I woke from sleep to a very loud sound at some point in the night. It was so loud. It almost sounded like a cap gun. My first thought was that some young kids were on my campsite being dumb and shooting off cap guns in the middle of the night. I mean, what could it have been? The idea of someone wandering around near my campsite in the middle of the night made me nervous. I checked the time. It was 2am. This was not good.
I sat in my tent and listened. I ran through scenarios in my head and how I would respond to each. As I listened I started to hear more noise. Banging around, dragging, some constant clanking sounds down by the rocks near the fire pit. I listened. I finally realized what it was. The loud sound that I thought was a cap gun was actually the sound of the line that hung my food bag snapping, presumably under the weight of the bear that was now dragging it around trying to get it open for my delicious jerky.
I had hung my pack following some standard rules that I had found online: at least 6′ away from the trunk and 15′ off the ground. I perhaps tied it a little too close to the branch above it with the method I used. It hung maybe 3-4 feet below the branch. But I guess nothing that I read at the time gave me clear instruction on that part. Learning opportunity: the line I used to hang my bag stated in the description that it was good for multi purpose and specifically for hanging bear bags. I was using Nite Ize Reflective Cord, which in retrospect wasn’t the best choice for the purpose. The breaking strength of this cord is just 110lbs. I only learned this after the fact, I didn’t even look into it before the trip. I just read the description, “Never trip over your tent guy lines on the way back from the outhouse again! Includes 15.24m of 2.44mm reflective nylon cord. Also useful for hanging bear bags, tying up tarps and making back-country clotheslines.”
Well, I learned. Next time I’ll use a line with a higher break-strength, Paracord 550. A male black bear typically weighs between 125-550lbs, with females weighing less. Hopefully that will do. But back to the bear…
I sat there in my tent trying to decide what to do. It was now about 230am, I was alone, a bear was pawing my food bag around on the rocks trying to tear it open. I grabbed my small knife (SOG Flash II – I love this knife) and held it close to my chest. I sat in my tent listening. I imagined what I would do if the bear came up to investigate my tent. I was scared. I basically prayed, and I don’t pray. I imagined cutting open the opposite side of my tent and making a run for it. I imagined all sorts of crazy scenarios. I considered unzipping my inner door and putting my boots on, so that I could have shoes on if I had to run, but I didn’t want to make noise. I worried that the zipper and rustling might attract a curious bear. I considered getting out of the tent and confronting the bear. Yelling, banging things, blowing my whistle (I always carry a whistle). After much deliberation, I decided to just stay silent and still. I listened and could hear the bag being dragged off and batted around farther and farther away. I decided to just try to go back to sleep. What else could I do?
I’m surprised that I actually COULD fall back asleep. I’ll be honest, I was pretty scared. This was the first time I had officially encountered a bear in the wild. I had seen them before, but only from a distance. In the morning when I woke up, I went looking for the bag but I couldn’t find it. I guess the joke was on the bear in the end though. The bag was Kevlar and supposedly “Bear-proof”. So whatever it wanted, it likely had a hell of a time getting at it.
I packed up my camp quickly, skipped breakfast because I had none, and paddled out really early. The day was sunny, calm and beautiful and the wind was at my back the whole way home. As I paddled back, I was smiling and laughing at myself and the incident. My first trip with about 17hrs of rain and a bear stealing my food bag in the middle of the night. What an adventure. Ultimately, it turned out to be the perfect first trip and a really memorable learning experience.
I got back before 9am and because I returned my canoe before 9, they refunded me for the day. Bonus. I treated myself to breakfast at the restaurant above the Portage Store. Bacon, eggs, toast, home fries, it was a treat. I still had a few hours before the Parkbus arrived to pick me up at 2pm, so I went by the park office to report the bear incident. They like it when you do this because it gives them an idea of how active the bears are in the park. I learned then that the year before, the bears were so bad on Joe Lake that they had to close all the campsites down. They said that because the portage into the lake is so easy, people who know nothing about back-country camping bring coolers and a ton of stuff into those campsites. They don’t practice no trace camping, they leave garbage on the sites. While they’re there they also don’t hang food, so the bears learn very quickly that these sites are hot spots for getting food. They told me that some bears have also learned to just climb the trees and cut the lines of the bags even when you do tie them up properly. I wish I had known all of this before I went out, but all a great learning experience.
Losing that bear bag meant I also lost a bunch of gear: my stove, fuel, GSI Dualist pot and one of the bowls and sporks, some extra meals, my emergency fire starting kit, and my dishwash kit. All replaceable, I still don’t regret not trying to confront the bear alone in the middle of the night. Since then I’ve replaced all the gear with exactly the same items with one exception, the Ursack. Instead of the bag, I picked up a 10L Garcia Backpackers Cache. I haven’t tried it yet, but I’ve read that this one is much more effective as the bears can’t grab on to it or bite into it. Even if they do bat it around a bit, they get frustrated and wander off. You’re supposed to just set it in the woods on the ground somewhere about 200 yrds away from your tent and just leave it there. This worries me a bit, but I’ll give it a go next time and hope I have better luck. I also picked up a 20L dry bag to use at times when I have more than 1oL worth of food or when the Cache is too awkward to carry. I’ve also looked into some better and more proper methods of tying up my bag, like the PCT method, which I will also give a try next time I’m out. I definitely know I made a few mistakes this time around with regards to where and how I tied up my bag.
So what next? My first solo hike. I’ll be hiking the Eastern Highlands Backpacking small loop in July 2017.