- Vol. 08
- Chapter 06
Keeping bears away from food remains a major preoccupation of camping Americans. Although 1960s vintage national park footage shows tourists feeding sandwiches out of packed lunches straight into a bear’s mouth, park authorities soon put a stop to that. Too many serious injuries after visitors ran out of sandwiches and over-enthusiastic bears jumped into cars in search for more snacks.
Those of us who ventured up into mountains and across valleys for multi-day hikes confronted the challenge of safely stashing our powdered soups and instant noodles overnight. The recommended tactic involved wrapping food in a sleeping bag “stuff sack”, affixing it to a cord, tossing it over a tree branch and suspending it high enough that the bear couldn’t reach it from the branch above or the ground below. The National Parks provided pictorial guides specifying the height of the tree, girth of the branch, and distance from the trunk to optimise bear-proofing. Many things could and did go wrong – no suitable trees, broken cords, exceptionally tall bears – and campers exchanged tales of different ways they lost provisions to bears or bad luck, such as irretrievably entangling the parcel in high branches. There were a lot of hungry hikers emerging out of the woods.
One hot August night, my friends and I were awakened a few hours after we’d snuggled into our tents by a persistent crunching sound. Emerging with flashlights, we looked around for a bear we assumed would be straining to reach the bag of food swaying overhead, or stretching down from the branch. Sure enough, there it was, a big furry shape in the dark, peering at us with amused eyes glowing in flashlight beams. It had climbed up the tree to the branch from which we had hung our food, but rather than risk balancing on the limb to try to grab the bag from above, this bear’s strategy was to chew through the whole branch. It resumed gnawing. “If a bear does attempt to procure your suspended food parcel” our helpful leaflet advised “make loud noises, e.g. by banging pots and pans or knocking rocks together.
Food InsecurityDo not approach the bear, but attempt to frighten it away.” We commenced banging, and yelling, and chanting “go away, bear!” to no avail. After some more leisurely chewing, the branch, bag, and food landed with a thud, and the bear pounced on its prize, which it ripped open with a single claw.
But mysteriously, that’s when it lost its nerve. Suddenly disorientated by our chanting and pot-clanging, the bear looked uncertain. One of my friends rolled a rock toward it, we let forth a collective roar, and it scampered off with just a packet of trail-mix between its teeth. We took turns keeping watch the rest of the night. These days, there are specially manufactured bear “capsules” in which to secure food, space-age pods of thick plastic that pop shut and can’t be crushed or torn or unscrewed by powerful yet clumsy paws.