I brought the car to a stop and gasped! A bear was sleeping on the front stoop of the A-Frame VRBO cabin. The property was vacant this time of year as the snow on the peaks was mostly melted and it was too early for water activity on the river. Sure, bears were often seen in our mountain neighborhood especially since the elderly lady at the end of Jack’s Alley started hanging bacon strips on her clothesline. Bears roamed the Poncha Springs’ streets the night before trash collection, too. But to see a bear asleep in the open was rare. Maybe the creature was dead.
I was already late for work, so I kind of forgot about the bear until I headed home at the end of the day. Like I said, bears were commonplace in the neighborhood and if you left them alone, they’d leave you alone. As I approached the cabin’s property, the bear was still curled up in the same place. I pulled into the driveway and startled the creature. When it raised its head, my heart dropped in my stomach. It was a dog! A big, brown dog!
I called Eileen, “You’re not going to believe this, there’s a big brown dog at the A-Frame cabin, he’s probably lost and he looks scared. Bring a water dish and the van.”
My wife and I had several dog dishes and blankets. Last year, within six months of each other, we said goodbye to our two beloved Aussie/Border collie dogs. We were still grieving. When my wife arrived with the water dish, we slowly approached the animal. He was larger than any dog I knew. My wife said, “He looks like the same breed as Irwin’s dog.”
“Same breed, maybe, but he is much larger, like a bear.” I watched as Bear attempted to stand. He appeared hurt and unable to walk. He lapped the water in his lying down position. If we were going to take care of this dog, we’d need help getting him into our van and to our yard. Eileen went to fetch Irwin.
I sat with Bear and petted him, I talked to him softly but he was quivering; he shirked away. I wondered if this large animal would turn on me. His dark eyes looked so sad, we couldn't just leave him alone.
A few minutes later, Irwin carried Bear into the backyard. We cleaned the dirt and bits of gravel from Bear’s bloodied paws, Irwin grimaced, “Looks like this poor fellow was either being chased or was chasing something for a good while.” Irwin and Eileen applied some antibacterial crème, and I wrapped all four paws in clean socks.
“He’s an English Lab, like my Jasper.” Irwin said, “but this fellow is huge!”
“Yeah, like a bear,” I laughed.
Irwin went home and returned with dog food, “Just in case Bear is with you for a while.”
Now Bear was interested in the bowl of kibbles. He gobbled the contents of the dish. Belly full, paws wrapped, Bear’s tail thumped as he stretched out on the cool shaded grass.
I called the sheriff’s office and after taking our information, the deputy said he’d get back to me.
We sat on the grass and took time to get acquainted. He could not stand without expressing pain. I had no idea what we’d do as night approached; coyotes were near and could easily jump the barbed wire fence encircling our backyard.
And then the sheriff’s office called. A missing dog report had been filed at 3:30 that afternoon by a person named Mike. According to the deputy, once convinced that if Bear were found and turned in, he’d be notified. Mike headed to Kansas. The deputy assured Mike that Salida’s no-kill shelter would hold Bear until he returned.
But the shelter would not open for several hours, we needed a plan for tonight. Bear looked at me with his huge dark eyes, as if to say, ‘We’re friends, I won’t hurt you.’
We called the number the sheriff gave us and Mike answered. “Oh my god, yes, that’s my dog,” he practically shouted into the phone. Mike took our contact information and said, “I’m turning around now, I’ll be there in six hours! Can you keep him? He’s an outside dog so he’ll be fine in a garage or the yard if it’s fenced.”
The plan would bring Mike to us in the middle of the night. “Mike,” I offered, “when you get here, we have a spare room, you can crash till morning.” Mike seemed grateful.
My wife and I took turns eating supper and doing chores inside the house, one of us constantly with Bear. It was summertime, so there were a few hours of daylight on our side, however, with each passing hour we began to wonder if we should let this bear of a dog into our house. As an outside dog, would he freak out and attack us? How could we lure him inside? The dogs we had in the past were much smaller and we’d had them for so long we’d forgotten those initial feelings of being uncomfortable with an unfamiliar dog.
“Should have asked his name,” my wife said. “Well, it’s Bear for now.” Bear gulped down more water and as the sun set behind the mountain peaks, Bear stood and, without coaxing, slowly followed us into the house. He settled on the living room rug and was soon fast asleep. My wife slept in the recliner to keep an eye on Bear, in case he needed to go out at night.
At two-thirty my phone rang. It was Mike. “I can’t drive anymore, I’m falling asleep at the wheel, I’m going to pull off and get some shut-eye before continuing. How’s Duke doing?”
“Oh, Duke, so that’s his name?” I laughed, “Well, he’s not an outside dog anymore, he’s sound asleep and snoring on the living room rug.”
"That's a first! You don't mind? I’ll be at your house by 7 a.m.”
When Duke the Bear woke, he gingerly went to the back door and then the yard to do his business, he returned to a full bowl of kibbles which we think he swallowed without chewing.
As the big black truck pulled up a few minutes after seven, Duke raised his head and whimpered loudly.
The dog greeted Mike with a wagging tail and some whining. Mike buried his face in Duke's neck, he looked so relieved. “Duke must have fallen out of the back of the truck when I rounded the corner at the 50/285 intersection. I didn’t realize he was gone until I got to Buena Vista, 30 miles away. I came back searching for him, but couldn’t find him, so I filed the report and headed back to Kansas. I knew Salida had a no-kill shelter and just hoped someone would find him and turn him in.”
Mike loaded Duke into the back seat of his truck. I noticed the truck bed didn’t have a tailgate, no wonder the poor fellow slid out. It’s common for ranch dogs to ride in the backs of trucks in the mountains, but it’s dangerous without a tailgate.
Mike promised to visit the next time he was in the area. Three days later we received this photo of Duke after his vet appointment in Kansas.
We never did see Duke the Bear again, but we’ll forever remember that summer day in 2016.