When I was younger, our family trips involved a four-person tent and a patch of lonely woods. I didn’t mind. I loved hiking, campfires, and sleeping in a tent. There’s one trip. However, that stands out as the most memorable.
A bit of background
It was the summer I was eleven. My parents once took me on a trip to Avalanche Lake. Dark cliffs tower on both sides of this mile-long lake, and there’s no shore. The trail we took was an adventurous route of wooden catwalks bolted to the cliff face. The lake itself was smooth as a mirror, reflecting the tall cliffs and the narrow stretch of sky between them.
At the end of the day, we arrived at a cluster of campsites. Several other groups of campers were setting up tents and cooking meals. We picked a site of our own and got ready to eat dinner. We had the best franks and beans I’d ever eaten. Just about anything tastes amazing after a long day of hiking.
After dinner, my dad put the rest of the food in a bag. He tied a rope to it and slung it over a thin branch. He missed one thing, though: a piece of chewing gum I’d been saving. I had dropped it near the tent. I didn’t think such a small thing would attract any dangerous wildlife, though, so I didn’t say anything about it. I had no trouble falling asleep that night.
I woke up to a strange clanking sound. I looked around and realised my parents weren’t in the tent. I stuck my head outside. Lots of other people were up, including my parents. Everyone was banging on a pot or bowl or canteen. Then I saw something black moving through the trees, and I knew why. It was a bear.
A big fat bear!
Black bears are common in the Adirondacks, but I’d never seen one in the wild before. This one looked no bigger than a large dog. It was moving quickly among the campsites toward a stand of trees at the edge of the camping area. I grabbed a pot and began hitting it. The bear moved to the base of one of the trees and started to climb. I looked into the tree and noticed something else: three bear cubs.
Once they saw those, my parents got me out of there quickly. There are few more dangerous places to be than between a mother bear and her cubs. On the way out, I noticed the chewing gum I’d left out last night was gone.
I have no way of knowing whether the bear or another animal took my gum. But my misstep could have attracted her in the first place. Here’s an overview of what we did right and what we should have done.
Store your food the right way
Proper food storage. My dad put our food in a bear bag. To do this, put the food in the bag, close it securely, and tie a rope to one end. Tie a rock to the other end of the rope. Then throw the rock over a thin tree branch. Pull the rope up until the bag is hanging about eight feet from the ground and at least four feet from any tree trunks or branches. The tree branch you choose should be at least 150 feet from your campsite. Most people think this is enough to keep bears away. It’s not.
We made the mistake of storing only food in our bag. Bears have an incredibly fine sense of smell. If you want to keep them away, you also need to include all “smell-able”: shampoo, insect repellent, chapstick, soap, lotion, any container that’s ever contained a flavoured drink, bandages, clothes worn while cooking and eating, dirty cookware, toothpaste, deodorant, medication…and chewing gum. Also, you should never eat near or in your tent. Many parks suggest you don’t use sunscreen, insect repellent, shampoo, or lotion after 3 pm.
What to do if there’s a bear in your campsite. Grab a pot and make noise. If there are several people in your campsite, everyone should make noise at once while slowly advancing. It is intimidating for bears, and it will usually run them off. We did this by the book, and it worked. Our mother bear climbed the tree where her cubs were, giving everyone a chance to pack up and get out. If there are cubs, don’t get between them and the mother. It is one of the few situations where a bear will attack you.
Our encounter didn’t turn out to be fatal. Most bear encounters aren’t. However, it’s important to cut the risk by properly storing your food and other belongings. Bears often return to places where they’ve found food before, and our bear was probably used to raiding for food around that group of campsites. By taking care to store your food and other sellable items the right way, you aren’t just keeping the bears away from your site for the present. You’re also helping to prevent future encounters.