You are my nameless wildness.Marc Bolan
A recent article in Backpacker magazine which purported to suggest what we should and should not worry about as hikers advised that we are thirty-three times more likely to be struck by lightening than to be attacked by a bear. I found this only minimally reassuring since unlucky hikers do in fact get struck by lightning from time to time, and I came very close to such an experience myself and felt the tingling in my feet when it struck the ridge nearby. Hikers also get attacked by bears from time to time, though such occurrences are rare, as the magazine pointed out.
Encounters with bears are another matter, and they can take a variety of forms, from spotting one ambling along the highway with cubs to coming around a blind curve on the trail and meeting one in front of you walking in your direction. Every time that has happened to me, the bear has turned around and headed away, as if suddenly struck by lightning itself. This is exactly the way I feel whenever I have a close encounter with a bear, and I never once have paused to think about the thirty-three times figure. They have long claws and sharp teeth. I’ll keep those encounters as far away as I can get.
So it was when I was hiking down from LaCrosse Pass in the Olympics many years ago and met a backcountry ranger who introduced himself as Donovan. He inquired where I would be spending the night, and when I told him I planned to go to Camp Siberia at the headwaters of the Dosewallips River, he cautioned me about a “nuisance bear” that was raiding camps. “Be sure to hang your food,” Donovan advised. I told him that I always did so, and went on my way, pondering what was implied by the word nuisance. I thought of a nuisance as a mosquito, annoyingly buzzing around my head and biting whenever it avoided my swat, and it was hard to imagine swatting a bear, nor of chasing one away like I did with chipmunks scurrying about trying to nibble my candy bar.
When I made it to Camp Siberia a few hours later I spread my sleeping bag out on a wooden bunk in one of the old trail shelters, thinking that such a vantage point would enable me to see a bear should one approach. I heated water on my stove, tossed the freeze dried food into the pot, then consumed it happily, Chili Beef and Mac a gourmet feast on such a night. After a couple of squares of chocolate I placed the rest of my food into a large black trash bag, where it would spend the night hanging from a tree limb.
Here I must remind the reader that I am really old. This bear affair occurred about fifty years ago, when I was a young woman hiking alone. There were no bear wires in the National Park in those days, certainly no metal caches, nor did we have the benefit of bear canisters or Ur Sacks to keep our food safe when it was out of sight.
Hikers were advised to suspend their food in bags twenty feet high and at least fifteen feet from the trunk of the tree. These days that would not be considered an effective way to keep food safe, but it must have worked at the time, for I never once had a bear get my food when it was hung in this manner and even got pretty good about the process of getting the food up there.
This involved tying one end of the rope tightly around the food bag and a rock to the other end to weight it down. The rock would then be tossed over the limb, and the food sack pulled to a safe height. I chose the tree limbs very carefully and, once suspended, anchored the rope with a series of knots. At this elevation there were not many tall trees to choose from, but I found a sturdy mountain hemlock and had no trouble at all pulling the full food sack up into the branches of that tree. I admit I felt rather smug about this skill and retired to my sleeping bag on the bunk with a feeling of satisfaction.
I leaned against the wall of the shelter, flashlight on, reading for awhile. On the bunk next to me was a pot lid and a spoon, which I planned to bang together should the need arise to scare off a bear during the night. Weariness finally took over, and I turned off the flashlight and snuggled into the layers of down.
It was only a few minutes later when I heard the sound of shuffling feet outside the shelter. Against the black night I barely made out the outline of the large animal. As it entered the shelter I heard it breathing. Quickly I grabbed the spoon and pot lid and banged them together like an enthusiastic percussionist in a marching band. The bear seemed only mildly concerned about this turn of events, but it did turn and walk out of the shelter, not before it had grabbed my pack and walked off with it into the dark night. I watched as pack and bear disappeared. I was not about to give chase. This bear had been much too brazen to follow it alone into the woods.
I may have gone to sleep that night, but mostly I lay awake imagining various grisly scenarios. When it was light enough to see my way in the woods I followed in the direction I had last seen bear and pack. At the bottom of a ravine in a small stream was my pack, soaking wet, shredded to pieces, cook pan and water bottle riddled with holes. I would not be carrying any more water nor cooking any more meals on this trip.
Backcountry crises at least have a way of enhancing problem solving abilities. When there’s nothing to be done I somehow always find something to do. Using the rope that had kept my food suspended from the tree limb, I wrapped it around the pack to keep the contents in place. Fortunately the shoulder straps were intact. I had no way of carrying water, but in that pristine backcountry in the 1970’s, the water was safe to drink, and so I did, straight from the many streams that crossed the trail, cupping may hands and drinking deeply. I made the twenty-five mile hike back to my waiting car that day, repeating to myself as I hiked that I was done hiking. I would look for some other kind of outdoor activity I enjoyed, one that did not involve bears.
My resolve did not last. I knew it would not. Within a couple of weeks I was back on the trail. I had changed almost nothing, apart from buying a new pack, which had been beyond repair after bear incident number one. There was little to be done. Hanging my pack with the food in it was too heavy to lift into the tree limbs, and finding two suitable limbs at any given campsite was not likely.
I did make one change. I reasoned that since the greatest harm had come to my pack preventing such damage in the future had to be a priority. Perhaps bears were simply curious. I got into the habit of unzipping every single pocket before I climbed into my tent at night, effectively making it easier for a bear to inspect the contents should it so desire.
It was many years later that I had a chance to test this hypothesis. I was again hiking in the Olympics and had left the trail to seek out the perfect campsite, which I found in a meadow near the Elwha River. There I pitched my tent, hung my food from a tree limb as I had done for the last twenty-five years, heated water for my freeze dried dinner, and before retiring for the night inspected the pockets of my pack to make sure they were all open.
I fell asleep quickly that night but was awakened by the familiar shuffling sound of a large animal, followed by a snort. “There’s a bear in camp,” I thought. And then I went back to sleep. Experience and many more nights on the trail had left me less fearful of the beasts of the wild. There was nothing I could do at that moment, so I went back to sleep.
When I awoke the next morning I inspected my pack. It was intact, but nearly every item in it had been taken out and set on the ground beside it. There was my cook stove, a metal container of matches, my field guide to wildflowers, a pair of binoculars, and the other items I carried with me on the trail. “Nothing interesting here,” I imagined the bear saying as it examined every one of them.
There was one exception. Spread across the meadow were the white pages of my trail guide, Robert Woods’ Olympic Mountains Trail Guide, which I had carried with me on these trails since the first edition was published in 1984. It had become my Bible and route finder. When the sun rose and lifted the dew from the grass, the pages dried quickly. I gathered up each one of them, taking extra time in camp that morning to put them all back in order between the two covers, which had been torn apart. I then bound the book with adhesive tape from my well supplied first aid kit. There were teeth marks extending through the cover, and the pages were wrinkled from being wet. I don’t know why it seemed so important to preserve that book. I could have easily replaced it. I think because it told a story, the story you are reading now, the story about bear incident number two.
I still have that book. I take it out from time to time, especially if I am having a difficult day. I place my fingers over the marks that once felt the sharp teeth of a bear. I remember what it was like to have a wild thing so close, and I feel a little thrill. In a world that is paved and planted, where city lights drown out the very stars we once gazed upon for guidance I am glad that there are still wild things out there.