What happens when bears wander into campsite? These lessons take hold

·4 min read

You get a lot of questions when you tell folks that you’re going to spend your summer vacation on a long backpacking trip in the mountains with scouts.

Most of them are variations on the same two-part query: “Getting up with the sun every day to haul a heavy load up one long trail and down another is a vacation? Are you nuts?”

But shortly before we left, a worried relative sprung a completely new two-parter on me: “Are there bears there? Are you bringing guns?”

Bears? Well, judging from the all the rules we have to follow dealing with food, trash, toothpaste and anything else that might interest a 500-pound omnivore, the odds seemed better than even.

But guns? With all the rules that scouting lays out around the least little projectiles, we were going to have to face all the wildlife out there without so much as a slingshot.

My whole group made it home safely without worrying once about our lack of firepower, thanks to some simple rules. The key is to split bears into two categories — “just bears being bears” and “problem bears” — and then avoiding anything that might tempt them from the first column into the second.

Nothing beats a hands-on lesson, and we were lucky enough to come across two bears who were kind enough to demonstrate these principles on our first night in the woods.

It was right after we’d spent hours hiking straight up an unshaded service road with 50- to 60-pound loads.

We were flat-out beat, but after everything that had been drilled into us about bear safety, we knew we were supposed to start working on it right away. Everything that might have a tantalizing aroma had to go from our packs and pockets into big “bear bags” that the scouts would hoist up a cable mounted 20 feet off the ground for that purpose.

As I wondered how we were going to get everyone to stand up from where we’d collapsed, at least 500 pounds of ursine motivation helpfully lumbered between the campsite latrine and the spot where, if we ever mustered the energy, we were planning to put up our tents. A smaller one followed a few minutes later, watching us as it passed like it was judging how likely we might be to forget a morsel or two when we hauled our food out of reach.

Shane, the ranger who was hiking with us until he was reasonably sure that we weren’t going to die in the woods as soon as he left us on our own, reminded us of our training.

“They’re not problem bears,” Shane assured us in a relaxed Georgia drawl, “they’re just bears being bears. What do we do?”

Right away, we all stood and started talking calmly, letting the big animals know that we saw them and were content to watch them just “being bears” until they disappeared down the mountain.

Then we got going setting up bear bags, tents, dinner and everything else that a night in the woods entails, and crawled into our sleeping bags as soon as the work was done and our bellies were filled.

The next day we reported the bears at a staff cabin where we stopped to fill our water bags. “Just bears being bears,” we told a woman with a clipboard who wrote it all down. “Not problem bears.”

She seemed genuinely interested in our sighting, and happy that she wasn’t going to have to call in any of the messy intervention that a problem bear requires.

We never saw another bear on the rest of our 12-day hike, only big paw prints to remind us that they were around.

But I’m grateful to those two that showed themselves on our first day for driving home a lesson that I took with me off the trail.

Although we don’t have bears where I live, my wife and I share space with two teenage boys, creatures that can be just about as dangerous — to themselves, at least, if not to us.

I’m going use the same techniques on them that Shane taught us that first afternoon in the woods: Do my best to put temptation out of reach when I can’t keep an eye on things, talk to them calmly and often so they know I’m around, and sit down with friends regularly to share good stories about the things I’ve seen them doing.

With a little luck and some prayer, I think that’s going to let me enjoy sharing space with teens being teens instead of scrambling for cover from a pair of problem teens.

Richard Espinoza is a former editor of the Johnson County Neighborhood News. You can reach him at respinozakc@yahoo.com. And follow him on Twitter at @respinozakc.