Inside the Smokey Bear Costume For a Day

Mark Udall poses with Smokey Bear on National Get Outdoors Day
(photo courtesy SenatorMarkUdall @flickr)

I have a drip of sweat on the end of my nose. It itches, hanging there, but I cannot wipe it off. Even if I were to lift my hand to my face, I would not be able to touch my nose, because my head is inside a giant bear mask.

I am dancing with 20 little kids and four Denver Broncos cheerleaders, in what I assume are their full uniforms. The Broncos cheerleaders are teaching 20 children and a few adults, including myself, how to Dougie. No one can see me. They see Smokey Bear, this oven of a costume I am inside for four hours today.

Suddenly, I realize I am not the Awkward 32-Year-Old White Guy Trying to Dance. I mean, I am, but I’m inside the Smokey costume, so my horrible dance moves are Smokey’s horrible dance moves. No one cares. They expect Smokey to have abbreviated movements. However I dance, it is better than anyone has ever seen a black bear dance. No way in hell I’m attempting to do The Running Man in this thing.

Smokey wears size 60 Wrangler jeans. My waist is about 32 inches on a normal day. You can imagine the size of my giant bear belly, which gets its structure from something like two embedded hula hoops, which ideally hold Smokey’s jeans up, but are not working so well today.

This fitness dance is part of Denver’s National Get Outdoors Day in City Park. I volunteered to wear the Smokey Bear costume, because someone asked me to, and whenever you get the chance to be a giant bear for a day, I think you should take it and run with it. Part of me running with it today included sneaking up behind U.S. Senator Mark Udall, surprising him and then posing for photos with him, arm in arm. I don’t think Sen. Udall would get his photo taken with Regular Denver Guy Brendan Leonard, were I to have the audacity to ask. But Smokey Bear? Absolutely. A lady who promotes hula hooping for exercise actually handed me a hula hoop at one point while I was working the crowd, and I proudly rocked it for four or five rotations.

Smokey Bear, if you’ve forgotten, was a black bear cub who survived a 17,000-acre wildfire in the Capitan Mountains in New Mexico in 1950 by climbing a tree — his hind legs and paws were burnt. He was nursed back to health, and later moved to the National Zoo, where he lived for 26 years, and got so much fan mail that he was given his own ZIP Code.

It is a documented fact that nothing in nature is as awesome as bears — no, not even dolphins, which are cool, but not nearly as awesome. Grizzlies, black bears, brown bears, polar bears, pandas, koalas — take a quick survey of five people near you and you will find that none of them hate bears. Fear bears, yes. Hate bears, no. Some people don’t like cats. Other people don’t like dogs. People hate snakes, spiders, rats, mice. No one hates bears. Even when a bear eats all your food that you hung too close to a tree trunk, it’s not the bear’s fault — it was just being a bear. An awesome bear. Meeting a bear in the wild, which I’ve done a couple times, is like serendipitously running into Al Pacino, or the president, if Al Pacino or the president could rip your arms off and eat you.

This is not my first time in a giant costume — at last year’s National Get Outdoors Day, I was Shrek. I learned the general rules and intricacies of all mascot behavior then. They are, in my experience:

1. No talking. This eliminates one way you could ruin Smokey’s reputation. Thusly, you are limited to hand gestures. Mostly, you will high-five everyone, kids and adults alike, and squat down for dozens of hugs from kids. You can wave. You can wave people in for the big bear hug. I have a few other gestures I use when people try to talk to me, such as shrugging, putting my paws over my mouth in surprise/feigned shock, pointing straight at the camera in the “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires” pose, waving, giving the thumbs-up, etc.

2. You will have an escort. When you can’t talk to people, you need a human to guide you around crowds. You also have no peripheral vision, so it helps to have someone tell you when a 5-year-old is standing right in front of you, wanting a hug or a high five. Good escorts will say things like, “Wave at the little girl to your left,” or “Got a little one right by your knee.” Bad escorts will say things like, “Oh, right there,” and “Let’s go over there.”

3. People do not see you, they see the bear, your giant, furry, lovable outer shell. Beautiful women may (occasionally) come up and hug you, but they are not hugging you because you are an attractive man in your early 30s, as you would like to think — they are hugging Smokey, who is 10-20 times more adorable than you. People will smile and wave at you as you walk by. Kids will hug you. They are not smiling at, waving at and hugging you. They are smiling at, waving at, and hugging Smokey. When you take the Smokey costume off, you become invisible again. You are no one, just like you were 10 minutes before you put the Smokey Costume on.

4. Everyone wants a photo with you. Now you know how Kim Kardashian feels when all she wants to do is go out and get a latte.

5. Your feet are huge. You are wearing bear paw feet over your already size 10.5 sneakers. Watch your step.

6. You are not allowed to be photographed with the head removed. You want to ruin it for everyone? Let a dozen kids see you walking around in the costume minus the head.

7. You do not have to smile; Smokey is already smiling. Smokey’s facial expression is fixed. I know this information, but I still notice my cheeks aching later in the day, because every time someone gets out a camera, I am smiling as big as I can inside Smokey’s head.


I can’t tell you what exactly compels someone to want to get inside a giant furry costume and sweat out 10 pounds of fluids while hugging and high-fiving everyone who asks. I think it’s an incredibly unique kind of fun to get the chance to become one of the icons of your childhood for a day. A few months ago, I rented a Cookie Monster costume for a brief, but awesome, walk around the Vegas Strip, and I explained it to a friend as “the equivalent of a lifelong Chicago Bulls fan getting to be Michael Jordan for a day.” Not sit in the front row at a Bulls game and watch Michael Jordan play, but actually be Michael Jordan. People love Michael Jordan, and he’s pretty awesome in his own way. But he’s no bear.


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7 replies on “Inside the Smokey Bear Costume For a Day”
  1. says: Tom

    Well done sir! You’re totally right about how you can’t hate bears. On my last bike tour a black bear approached my camp, presumably to tear the shit out of everything, but all I could do was smile.

  2. says: Will

    I think I also remember you as a rock climbing gorilla during Denver’s annual gorilla run. And if I recall, there was a photo of you with the gorilla suit on, but the head off. Glad to see you’re now well versed in the protocols of furry-suit decorum.

  3. says: bill boucher

    Very fitting to be photographed with Udall. His uncle Stuart from Arizona was Secretary of the Interior under Kennedy and had a legacy of championing the environment and conservationalism, including makng the AT a defacto National Park.

    From his bio for the Cornelius Amory Pugsley National Medal Award of 2007:

    “Udall shepherded into law a crescendo of conservation legislation. During his time in office, 54 new wildlife refuges were created, together with four national parks, eight national seashores, nine national recreation areas, and 20 historic sites. But his legislative accomplishments went far beyond establishing specific new sites. They included nurturing the passage of six laws which provided vehicles for sustaining the momentum of the conservation movement in subsequent decades. They were the Wilderness Act, The Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Water Quality Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, Endangered Species Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act.”

    Good job B!

  4. says: Brian

    This is a very happy article.

    However, I always thought good escorts said, “What happens between consenting adults is their own business.”

  5. says: Mark Fogg

    Well done, fairly thorough, however you missed THE major point. Generally, the reason folks are compelled to don the Smokey costume is to support is mission; which of course is wildfire prevention.

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