Monday, October 27, 2014

The Funny Thing About Bears...

The funny thing about bears (especially Adirondack black bears) is that they seem to like me, and I don't know if it's a good like or a bad like; they just seem to be attracted to me. When I worked at the Enchanted Forest Water Safari in my late teens and early twenties I used to see them all of the time. I wasn't particularly afraid of them because I knew that I wasn't going to do anything stupid around them (like try to get between them and their food or cubs). Heck. when I was there I even held a (tame) cub that the Forest had as part of their "zoo".

But there were other encounters, mostly with my (now) ex-wife, Tyna. You see, Tyna and I used to like to hike and camp a lot. And I don't mean the type of camping where your car is parked in your campsite. I mean the type of camping where you pack in (and out) what you need for a couple of days and sleep either in a tent that you carry or in a lean-to.

The first experience was when Tyna and I tried to hike up Mt. Marcy, New York's highest peak for the first time. That trip was, to put it mildly, a huge learning experience. Our first mistake was a late start. We didn't leave the trail head until about 4pm, which put us hiking in the first five or so miles after dark by about an hour. The hike wasn't easy and to make things worse it rained for about two of the hours that we hiked (mistake number two was not paying attention to the forecast.) So at about 8:30pm as we hiked up the trail (by headlamp) we heard a bunch of hooting and hollering, which we assumed was, because that's what it sounded like, a party in the middle of the Adirondacks. We kind of ignored it and went about the task of finding a place to stop for the night.

We after a little searching around found a lean-to that served our purpose. Tyna decided that she wanted to use the privy and went up the trail to where the privy was located. (The Adirondack Park Agency places privies near camping locations to minimize impact on the environment. Theoretically everyone uses the privy up there so that only a small portion of the area is impacted by outside forces.)

While she was using the "facilities" I set about making camp. Rolled out the sleeping bags and got out a card game for us to play before sleep. I also wanted to secure our food. We had purchased a small "bear keg" to keep our food safe. If you have never seen a bear keg they are pretty neat. They are made of ABS plastic which is pretty indestructible, and the top is held closed by a couple of large flat headed screws, there are no seems, so in theory there is no way for a bear to break in.

Our particular bear keg had a nylon cover that you could use to lash it to your backpack. In my infinite wisdom I decided that this would make it easier to tie a rope to and hang it from a tree. Mistake number three. I walked about twenty feet from the campsite, toward the entry trail from the main trail with my bear keg, clothes line and weighted end in hands. I found what I though was suitable tree and commenced to try to throw the weight end of the rope over a limb. After more than a couple of failed attempts at throwing the weight over a limb (and a couple of curse words in between) I heard a *snap* in the direction of the trail. I immediately focused my headlamp on the trail to see if I saw anything. After a few seconds of searching I resumed throwing the weight, this time more rapidly and more cursing. I then heard a second *snap*. This time when I looked there were two dime sized "lights" hovering in the distance. This was my cue to abandon ship.

Briskly backing my way back to the lean-to I found my trusty camp shovel, the kind  that fold up, and unfolded the business end so that it resembled a "T". I was wielding that shovel like a weapon prepared to defend myself if I had to and staring at the 600lb bear in front of me when Tyna returned from her "business". I can just imagine the image she saw (or at least what I think she saw). Me standing there, soaked to the bone, haggard, with the crazy look of someone who is about to go to war with zombies. She said "What are you doing?"

I replied with all of the infirmness of someone who has just seen a zombie "B-b-b-b-bear."

"What are you going to do?"

Again, and I'm not sure what was trembling more this time, my hand or my voice "N-n-n-n-nothing."

Her "What if it takes our food? What are we going to eat? Hiking out tomorrow on an empty stomach is going to suck!"

Me "You tell him that! I don't think he'll care."

So we watched as the bear tried, unsuccessfully to get at our food for several minutes. Eventually it got tired and wandered off for some easier prey. Lesson number four: Bears are lazy (thankfully).

The rest of the night we played a few hands of Skip-Bo, jumped at the sound of every twig breaking and slept when it was possible.

The next morning I went out and collected our bear keg right where the bear left it. Set about cooking some breakfast. That's when the park ranger showed up. After telling our story he told us that the "party" we heard was actually a family outing that was trying scare away a particularly pesky 800lb bear called yellow/yellow (for the ear tag identifiers he was fitted with). Yellow/yellow had come upon them while they were cooking dinner and didn't care that they were hungry. They were clanging pans together and making all kinds of noise in the hopes of scaring him away; but I think that yellow/yellow knew that he was an 800lb bear and the puny humans were no match for him. Our visitor was probably his mate, yellow/red, she was much less ambitious and also a little more timid.

Lesson number three (I think) was that you aren't supposed to hang a bear keg. You simply take it out of the nylon pouch and throw it on the ground well away from your camp site. This way the bear has nothing to grab on to and it can't get at your food. What happens, in most cases, is the bear bats the keg around like a soccer ball for a while, gets bored and goes in search of easier fare. And believe it or not, that works, I've tried it with much success on other camping trips.

So, that was my first close encounter with a truly wild black bear, but not my last. Maybe someday I'll sit down and put other to keyboard and screen.

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