Sunday, August 22, 2010

Smarter than the average bear

I woke with a start, recognizing the sound that had awakened me even as I came out of sleep. I listened but there was nothing more. No grunting, no heavy breathing, no tearing plastic.

Outside my tent the campground was dark, even the starlight filtered out by the canopy of Douglas fir and broad-leaf maples. And silent. No kids, no barking dogs, no players dealing one last hand of Crazy Eights.

Lying completely still, I continued to listen. There would be something. The bear that had snagged my food bag off the bench of the picnic table would give itself away sooner rather than later and I didn’t want to draw its attention away from the tropical-fruit trail mix and Minute Rice. My mind raced back over my bedtime preparations. Had I purged all the food from my panniers before I brought them into the tent?

Rebars. Yes. Gatorade powder. Uh-huh.

Wait! Tea bags? Yes, they were with the bouillon packets. Whew.

What else was there? I ran through the list. It was all outside.

But my toiletries…. What had I been thinking? Ivory soap, unscented deodorant, okay, those weren’t going to be big draws, but my toothpaste was right beside my head! I couldn’t smell it, in its tube in the little zippered plastic bag, but a bear probably could!

I’d been sloppy because this wasn’t a wilderness site.

This campground was populated by RVs and car campers, picnic tables with tablecloths and bottles of mustard and relish, and propane barbecues on which large men cooked burgers. It had the same kind of garbage cans I had at home – suburban wheelie-bins, not bear-proof caches.

Still, something out there had just nabbed my breakfast, lunch and dinner and it could be a matter of time until it came looking for my organic fennel toothpaste for dessert.

On the other hand, wouldn’t any self-respecting bear head for those garbage cans redolent of meat and barbecue sauce? Of course it would.

I settled into my sleeping bag again, adjusting the pillow of clean T-shirts beneath my head. As my brain slowed, so did my heart rate and I drifted off again, only to jerk awake at the sound of my food bag hitting the dirt. Again.

My heart hammered as my brain whirred. I knew that sound. I’d already heard it once that night. Why was I hearing it again? Clearly the bear had, what…picked up the bag and dropped it?

Just like the last time, there was silence once more. No chittering raccoon, no snuffling bear. No paws padding over the hardpacked pea gravel. Nothing but my own pulse scampering through my ears for a hiding place in my head.

Garbage cans, remember? I told myself. Broiled chicken is much more appealing than toothpaste, and raw camper is way too much work.

I felt for the flashlight, carefully unzipped the tent door and flicked on the bright halogen bulb. No eyes shone back from the darkness, nothing skittered away, no gleam of white showed where the bag had landed.

I turned off the light and retreated. I wasn’t imagining things. The bag was gone. Something was out there. I lay in the dark, worrying.

When I woke up, dawn washed everything in a pale grey light. I peered outside and, sure enough, my food bag was not lying on the bench on the far side of the picnic table. Nor was it on the ground beneath, or anywhere else that I could see. There weren’t any bears, either, so I scooted out of my sleeping bag and slipped into my shoes. When I straightened up outside the tent, it took a few moments for my higher perspective to do any good and I finally spotted a flash of white.

Rounding the picnic table and jumping down the two-foot bank from my campsite, I passed a cedar tree in a couple of strides and was looking at my supply of Minute Rice spilled across the dirt like two cups of tiny beige droppings. The Gatorade was untouched, as were the Rebars and tea bags, but a twist-tie clutching a frill of plastic like an Elizabethan ruff was all that remained of the trail mix.

Like a wilderness CSI agent, I examined the shredded edges of the bags. The creature that had pushed, pulled and dragged a couple of pounds of food off a bench, across seven feet of campsite, over a ledge and another four feet around a tree was not a bear. But we knew that. Not even a raccoon. Knew that too. No dog, no whiskey jack.

The beast that had awoken me – twice – and trapped me in fight-or-flight indecision in the fragile protection of my tent, was a ravening pack of mice.

Decoration by Dad


  1. Ahh, the old toothpaste by the head mistake. Been there.
    Love the new look, Rachel. Is this your century trip?

  2. This was a short jaunt to Sooke Potholes the week before last – only about 50 km each way – barely a metric century round-trip, I'm afraid.

    It's such a beautiful ride along the Galloping Goose that I think I'll do it again before the fall weather sets in.

  3. no toothpaste by the head - got it! Never knew about that one! Great story; just LOVED it. Lisa

  4. Glad I could help keep you safe on your next camping trip, Lisa!