Once upon a time long, long ago—in the 1960’s—a boy named Ken became a Boy Scout because he loved to hike in the mountains among the trees. Before he was old enough for the Scouts, Ken had often imagined himself as a young Daniel Boone in the pioneer days, scouting for deer or bear in the woods and camping by the streams at night. These were great adventures that called on him to use all his bravery and skills to survive. So as soon as he was old enough, Ken joined his friends in sixth grade who were already Scouts. They sometimes hiked all day among the trees and streams, cooked their dinners in the evenings at campfires on the mountain, and pitched their pup tents near streams that ran down over the rocks and into the valley.
In spring and summer, the mountains were cool on hot days. Fog shrouded the creek banks and coves until the mid-morning sun burned off the mists and heated up the trail. Deer ran quietly through the lowlands at dawn and dusk. They were far off and beautiful as they crossed the damp grasses and jumped over old stone or split rail fences in the fields.
In fall, the bright colors of the trees made a canopy over the trails that wound around the hills. When the sun was high in the sky, it shone through the thick blanket of leaves that hung overhead like a transparent quilt.
In winter, the mountains were cold but beautiful in their layers of ice along the stream banks and in the trees overhead. And sometimes heavy snow would fall like white feathers—drifting and blowing and covering the forest floor like a shadowy white carpet.
The boys hiked on weekends during the school year, and in summer they hiked and camped for a whole week at a time. To get to the mountains, the Troop 227 scout leader and a few parents would drive them to the Ranger Station in the nearby Great Smoky Mountain National Park and pick them up there again at the end of the hike. Ken and the scouts liked to hike over the mountain from the Ranger Station at one end of the park. The air was cool and crisp and easy to breathe during the hard climb up. And the sun warmed them on the way down on the other side of the trail until they reached the cove below. Here the small creeks on either side of the mountain met to make a clear, cold stream.
At the stream, the boys would pitch their pup tents and set up camp for the night. They carried everything they needed in their backpacks: tents, sleeping bags, extra socks, and food. In the cove they built a campfire in the middle of the circle of tents. Ken and his ‘tent buddy’ would then set up their tent in a circle with the others.
Ken had a new tent buddy for each trip. During the Scout meeting at the clubhouse before each trip, the boys drew numbers to find out who their ‘buddy’ would be for the hike. Then, the boys and their buddies drew numbers for camp duties like cooking, clean-up, latrine, camp fire, first-aid, and the like.
On this particular trip, Ken and Marshall were in charge of building the campfire, so they went back to the edge of the trail to find wood for the fire. They gathered three sizes: kindling, branches, and logs. The stick-like kindling was used to start the fire, the thumb-size branches got it going, and the logs made it last through cooking the Scouts’ dinner. The logs also provided light and warmth during the night when the boys sat around the fire to roast marshmallows and tell stories.
After they got the fire going, the two boys in charge of the cooking got all the Scouts together to start cutting up the potatoes, carrots, onions, corn, and roast beef that would go into the aluminum foil packets to make ‘Scout stew.’ Each stew packet fed one scout after it was filled with the vegetables and beef, rolled up, and placed in the hot coals of the campfire. Each scout had to keep an eye on his own packet to make sure it didn’t burn up in the fire. And in the meantime, each scout wrapped biscuit dough around a whittled green sapling and held it over the fire until it turned golden brown and ready to eat. But before they got the fire going for scout stew, each boy tied his water canteen to a wooden stake, drove the stake into the ground with a scout hatchet, and lowered the canteen into the icy cold stream for a cool drink at dinner.
After the boys ate their dinners and told stories about Scout Jamborees or about hunting and fishing, it was time to go to sleep in their bedrolls inside their tents. Ken, Marshall, and all the boys were plenty ready for sleep after the day’s hike and the hard work of building their campsite. They put a few extra logs on the fire, hung a lantern from a pole in the camp, got out their flashlights, and crawled into their tents for the night. This night, they all fell asleep right away in the cold mountain air.
On these camping trips in the mountains, boys would often get up during the night to go to the latrine ditch near the campsite and then run quick-like back to their tents in the cool night air. So it was not unusual for Ken to wake up sometime during the night and hear scouts rustling and low-talking outside his tent as they passed by going to the latrine. But on this particular night, Ken woke up because he heard more tramping around than usual outside the pup tent—and the tramping was much louder than usual, too. At first, he just lay quietly listening to the sound of tramping in the grass near the stream behind his tent. But when the tramping got louder and closer, he came full awake and was even a little bit nervous and scared as he tried to imagine what was making the sounds. That’s when he flicked on his flashlight under the sleeping bag (so that the light could not be seen outside the pup tent). He lay very still and listened hard for the rustling sounds. But when one of the feet came down on the back of his tent and made a crunching noise on his backpack inside, Ken jumped up out of his bedroll and toward the front entrance of the tent. Marshall woke up, of course, and opened his mouth to say something like “What the heck—are you nuts?” But just then, several Scouts burst out of their tents yelling “bears!” and running for high ground back into the woods.
Now you must know that Bears! is just about the scariest warning there is for boys camping in the woods, so Ken and Marshall didn’t stop to look around, didn’t stop to ask questions, and didn’t stop to put on their boots. They just ran flat out and in the same direction as the other Scouts. After running barefoot a few yards from the campsite, the boys suddenly realized that nothing was chasing them in the early morning haze. They stood in a group for protection and used their flashlights to search the silvery path they had made while running from the camp. This far away, they couldn’t hear the stamping and tramping that had awakened them earlier, so they slowly began to walk back toward the campsite, listening carefully for any sounds and taking only a few steps at a time.
Finally, after a few minutes of stalking, one of the Scouts called out, “I see them. I see the bears over there by the creek!” And all the scouts trained their flashlights in that direction. Sure enough, they saw a group of dark, four-legged shadows moving slowly along the creek bank and breathing frosty plumes of breath as they went. At the sight of these ghost-like creatures, the boys jumped back in their tracks and prepared to run for their lives at any moment. But the dark grey shadows just continued to tramp slowly along the creek bank away from the campsite and away from the group of boys near the edge of the woods.
Eventually, the Scouts regained their courage and moved back toward their campsite—but not until the round shadows became smaller and smaller in the dark and further and further from the reach of the beams from the boys’ flashlights. As the early morning became light, they finally were brave enough to go back into the camp, where they put on their boots and gathered around the dying campfire. Here they stayed in a tight group until daylight. Sleepy and groggy from interrupted sleep, the boys began to spread out to their tents to have a look around and make sure no more bears were in the vicinity. As they looked about, Ken and Marshall ventured behind their tent to see where the animal had stepped on and crunched Ken’s backpack.
“I don’t think these bears were very big,” Marshall declared after studying the mud. “These footprints aren’t any bigger than my fist.”
“Yeah, but there sure were a lot of them,” Ken said while looking around near the stream. “There must have been a dozen bears out here by the creek.”
“Well, I’m not waiting around until they come back,” Marshall told the whole group of Scouts. “Let’s pack up and head back to the Ranger station.”
And that’s exactly what the Scouts did. They packed up, put on their backpacks, and started hiking back out of the cove. The only problem was that the trail back to the Ranger station was the same one the animal tracks had been on earlier, so the boys weren’t feeling too sure about taking the path now, just in case the bears had stopped somewhere along the way to eat berries and such. But the only other way out of the cove was to go back over the mountain—back the way they had hiked in. That way back would take a whole day, and they knew their parents would be worried if they didn’t show up at the Ranger station on time to be picked up, so they followed the muddy prints on the creek bank all the way around the base of the trail until it cut back to the Ranger station to the south. After they crossed the stream, the Scouts felt much better because the prints disappeared off the main trail. When the boys got back to the station after an hour or so, the Scouts saw their parents waiting in the parking lot and talking with the Ranger. Ken, Marshall, and the other Scouts ran the last hundred yards or so to the parking lot, so they were out of breath but still trying to tell the Ranger about the pack of bears and their scary morning in the campsite.
“I haven’t had any reports of bears in the area,” the concerned Ranger told the boys and their parents. “Are you sure they were bears?”
“We didn’t actually see the bears—just shadows and then muddy prints,” one of the older Scouts confessed. “We followed their prints all along the creek bank today until we crossed over to come back here to the station.”
“Yeah, they were little bears—and lots of them,” one of the youngest Scouts told the Ranger. “Maybe a dozen!”
“A dozen little bears walking along down by the stream at the cove, huh?” the Ranger repeated slowly with a smile starting at the corners of his moustache. “I think I might have an idea where we can find these bears right now. Why don’t you all pack up and follow me in your cars. Just follow my jeep down that dirt road behind the station.”
So the Scouts and their parents loaded up and followed the Ranger down the road that dipped behind the station, through the woods a short distance, and out on the south side of the cove from where the boys had crossed over the stream just an hour before. As they drove out of the woods and across the grassy field, they could see a cantilever barn in the distance hidden behind a copse of willow trees. The stone and log barn was very old but had a new tin roof, and the dirt road let straight into it. The Ranger drove up just inside the barn opening, got out of his jeep, and motioned to the Scouts, the Scoutmaster, and their parents to follow.
“Well, boys, I think you will find your ‘bears’ just through here in a pen behind the barn,” the Ranger told them with a wink.
The Scouts were amazed to think that Forest Rangers would keep little bears in a pen behind a barn. They had never heard of such a thing in the whole of their young lives and approached warily behind their Scoutmaster. As they walked through the opening in the barn and into the pen behind it, they all began to laugh when they saw the animals in the growing sunshine huddled together in the middle of the pen.
“They graze in the cove so that the grass doesn’t grow too high and so we don’t have to keep mowing it,” the Ranger explained.
And there they were: a flock of fluffy white sheep!
Little ‘bears’ with little feet
Are better known
As little sheep!