Hear this edition of Canby Then in all of its audio glory on Episode 7 of the Canby Now Podcast.
So, don’t tell anybody, but Oregon is a beautiful place. We love our rugged mountains and forests, our pristine coastline and waterways, our rich valleys and fertile plains, and we show it. Oregonians hike, camp and do other outdoor activities far more than the average American and outdoor recreation in our state is a $16-billion a year industry.
But, can you imagine a time when Oregon’s great outdoors was not so inviting? When the hills and valleys, woods and streams still belonged to nature, and we were the wary guests? It was not as long ago as you may think.
In earlier days, one of the great dangers in Oregon country was bear attacks. Bears are, by nature, not aggressive toward humans. But when their territory, food or offspring are threatened, they can, and will, attack. In the days that the bear populations were much greater, and the human populations much smaller, this was not uncommon.
Boxing with a Bear? Yeah, This Won’t End Well.
One of the oldest known accounts was recorded in The Oregonian in 1878. Several teenagers, Adam Benson, Johnny Northover and Jack Barnes, went out hunting on horseback, when they came upon two large bears. They brought down one, but the other fled into the woods, despite having been shot four times.
One of the teens, Adam Benson, set off after the wounded animal on foot, which, if you’re keeping track at home, is not a good idea. He didn’t find the bear; the bear found him, and it charged him despite Adam managing to get another two rounds of buckshot into it.
The bear knocked the gun from his hands and beat Adam over the head with his massive paws, and he dropped to the ground. The beast bit and clawed at the helpless young man, who tried desperately to reach his one remaining weapon: a hunting knife. At last, his fingers closed around the sheath, only to find it empty. The knife had fallen out in the struggle and was gone.
The bear went for Adam’s throat, and he held him back with his bare hands, pushing back at the beast’s head and snapping jaws with all that remained of his fading strength. At the last moment, Adam was saved by Jack Barnes’ dog, Rover, who attacked the bear so fiercely he drove it away.
Adam was found by his friends and carried home on horseback. On the way, the newspaper noted, he managed to tell them that “he was not anxious to box a bear soon again.” He survived the attack, although one of his arms had been so badly mangled that it later had to be amputated.
Seventh Time’s the Charm, I Guess?
In 1900, a bear charged a group of men at a ranch in Corvallis. This bear was extremely large and was a well-known terror to the farmers in the area. The rancher, Caleb Davis, fired a rifle at the beast seven times.
“As each bullet struck him, the enraged brute uttered an unearthly yell that could be heard for half a mile,” a newspaper reported.
The seventh shot found the bear’s eye and finally dropped him, only a few feet from the smoking muzzle of Davis’ Winchester.
Dude. Do NOT Mess with His Cow.
Another farmer, Thomas Blower, had a close call in 1904, when he and his dog went out into the wilderness in search of a “valuable cow” that had gone missing. In the mountains, he found what was left of his prized bovine, along with a female black bear who was “cooly eating her breakfast.”
With the help of his dog, the enraged farmer was able to dispatch the beast with two blows from an ax . Afterward, he found a cave nearby with two small orphaned cubs, which he and his wife took in. The cubs were later transferred to the care of a man in Albany.
Flying by the Seat of His Pants. Literally.
In 1908, the Condon Times reported the story of a man, Bert Owens, who ran across two cubs. He caught one of them, which proved to be a mistake when the mama bear showed up. Bert tried to run, but the bear caught hold of him “by the seat of the pants.”
He thought he was done for, but fortunately, his friend, Louis Mattingly was nearby with a dog. They came to his rescue, just in the nick of time.
“The old bear only got the seat of my overalls and drawers,” Bert was recorded as saying. “I am sure she was very welcome to them.”
‘You Know, I Was Looking to Change the Carpet in Here Anyway.’
But one of the most thrilling, and most heroic, of these “man vs. wild” stories took place in our area in 1911. On July 3 of that year, Tom Scott, the owner of a large ranch on Pine Creek near Molalla, and his partner were out driving a herd of sheep about a mile from the cabin where they lived, when they encountered “a cinnamon bear of the largest size.”
Cinnamon bears, a lighter-colored subspecies of the black bear, can stand over six feet tall and weigh as much as 600 pounds. Scott’s partner, who was not named in any of the newspaper coverage of this story, fired two shots at the bear, wounding it slightly, then discovered “to his horror” that he was out of ammunition.
The bear, wounded only enough to make it wild with rage and pain, charged the man, while Tom Scott rushed to his rescue, though he was armed with nothing other than a light camping ax. Still, without hesitation, he stepped between his fallen companion and the angry bear.
Picture yourself in Tom Scott’s shoes. Blood pounding, adrenaline coursing through your veins. Your muscles tense, your face slick with sweat from the day’s work and the heavy summer heat, as you face down an enraged, 600-pound predator with nothing but a small hatchet.
The bear charged, and Tom swung the ax, but it was caught in an overhead vine. The bear seized Tom by the thigh, shaking him violently, and he howled with pain and rage. Bleeding profusely, Tom managed to fight his way out of the beast’s jaws and free his weapon.
He swung the ax a second time, with all the strength that he had left. This time, he did not miss. The ax was buried to the handle between the bear’s eyes.
“The pelt now adorns the floor of Mr. Scott’s cabin,” the Canby Tribune would later report. “Tom walks a little lame as a result of the encounter, but the wound is healing nicely, and he will soon be as active as ever.”
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