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Grizzly Country

Tarzana resident and history buff Dan Bagott is a retired journalist and publicist

Basilio was the name. He was mayordomo of the Rancho San Jose de Buenos Aires, and it was he, the foreman, who led the rancho’s Indian vaqueros against what we would call a “Studio City” grizzly. Tracking the bear into the wilds of Laurel Canyon but finding the animal absent from its den, the party excavated a pitfall and baited it with steer meat. The following morning they found the furious grizzly in the pit. The bear’s end was as the barbecued entree at an impromptu fiesta. The year was 1858, as recounted by Ana Begue Packman in her little book, “Leather Dollars” (Times Mirror Press, 1932).

In Cahuenga Pass in 1854, Andy Sublette, a hunter and pathfinder, killed a grizzly about where today’s Hollywood Bowl stands.

Ultimately, Sublette was mauled to death by another grizzly, according to Maj. Horace Bell, a prominent and colorful 19th century Angeleno, in his memoir “Reminiscences of a Ranger,” (Wallace Hebberd publisher, 1927). The bear nailed Sublette either in Malibu Canyon (known in those days as the Malaga) or at Elizabeth Lake near Lancaster--pick your version.

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This was a time when autumn wildfires, winter floods, and mudslides and year-round earthquakes weren’t the only natural perils facing San Fernando Valleyites. For the last century in the Valley and its surrounding heights, as well as in the mountains of Ventura County, the grizzlies were prowling.

Laurel Canyon, long before the Hollywood and literary crowd of the 1920s and ‘30s, the hippie squatters of the ‘60s and today’s traffic tie-ups, was a common lair of the bears.

From there, from Coldwater and Beverly Glen canyons and from neighboring bosky dells, the grizzlies rambled into the flats to prey on the herds of the Rancho Canon de los Laureles, Basilio’s Rancho San Jose de Buenos Aires, Rancho el Encino and the Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana.

“Early in the ‘50s grizzly bears were more plentiful...than pigs,” Bell recalled long afterward. Was he referring to barnyard swine or to the dangerous jabalinos--or wild boars--of which there were also plenty in Laurel Canyon and the rest of the Sierra de Santa Monica?

Whichever, the major plainly meant there were lots of bears; so many as to make the raising of cattle impossible in such places as Topango Malibu and Lopez.

The whereabouts of Topango Malibu is obvious.

Today, to the west of the Golden State Freeway in Sylmar lies the Department of Water and Power’s Los Angeles Reservoir. Once, in the future bed of that lake, stood Lopez--or Lopez Station, a hamlet on the Butterfield Stage route that zigzagged northward. That neighborhood saw more than one mano-a-mano between some vaquero, armed with only a knife to demonstrate his machismo, and a live-trapped, chained grizzly--a spectacle not too rare among California cowboys but one that few of the mangled daredevils survived.

Alaska’s kodiak bear--at a maximum length of 10 feet and weight of 1,700 pounds--is the largest living land carnivore. But if old records and boasts are to be believed, occasional California grizzlies were even bigger.

Maj. Bell witnessed the weighing of one killed in San Luis Obispo County. The major swore that the bear registered 2,100 pounds. It had to be cut into parts in order to be weighed piecemeal on a livestock scale. Bell reported that although the hunter survived, having himself been almost cut into parts by the bear, he was clearly maimed for life.

In 1873 an even bigger grizzly was shot near Santa Clarita, along what is now the Antelope Valley Freeway, as noted by historian James D. Sleeper in “A Grizzly Introduction to the Santa Ana Mountains” (California Classics, 1976). John Lang, a Soledad Canyon rancher, found a cow that had been partially devoured by the bear. This colossus tipped the scales at 2,350 pounds. The weighing was witnessed by three pillars of Los Angeles society--Harris Newmark, J.P. Widney, M.D., and Walter Lindley, M.D.--who vouched for the result.

“Out on the San Fernando plain...in the Encino Valley,” it is recorded, one grizzly perished by the sword of swashbuckling aristocrat Don Jose Ramon Carillo, whose forte was fencing with bears.

Don Jose was riding from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles with a party of horsemen when they overtook the grizzly. The riders ringed the startled bear at a safe distance as Don Jose dismounted, drew his saber and struck the traditional en garde pose.

“Stand back, please, senores, and allow me to fight a personal duel with this grand old gladiator,” trumpeted Don Jose, according to another Maj. Bell narrative, “On the Old West Coast” (William Morrow & Co., 1930).

With the grace of a dancing master, Don Jose spent the next hour thrusting while dodging the blows, lunges and rushes of the grizzly. Bell’s probably embellished description suggests that Carillo fought Errol Flynn-style, displaying an insolent smile and a flow of smart-alecky banter.

When the onlookers tired of shouting their “oles” and “vivas,” Carillo darted in and delivered a mortal thrust to the bear.

Don Jose triumphed in his sword bouts with other bears, and he was also renowned for a debacle in which he became trapped in a pit with his frantic horse and an equally frantic grizzly. Amid the exploding pandemonium, our hero found himself wedged under the bear, which, with a spasm of superhuman strength, he managed to heave from the hole--whence the bear took off for parts unknown.

Eventually Don Jose met his end not by a grizzly but by a gunshot in the back from an assailant who was never identified. Other tales from the grizzly days of the San Fernando Valley tell of the killing or horrendous wounding of other bear-chasers by their quarry. With 6-inch claws and the massive hump of shoulder muscle that was one of its distinguishing features, the California grizzly could rip open a horse or steer with a single swipe.

Most of the stories, however, end with the deaths of the bears at the hands of angry ranchers, enraged beekeepers, irate orchardists, incensed poultrymen, fearful homesteaders and panicky prospectors.

Game laws regulating the hunting of California grizzlies were unknown. The bears were viewed universally as dangerous and destructive menaces.

Sadly, by the dawn of this century the mighty grizzly was all but extinct in the state. When and where the last one disappeared is murky. The likeliest reports place the event between 1922 and 1925 and the scene as Sequoia National Park or the Sierra Nevada at Horse Corral Meadow, both in Tulare County. In one version the last “golden bear” was shot on the spot. In another it was simply sighted there--then vanished forever.


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