"The big blue cooler. It's missing. I found this on the picnic table."
Bailey offers me a note, scribbled in blue-inked cursive with a piece of Scotch tape stuck to it.
Upon closer inspection, I realize it's not a note. It's a citation.
"Large blue cooler left out at campsite; containing produce, eggs, dairy, candy, soda. Large rock placed on top (see photos). Please report to the ranger kiosk to reclaim your property."
I glance at the bear bin, the gunmetal-colored box where we SHOULD have stored the cooler.
On it there is a notice, featuring a big, bold, double-underlined sentence:
"Failure to store food properly will result in a $1,000 fine."
I am the one who initialed the papers on behalf of our group, affirming that we would dutifully follow food storage protocol.
I am the one co-leading the weekend here at D.L. Bliss state park in South Lake Tahoe, with seven women I've just met and asked to follow us into the wilderness.
I am the one who suggested to my co-leader Bailey, as everyone was slathering on sunscreen in preparation for an 8-mile hike around sparkling Emerald Bay, that we jointly lift a giant rock and place it on top of the cooler.
And now, I am the one wondering if (slash praying that) the $1,000 fine advertised is just a threat to scare people straight.
Please let it be a threat.
Bailey and I brief the women and send them on ahead to the nearby beach. It is only the second day of our trip, but they are already free and easy with each other; laughter echoes off the surrounding spruce trees as they recede, toting a bag filled with salami, apples, olives and almonds, to be washed down with a big black box of pinot noir.
The artisanal cheeses, however, are being held hostage in the blue cooler.
We head down to the kiosk, where a young woman radios the ranger and asks us to wait.
We troop outside and squat on the cement in back of the kiosk. I speculate aloud as to the likelihood of a fine versus a slap on the wrist, while Bailey uses her two bars of service to text her husband.
When the ranger arrives in his pickup, my stomach sinks to the bottom of my belly.
He looks mean -- buzzed head, no-nonsense demeanor, polarized sunglasses even though the day is clearly fading.
He drives past us without stopping.
"Maybe he's going to retrieve our cooler," I guess.
But twenty minutes later he hasn't returned.
I stick my head into the kiosk. The woman is surprised to see me. She didn't know we were there; had sent the ranger to our campsite.
On the radio, I overhear him: "They're at the KIOSK? Well, THAT would have been nice to know."
Great. Now he thinks we're jerks.
When the pickup re-appears, I ask Bailey to let me do the talking. We approach as he gets out of the cab.
I offer a greeting, a sheepish admission of guilt and apology, an elaboration on how silly it was of us even though it's NOT really silly at all but actually rather serious given how fragile nature can be and how much is at stake if we're not mindful of our human impact and how the LAST thing we meant to do was jeopardize the bears and how we PROMISE to be more careful in the future.
All of which is true, and to which he listens patiently. Then he says:
"Well, I wish I could help you. But I'm just here to finish with the other ranger started."
It is out of his hands -- we must be cited for an infraction, which is only slightly less terrible than a misdemeanor, for which I could be arrested if I failed to show up in El Dorado County court.
Luckily, the morning ranger took pictures of the impressively large rock we placed on the cooler, presumably as evidence to show how we didn't intend to bait the bears with our bottles of curry sauce and bushels of bell peppers.
In true bureaucratic fashion, I must wait 30 days for the court to review the case and assign whatever they feel is an appropriate fine, up to the ceiling of $1,000.
In a small gesture of sympathy as he returns my driver's license, the mean ranger says that at the very least, we can cathartically burn the citation in our fire tonight.
Which I later do, spitefully.
On our way to the beach, triggered by a juvenile loathing of rules and authority figures, I attempt to indulge in some light rage before re-joining the ladies, but Bailey is having none of it.
"We deserved it," she says cheerfully, and generously offers to split the fine with me, which makes me scowl harder.
At the beach, the ladies have prepared an amazing spread atop a red checkered picnic blanket. And, as though the vast-lake-approaching-sunset isn't beautiful enough, there is a vivid, almost crystalline rainbow arcing all the way across the lake.
Attempting to channel my outrage into humor, I joke that Bailey and I actually planned this so that the ladies will never make the same mistake when they are leading their own trips to Tahoe. They find this hilarious and play along, taking turns slathering crackers with truffle-infused brie (freshly liberated from the cooler) to help assuage my obvious wounds.
Back at camp I am heartened slightly by teaching my favorite lesson, fire-building -- using our infamous Flaming V method, the fastest and most reliable way I know how to help a lady feel empowered outdoors. We roast veggies with simmer sauce in foil packets over the coals to eat with bowls of quinoa, and toast marshmallows using wood-handled retractable s'more sticks.
As night falls, we luxuriate in rich conversation, comfortable silences, and the gradual emergence of stars.
And then, one by one, the ladies head off to bed.
I pour water on the fire pit, causing plumes of gray smoke to rise into the night, and walk around securing camp before crawling in next to the already-asleep Bailey. As soon as my head hits the bundle of fleece-wear acting as a pillow, I start to drift off...
... But am pulled back awake by a loud rummaging sound, coming from the bins.
Strange, I think. One of the ladies must really need something.
Then, a thundering gallop passes just outside our tent, causing the ground to tremble beneath us.
"Bailey," I hiss.
"Yeah?" She mumbles.
"I want to see!" Awake now, she immediately lunges sideways over me as we scramble to stick our heads out the door.
There, surveying us coolly from above a (non-food-related) bin, less than 10 yards away, is the black bear herself.
Her eyes are spots of white light in the darkness; her demeanor totally unimpressed.
As we watch, breathless, she leisurely turns and lumbers off into the night.
Sitting there very still, it occurs to me just how EASILY that bear could have swiped a wimpy little rock off our cooler. And it would have made a mess, and the ladies would have been terrified, and the park authorities would probably have had to capture and execute that lovely bear.
Suddenly, my perspective shifts.
The next morning, when I remember the mystery fine that looms in my near future, I'm not even mad.