80-year-old Distinguished Eagle Scout knew what to do when he encountered a bear

A portrait of Joe Weingarten

Joe Weingarten, Silver Beaver winner, Distinguished Eagle Scout and currently the vice president of awards and recognitions for the National Eagle Scout Association, had no idea what kind of day he was in for.

At first, everything seemed normal on that day last summer when he was on vacation with his wife, Cindy, and another couple at a cabin in the remote mountains of Tennessee. Weingarten was settling in for his morning coffee, looking forward to a relaxing vacation, when he heard a faint voice.

Help, it said.

HELP, it said again, this time with a greater sense of urgency.

Weingarten, 80, is an Air Force veteran. That, combined with him being an Eagle Scout, means he’s been through his fair share of training and is better prepared to handle stressful situations than most of us.

“You’re never too old to Be Prepared,” he says.

Boy, is he right.

When Weingarten scanned the area outside the cabin, he saw a very large, very hungry-looking bear sitting right outside the front door.

But the bear wasn’t looking at Weingarten. In fact, it totally ignored him. Instead, the animal was staring intently at Weingarten’s friend, who was on a walk with her small dog.

The animal had the woman and her dog cornered in front of the cabin next door.

Knowing what to do

Human encounters with bears are rare. Bears typically are shy creatures and prefer to be left alone.

Scouts who embark on backpacking treks through bear country are instructed to make plenty of noise as they walk to avoid surprising a bear. I was on a backpacking trek with some Scouts once in Colorado, and their standard practice was for a Scout to yell out “Hey, bear!” once every couple of minutes on the trail.

Some hikers hang small bells on their packs so the jing-a-ling-ringing of their strides will scare off any bears nearby.

Cindy Weingarten, apparently, knew this. That’s why she had made strings of bells and placed one at the front door of the cabin, just in case.

Weingarten, all 155 pounds of him, grabbed the bells and began frantically waving his arms, ringing the bells and making as much noise as possible to send a message to the 300-pound animal.

The bear took one long look at the very determined Eagle Scout and must have thought, “eh … not worth the trouble.” The bear ran away up a hill and was never seen again.

For his actions, Weingarten was presented with the Certificate of Merit by the Crossroads of America Council.

Bear safety

The best way to deal with bears is to make sure there are zero reasons why they would be interested in you, your property or your campsite.

  • Check with local land management personnel for current information on bear activity and guidance on the best ways you can protect yourself.
  • If you’re cooking in the wilderness, plan menus with ingredients that won’t create unnecessary odors. Avoid strong cheeses, canned fish, grease and other smelly food items.
  • Find out what gear to take with you to bearproof your camp. You will need food storage canisters or bags and cord to hang food from trees. Learn how to use those items and include them on your list of bear country essentials.

Bear encounters

If you do stumble upon a bear, the proper response depends on what kind of bear it is and whether or not cubs are present.

First, making noise is always a good idea. Most of the time, the bear is not looking for trouble, and loud noises will encourage it go be curious somewhere else.

Second, running away is almost always a terrible idea. You aren’t going to outrun a bear, and often this will trigger the bear’s instinct to chase you down.

If you encounter a momma bear with bear cubs, slowly back away and give the animals plenty of space.

If you encounter a male bear (they’re usually larger than the females), stand tall, hold your ground and make some noise.

Grizzly bears are not good climbers; black bears are.

Check out this story from the Wilderness Medical Society for more information on bear encounters, including the difference between an encounter with a black bear and a grizzly.

Check out this page from Get Bear Smart that can help you learn the difference between black bears and grizzlies.

And, be like Joe: Be Prepared.

Photo of Joe Weingarten courtesy of NESA. Photo of bears from Getty Images.


About Aaron Derr 454 Articles
Aaron Derr is the senior editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines, and also a former Cubmaster and Scouts BSA volunteer.