Forest Rangers, that iconic CBC television staple from my youth. And then a picture of Joe Two Rivers (Mike Zenon), flooded my neuron-knocking noggin. Joe Two Rivers. Of course. He would talk, gently in Ojibwa to the bear; the bear would cock its head; Joe would talk some more; the Grizzly would then return to all fours, nod gently and amble away.
My problem. No Ojibwa. I spoke one sentence of Saulteaux-Cree, and I wasn’t going to tell this 500 pound grizzly to “go to hell.” Instinctually, I knew that English would simply not suffice. Joe Two Rivers spoke excellent English and he never once used it to commune with the bears he met once or twice per Forest Rangers episode. My mind raced.

Icelandic! I spent summers on the farm with Icelanders. My mother had grown up speaking Icelandic. I grew up with it summers near Gimli, that Icelandic enclave in the heart of Manitoba’s Interlake.
And so I turned to the bear and like Joe Two Rivers (denying Wombat’s advice) I looked my grizzly square in the eyes and whispered “Fara heim, kyssa kýra asnit” over an over again.
We stood eye to eye, for what seemed like an eternity. I never stopped talking, never broke eye contact. Hearkening Joe Two Rivers, I maintained that stoic stance. Calmly I chanted “Fara heim, kyssa kýra asnit” like a mantra. I lost all track of time and space. Suddenly, the bear fell to fours, shook his head gently, turned around and sauntered gently away.

I looked at my watch. And it hit me. Fulsome as that locomotive chugging in the distance. For the past three minutes I had been standing under a cloudless moonlit Rockie sky, frozen in some tangled time-space trance, calmly telling a 750 pound Grizzly to “Go home and kiss the cow’s arse.” In Icelandic.
I did two things when I got back to the cart. I phoned the Fairmont Lodge to ask them to report the Grizzly sighting.
And I reached into my knapsack for that extra pair of Calvin Kleins. Yes, folks, Bo knows football.
But Wombat Kerzinski knows all about Grizzlies and the utility of the standby boxers.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]