Fighting fires, making turns
VAIL – Smokey Bear attracts girls faster than you can start a fire in the woods. Through thickly falling snowflakes a short, blond girl spots Smokey from 40 feet away. Immediately she opens her arms wide and aims for Smokey, running as fast as her clunky ski boots will allow.Taiya Lewis, 4, from Oxford, England, grins as she gives Smokey a (pun intended) bear hug. Her father tells us that Taiya met Smokey last year when she put on skis (at Vail) for the first time. Maybe Smokey is more international than previously thought.”Do you know what Smokey is doing here?” Ann Stevenson, Smokey’s “handler” for the day, asks the smiling, runny-nosed girl. “Yes, he’s skiing,” she answers in her English lilt. “Why is he on the mountain skiing?” Stevenson probes.”‘Cause there’s lots of snow,” Taiya answers confidently.She’s not all wrong – Smokey doesn’t mind a powder day. But that’s not the overriding reason he’s greeting children at the top of the gondola. He’s out to spread the well-known 63-year-old Smokey slogan – “Only you can prevent wildfires.”Every week Smokey Bear’s big, lumbering frame, complete with Wrangler jeans and his trademark hat, skis Vail Mountain. On Wednesdays, Smokey skis out of Lionshead, and around the beginner area at Eagle’s Nest. Saturday, you can find the bear roving around Golden Peak. So who dons the bear costume week after week? Most of the time it’s Corey Myers, 34, an information assistant for the U.S. Forest Service’s Holy Cross Ranger Station in Minturn. On Saturdays there are a couple of other volunteers that share the duty as well, Myers said, but the program is Myers’ baby. He started it four years ago in partnership with Vail Resorts. No doubt, Wednesdays are the highlight of Myers’ week, he said.”Of course, I get to get out of the office and visit the forest I work for,” he said.
The best part of the job is the almost universal reaction to the bear – the giant grins, Myers said.”The grandparents are just as excited as the kids when they see Smokey,” Myers said. “The expressions on their faces are great. He’s such a legend, it doesn’t matter how old you are – everyone loves (Smokey).”And when Myers said everyone, he means it.
Last Wednesday on Vail Mountain Bridget Marquardt, one of Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends and star of E! channel’s “The Girls Next Door,” got cozy with the bear for a photo op. Smokey has also had his photo snapped with ice skating stars Katarina Witt and Elvis Stojko.He’s heard his fair share of Smokey jokes and one-liners during his days as the infamous bear, including the not-surprising marijuana references.”I hear it constantly,” Myers said. “Like, ‘Let’s go smoke one down, Smokey,'” or ‘Smoke it if you got it, Smokey’ – that’s the one I get tired of.”There are also the usual questions, like “Smokey, what’s your middle name?” Though some claim his middle name is “the,” Myers said that’s not correct. The bear’s official name is Smokey Bear, no “the” needed.And there’s always the joke about Smokey’s love life.”Smokey, how come you don’t have a wife?”Smokey turns his palms up, shrugs his shoulders.”Because whenever your girlfriend starts getting hot you stomp on her and throw a bucket of water at her.”
Last year the partnership between the Forest Service and Vail Resorts was expanded to include the Gore Range Natural Science School. Each Wednesday someone from the school spends a few hours on the hill roving with Smokey. This particular day happens to be Stevenson’s first time as Smokey’s interpreter, but other than substituting “wild flowers” for the term “wildfires” a few times, it seems, Stevenson, the community programs director for the Gore Range Natural Science School, was made for the role.A group of Mini Mites, ski school’s youngest participants, stare in wonderment at the silent bear as Stevenson stands next to him and tells his story. If you don’t know, Smokey Bear doesn’t talk, but he waves, gives high-fives, shakes his head for yes and no and gives plenty of bear hugs.Stevenson relays the Smokey story to group after group of children, both at the bottom of the mountain, and then at the Nature Discovery Center at Eagle’s Nest. The cartoon bear is based on an actual baby black bear that was orphaned after a wild fire swept through the Capitan Mountains in New Mexico in 1950. The little cub had taken refuge in a tree and was found clinging to the charred trunk. The fire had burned the bear’s paws and hind legs but a vet in Santa Fe treated and bandaged the burns. News about the bear cub spread swiftly and eventually the state game warden wrote an official letter to the chief of the Forest Service, “presenting the cub to the agency with the understanding that the small bear would be dedicated to a publicity program of fire prevention and conservation,” according to smokeybear.com.
“They brought him to the National Zoo in Washington D.C. where he became a living symbol of Smokey Bear,” Stevenson said. “The reason we tell people he wears pants is because he burned his bottom in the fire.”How much of the story the children retain is up for debate, but their faces light up when Stevenson asks if they’re interested in “Smokey shwag” – zipper pulls featuring Smokey’s face and Smokey stickers. A group of five boys stick their hands out expectantly. “I love Smokey,” one said with a grin.Staff writer Caramie Schnell can be reached 748-2984 or email@example.com.