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Bear-Weary Scouts Head Home Swapping Camp Stories : Outdoors: Maulings of four campers leave youngsters with a mix of bravado and reflection. Autopsies fail to find rabies or other abnormalities in the two animals.

August 08, 1993|MARIA L. La GANGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BARTON FLATS, Calif. — The bear-weary Boy Scouts of Camp Tahquitz, alternating between boyish bravado and somber reflection, cleaned up their campsites one last time, packed their duffel bags and headed home Saturday morning, joining hundreds of other youths going down on California 38.

"Everyone's been scared," said Aaron Martinez, 14, as his father sat in the pickup reading a book by Michael Crichton and waiting to drive back to La Verne. The bear attacks that wounded three boys at Tahquitz on Friday and one at nearby Camp Wasewagan on Tuesday "make you more careful."

But when you're 14 and you were there when it happened, it also makes for great stories, and even Aaron could not resist one about the Friday morning mauling at Tahquitz: "The bear hit one guy across the face," he said breathlessly. "They killed that bear, and his brother, 'cause they didn't want him (the second bear) to get mad."

Meanwhile, an examination by San Bernardino County health officials of brain tissue taken from the two bears determined Saturday that neither was infected with rabies, officials said.

Pat Moore, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Game, said that additional laboratory tests conducted on the animals could find nothing to explain last week's attacks. Both bears were very healthy, Moore said.

In recent years, two bear cubs and their mother have periodically been seen scavenging for food in the Big Bear area. Authorities speculated Saturday that the two bears shot after being tracked by bloodhounds may have been the two cubs, now grown.

"The speculation is that these two bears (were) out on their own, and that (scavenging) was all they knew how to do," Moore said.

Results of the tests were turned over to health departments in Los Angeles and Orange counties. The bears' carcasses were expected to be incinerated.

Barton Flats, just off California 38 in the San Bernardino National Forest en route to Big Bear, is home to about 30 youth camps and thousands of young campers at any given time.

The camps have "great safety records," said Joan Mulcare, division chief for the San Bernardino County Department of Environmental Health Services, which oversees them. "I'd hate to see that marred by this bizarre occurrence."

Most of the camps are clustered within a mile or two of one another in a jagged circle formed by California 38 and Jenks Lake Road. They are thick with ponderosa and Jeffrey pines and dotted with colorful dome tents.

On Friday and Saturday, the twin bear attacks resulted in an in-depth lesson in the importance of personal cleanliness for hundreds of adolescent campers. They learned that brazen bears troll for food throughout the area and can be attracted by the scent of a candy bar hidden in a sleeping bag or spilled grease on a camper's jacket.

After the Camp Wasewagan attack on Tuesday, Boy Scout Leader Steven Leu, at neighboring Camp Tahquitz, had his charges scooping up offending candy bars and toiletries and stringing them up in bear bags 20 feet above the campsite.

"We removed everything," said Leu, a Santa Ana firefighter. "We made sure all the boys showered." But, countered his son Adam, 11, "some are still filthy."

Suzanne Ellis, a camp leader from Rowland Heights with two sons at the camp, said that on Monday at Campsite 3 in Tahquitz a bear wandered into camp and grabbed a loaf of white bread in front of the astounded campers. As the boys raced for their cameras, the bear wandered away, dropped the loaf and returned for the wheat bread instead.

Campsite 3 was also where 12-year-old Brian Song was sleeping Friday morning when one of the offending animals scratched him in the face, leaving cuts that required 10 stitches. Brian had not washed his hands properly, Ellis said, and he woke up to find the bear licking his fingers.

The boy, who is fine, "realizes he was wrong," Ellis said. "The first thing he said was: 'I hope my parents let me come up next year.' That tells you how the boys feel about the camp and how safe it is."

At Camp Ta Ta Pochon, run by the Alhambra District YMCA, counselors and staff shielded the young campers from tales of the mauling, noting that some were as young as 7. Ta Ta Pochon, which has its fair share of bears wandering through, has been inundated with calls from worried parents.

On Saturday, camp director Mike Spain described the camp's bear sightings to Kevin-Barry Brennan, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game. Brennan, who shot one of the two bears that were killed after the Tahquitz attack, was spending the day chronicling the movement of the area's bears and calming the nerves of edgy camp staffs.

First, Spain told of a 500-pound male that the camp has named Diamond, who tries to get into Ta Ta Pochon's garbage every night. The dumpster is always on its side, and the animal has bent back its steel doors.

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