Scrunch. Scrrunch. Scarrrunth.
“Just great,” I thought, awakened by the sound of tractor-trailer tires on gravel. “Here I’ve hiked into the mountains to escape into nature, and I STILL can’t get away from the noise of traffic.” Then I realized I was at least 5-6 miles from the nearest highway. I had driven five hours to the High Peaks, then down the long road to the Adirondack Log, then hiked an hour up to a lean-to by Marcy Dam, the first leg of a two week backpacking trip with my shepherd mix, Sasha.
Scrunch. Scrrunth. I sat up.
Sasha was sitting as erect as could be, her back pressed against me, stiff as possible while every part of her body trembled slightly, her attention focused intently ahead.
The night was cloudy, no light at all. Still, through the complete dark of the forest, the sky was lighter above the trees where the land sloped down toward the dam. Against that backdrop, bit by bit, I watched a large, dark shape slowly pull itself up one of the trees suspending my food. [Backpackers bag their food and tie it suspended between two trees, at least 15 feet from the ground and from either tree, to protect it from persistent woodland creatures, like raccoons and—bears.]
Scrunch. With every pull of the bear, my dog’s alert, staring head abruptly inched up another angle. Scrunth—another inch. Scrunth—another head adjustment. Scrunch. Scarrunthh!
The bear had reached the line suspending the food. A moment passed while the bear realized it couldn’t reach the bag, and let out a low grumble.
The bear headed down, my dog’s attention fixed, her head abruptly adjusting to each change in the bear’s position.
Lower and lower—bear and dog’s head.
Having reached the bottom of the tree, the bear placed its back feet on the ground. My dog responded. So softly I could barely hear her, throat just two feet from my ears, Sasha let out a long, low “grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrruff.” There. I barked. Now YOU do something.
I did. Looking around for a few pots to bang together to startle bear, I reminded myself that startled bears take off in whatever direction they’re pointed, so be careful before startling. But how was I going to manage that in the dark, when I could see little more than a large, ominous shape?
I needn’t have worried, since knowing it wasn’t going to get our food, the bear simply walked away, down the path toward Marcy Dam. Once the adrenaline finally settled, I settled down to sleep—my dog still sharply on the watch.
The next morning, I packed our gear (including Sasha’s doggie backpack—hey, why should I carry HER food for two weeks?), and we set off on the first full day of our trip, climbing Mt. Marcy. To do so, we first had to head down past Marcy Dam. The previous day, while filling water bottles at the spring there, I noticed three college age hikers in the dam-side lean-to, their food hung in bags from the edge of the lean-to. After making small talk, I suggested they might want to hang the food suspended between two trees, according to custom, and explained why. “Nah,” they confidently responded. “The bear isn’t going to come up to us here in the lean-to, with the fire going.” This morning, apparently they were wrong—bits of paper, plastic, food wrappers and similar debris littered the ground surrounding the lean-to for a few hundred feet in every direction. The hikers had vacated the premises.
The forest rangers report that bears learn very quickly—a single experience is enough. Around Eighth Lake State Park, bears cruise campers’ cars, looking inside for coolers, peeling open promising prospects like opening a can. of Spam.
A former housemate and I at the time looked into hiking in Montana, and consequently requested information about hiking in bear country. The brochure did, indeed, share grizzly facts. “Do not run from a grizzly—you have no chance of outrunning a grizzly.” “Do not try to climb a tree to escape a grizzly—grizzly bears are excellent climbers.” “Do not try to swim from a grizzly—grizzly bears are excellent swimmers.” Sobering, no? Reminds me of a Gary Larson cartoon showing two bears polishing off the bones of a few hikers. “I love it when they play dead,” reads the caption. “No running or nothing!”
Bears go out of their way to avoid humans. One nature show claimed that hikers probably frequently came close to bears but never saw them. To prove the point, a camera watched a trail while indeed, bears crossed the hikers’ path, unnoticed. After hundreds and hundreds of hours hiking in the mountains, I’ve only once seen a bear cross my path—and then only briefly as it vanished before my eyes, like ball players walking into the corn in “Field of Dreams.” [Luckily I saw the bear before Sasha did, and quickly called her safely to my side.]
Hikers in grizzly country are asked to store food in bear proof canisters. The issue is that just one careless hiker teaches bears that backpack equals dinner—not a happy situation for hikers (or, ultimately, the bears). The same nature show featured footage of a grizzly bating around such a container, knowing it held food, unable to reach it. My housemate and I didn’t go hiking in Montana after all. He met the woman who would become his wife. They went. I went on this backpacking trip with Sasha.
Hikers in the high peaks joke that the raccoons and the bears are in cahoots—the bears through the raccoons up into the air at the food, and the raccoons untie the bag and throw it to the ground. Some days, it’s a tempting explanation.
On the other side of Marcy, at the base of Mt. Colden, lies a relatively large flat piece of ground, an attractive and popular place for backpackers to camp. The trees are scored with claw marks, as the bears have learned to claw through the ropes suspending the food bags.