8.07.2010

in which a bear learns i have ptsd


Yosemite National Park and the surrounding area are full of bears. Bears and people are an uneasy mix, at best. Many years ago when we were in Denali National Park, in Alaska, the Park's visitor education instilled in me a very healthy fear of bears. The ranger said, "Bears are mostly vegetarian. But the thing about bears is that they are highly intelligent, and every bear is unique, has its own personality. A bear who is mostly vegetarian could wake up one day and think, 'I have a taste for meat'. And you're meat."

Then there are the highly dangerous bears. Bears who have been injured and are in pain. Bears who have learned that human campsites are food sources. And, most dangerous of all, mother bears who believe their cubs are threatened.

In Denali, we learned about proper response to a nearby bear. You are to stand still, not run, because if you run, you will look like prey, and you will not be able to outrun this massive animal. You're supposed to stand your ground, make yourself look big by waving your arms around, and make a lot of noise. When you hike through a bear territory, you're always supposed to make noise. There we were in the quiet solitude of the tundra, talking loudly and jingling our "bear bells" to announce our presence! We felt silly, but in summer the cubs are out, and you do not want to surprise their mama!

In Yosemite, signs on all the roads remind you that Speeding Kills Bears. (I love the design of the sign.) As we entered the park, a sign told us that 27 bears were killed on the Yosemite roads in 2009. Given the pressures all wild animals are under, with habitat destruction and poaching, that bears should be killed by cars in a national park seems so awful to me. So the Park does heavy bear education, especially at the campsites and lodges.

We stayed in a "tent cabin" in the White Wolf area (more on this in the next post). Like all outdoor accommodations, the tent cabin came with a "bear box," which is a misnomer. It is an anti-bear box: a metal box with a complicated hook-and-eye and pin closure in which to store food.

The problem is that "food," to a bear, includes many things that humans do not consider food, such as soap, shampoo, toothpaste and water bottles, either empty or full. Storing food in the bear box, removing it only to eat, is no big deal. But having to store all your toiletries - unlocking the box, removing what you need, relocking the box, using what you need, then unlocking the box, returning the item, and relocking the box - with each open and close a difficult procedure - every time you need something - is very inconvenient. As much as we tried to think of everything at once and coordinate our bear-box activity, we ended up opening and closing the box with great frequency.

The closure on our box was warped, misshapen and rusty. The first time I opened it, I ripped the skin on one finger, sending blood running down my hand and arm. The first time Allan opened it, the exact same thing happened to him in the same spot on his hand. After that, I had the brilliant idea of using a washcloth as you would a glove. This spared our hands no end of abuse, but opening and closing this bear box was still a royal pain in the butt.

On Tuesday evening, our second night in Yosemite, we decided not to eat dinner at the lodge (again, more on that in the next post), to give ourselves more time out for the day, and also to use more of the food we had with us. We sat on folding chairs outside our tent cabin, using the tree stump table for our candle, wine and food. We were sitting about six feet away from our cabin door; the bear box was on the side of the cabin, about 15-20 feet away from us. Because we were so nearby, we had closed the bear box but not locked it.

We were eating and talking as the light faded and the dusk sky grew darker. We heard a noise - a clamoring of metal. I jumped up, grabbed the flashlight, and shined it towards the bear box. We both saw - or thought we saw? - a rounded shape, brown, in front of the box. I jumped back in alarm, and when I re-shined the light on the same place, the shape was gone.

Making plenty of noise, we walked over to the box. The door was wide open. The contents were undisturbed - but we had all the food at the stump table; only travel bags of toiletries were in the box. Maybe we hadn't seen the shape. Maybe the door to the bear box had swung open.

We calmed down finished our dinner. Deconstructing the incident, we decided the door to the bear box had swung open. Then, about an hour or so later, someone else staying at the site told us a bear had been seen in the camp "about 45 minutes earlier".

Let me tell you, I was afraid. My old PTSD hypervigilance kicked in. When Allan went to use the washroom, I lit two candles, held the flashlight and sang to myself to make noise. That night, I was really scared, despite knowing full well that a bear will not enter a food-free tent just to snack on humans. The PTSD was mild, nothing horrible. Mostly it was interesting to me to see that it could be triggered that way.

The next day, driving around, we realized there almost certainly had been a bear at the box. There was no wind, and the metal door of the box would not have swung open by itself. And we both saw the same shape. As there wasn't great food in the box, the little commotion we made must have scared it off.

To wmtc readers who go camping and are outdoorsy, I'm sure this story is commonplace, even silly. But to this non-camper, it was a little too exciting!

12 comments:

redsock said...

It was too much noise for either a creaking, rusty door or for something in the box to have fallen down. (And there was no wind at all and nothing to tip over.) What we saw was a sliver of brown, like maybe the top of the humped back of the bear.

Amy said...

OK, you scared me! Too many campfire stories at camp, I guess.

johngoldfine said...

When I first see that title, every single time, I read it as : 'in which a bear learns i have posted' or when I'm even sleepier 'in which a bear learns I have passted [sic].'

Somewhere around is a photo of my wife, then gf, in Glacier in 1968 with her bear bell.

L-girl said...

Now I see it as posted, too!

I have never been to Glacier or to the state of Montana. I would like to.

In Alaska we saw bears and they were SO HUGE. Much bigger than I expected them to be. The cubs were incredibly cute but also huge. Truly an awesome animal.

L-girl said...

Btw, the title of this post was meant to be a joke. Apparently the humour was lost on some folks, but really, I was just being silly. The bear didn't really learn anything.

redsock said...

Apparently the humour was lost on some folks

She means me.

johngoldfine said...

The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me

"the withness of the body" --Whitehead


The heavy bear who goes with me,
A manifold honey to smear his face,
Clumsy and lumbering here and there,
The central ton of every place,
The hungry beating brutish one
In love with candy, anger, and sleep,
Crazy factotum, dishevelling all,
Climbs the building, kicks the football,
Boxes his brother in the hate-ridden city.

Breathing at my side, that heavy animal,
That heavy bear who sleeps with me,
Howls in his sleep for a world of sugar,
A sweetness intimate as the water's clasp,
Howls in his sleep because the tight-rope
Trembles and shows the darkness beneath.
--The strutting show-off is terrified,
Dressed in his dress-suit, bulging his pants,
Trembles to think that his quivering meat
Must finally wince to nothing at all.

That inescapable animal walks with me,
Has followed me since the black womb held,
Moves where I move, distorting my gesture,
A caricature, a swollen shadow,
A stupid clown of the spirit's motive,
Perplexes and affronts with his own darkness,
The secret life of belly and bone,
Opaque, too near, my private, yet unknown,
Stretches to embrace the very dear
With whom I would walk without him near,
Touches her grossly, although a word
Would bare my heart and make me clear,
Stumbles, flounders, and strives to be fed
Dragging me with him in his mouthing care,
Amid the hundred million of his kind,
the scrimmage of appetite everywhere.

Delmore Schwartz

L-girl said...

Wow, that's intense. Thanks.

Scott M. said...

I love (and have deep respect for) bears, having worked up in Missinaibi Provincial Park in Northern Ontario for a few summers.

Back in 1999, I transcribed (and improved, some of them were crap) a number of MNR booklets/resources on how to deal with black bears and posted them on the internet. For a long while, it was a key reference for online articles on the subject (remember: the world wide web was quite small at that time) . That website is long dead now though.

I'm happy to see you not suggest stupid things, like running down hill or going up a tree, etc. And it's great to see people who don't make it sound like the bear is somehow at fault for being where it is.

I'm also glad you didn't give yourself tetanus on the bear box!!

L-girl said...

Scott, that is so great, thanks for sharing. Bears are amazing - so beautiful and powerful, and so smart.

I was pretty glad not to get tetanus too! In keeping with our lack of preparedness, I had given Allan my last band-aid in San Francisco. He went to the little store and came back with a pack of four band-aids plus some neosporin-type ointment, sold for $1.00. We fixed me up, then he immediately ripped his own finger!

L-girl said...

make it sound like the bear is somehow at fault for being where it is.

Hey, you're talking to a defender of pit bulls. As far as I'm concerned, in human-animal collisions, it is always the human's fault - because the human can help it, and the animal can't.

Scott M. said...

One quick note for those reading what to do when encountering a bear... what we're talking about here are Black Bears. (Black bears come in all different colours including white, brown, black, red, blue, etc). If you are going into an area with different types of bears, you should make sure to learn the rules that apply with those bears. Polar bear behaviour differs greatly from black bear behaviour which is different than brown/grizzly bear behaviour.

If you go into an area that has both types, learn how to tell them apart (it's actually really easy) and what to do for each type.