I turned over in my sleeping bag longing for a few extra minutes of sleep. It had been a great hike the day before but my body was rejecting the thought of carrying that backpack on another days trek. Not this early in the morning. Light had begun to filter through the canopy of trees and into our tent. I sensed it would not be much longer before my stomach would expect breakfast. Yep, there it is – grumbling.
Our young dog was lying at the foot of the tent snuggled up like a child between my wife and I. Her legs twitched back and forth as no doubt she recounted in her dreams the events of the previous day’s hike. What sites, smells and sounds she had encountered on this her first weekend backpacking trip. She was snoring, fast asleep until she heard the same thing I did.
Her head snapped up, ears on full alert.
Perhaps it’s just our backpacking friends in the tent a few feet away getting up and ready. But a closer listen revealed it didn’t sound like tent noises. More like scratching and clawing.
I’m beginning to rouse my wife when I hear my friend zip open his tent. Then something that sounded like a thud, followed by scrambling bodies and my friend uttering something like “Oh crap.” I quickly zipped open our tent to see one of our food sacks swinging like a pendulum on the limb we had secured it to the night before. Funny, we had hoisted up two food sacks last evening. Why was there only one now?
(Intermission for clarification: Backpackers have to carry all their food. Lightweight meals are preferable and the best means to carry all the food is to secure it in stuff sacks. These are basic nylon bags with a drawstring at the opening. Food (and any other scented item) is secured from animals at night by hoisting the stuff sacks into the trees using some rope. Never take the food into your tent. Intermission over.)
“What happened?” I asked befuddled. Evidently my friend had poked his head out of the tent just in time to see a bear lunge at the food sacks from the point where the limb is attached to the tree. The bear had taken a swipe with his paw and knocked my food sack to the ground. He had lost his balance on the limb and came tumbling down, at least 12 feet. That was the thud I heard. The scrambling noise was the getaway with another bear into the woods with all the food.
For several minutes we stood there in stunned amazement, our wives and dog unwilling to come out of their respective tents. Finally the wives were coaxed out and a fire started. We quickly realized our weekend backpacking trip would have to be cut short because half of our food had become bear breakfast. I don’t know if it was the disappointment of having our weekend cut short or the frustration of not securing our food sacks farther away from the trunk of the tree, but after 15 minutes my friend and I decided to do the unthinkable.
We decided to track the bears and recover the missing food sack. You read that right…two 20-somethings stalking bears.
The reaction from the wives to this suggestion was something like “What the…?! Are you crazy?!” We assured them they would be fine at the campsite with the dog, who would bark and scare away the bears if they returned. So we grabbed our walking sticks (tree limbs) we had used on the trail the day before and headed out into the woods. (To this day we have never lived down leaving the wives at the campsite alone.)
Our first destination was the stream at the bottom of a small hill adjacent to our campsite. Surely the bears had run this way and crossed the stream to cover their tracks. If not for that reason then, to drink the cool water as they downed bountiful supplies of our GORP.
We walked about 25 yards up the river without spotting anything or hearing any screams from back at the campsite. All the while, we made as much noise as possible, banging our sticks against trees and into the brush. Somewhere along the way we had heard this was a survival technique, making noise so the bears won’t be surprised at our presence.
“Hey bear! Yo bear!” we started shouting.
At this point, we decided to climb back up to the main trail and circle back around to camp. We had been gone about 10 minutes and I was beginning to worry about the wives back at camp. I hadn’t heard any barking but the dog was just a pup. I hoped the bears hadn’t returned and eaten her.
Continuing to talk loudly, we searched and we searched. “Hey there bear!”
After about 5 minutes traversing the top of the hill, we had almost worked our way back to camp. Then we stepped through a clearing of trees and were stopped dead in our tracks. There less than 50 feet away were two black, Georgia bears, blue food sack in hand. The next few moments seemed like an eternity as we watched the bears scarf down the last morsels of my food.
After a moment they looked right at us, probably having detected our scent. I would have sworn one of them was smiling at me. And they ran off into the woods leaving behind a mess of food on the forest floor.
You should have seen the look on the wives’ faces when we strutted back into camp like Will Smith and Jeff Goldbloom in Independence Day after they’ve defeated the aliens. There we were carrying the shredded remains of my nylon food sack. We were the triumphant heroes.
(Historical footnote: I hung the shredded sack in my classroom for months as I regaled my students with stories of our adventure. And I don’t think we told the wives until much later that we had found the bears about 30 yards from the campsite. Yikes!)
Reflecting on this event some 15 years later just makes me laugh. How immature and foolish. How sure we were of our invincibility to chase two bears through the woods. It’s absolutely comical in retrospect we thought that a wise decision.
It stands, without a doubt, as the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.
Would I make that same wild decision today? No way. Sure, I’ve grown up into middle age and that has brought with it a great deal of maturity. Now I wouldn’t find such a thrill seeking adventure as appealing. But over the years I’ve also learned how to better value things that are important (like my life and that of those around me) and to let go when I make mistakes. My 20-something self would have kicked himself mercilessly for being negligent in the hanging of the food sack.
It’s a great memory though, one shared with great friends. And maybe that’s the real lasting value of the story.
That and don’t chase a hungry bear through the woods.
(In related bear news, click below for the funniest bear video ever.)
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