Saturday, June 23, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: Homage to a Legendary Black Bear

Our participants, before Tractor, from a trip collage. Part of a "Death Card" is visible in the collage.

Currently I am in the midst of writing about food.  This week’s column was to be about a back country pantry for a longer trip, but thanks to Dan Crane’s recent column on bear attacks and the plethora of comments it generated I decided to switch the order up a little.  Today’s topic will still be food in the back country, but combined with another subject, a subject to whom I have long owed a written account.  This subject is a big one… well, was a big one…

Eleven years ago in the summer of 2001 Amy, my three sons and I planned our most ambitious family backpacking trip ever, eleven days in the back country.  The route was to take us all over the High Peaks, some of it on the trail and some of it bushwhacking.

Back then we used to take freeze-dried backpacking food on shorter trips, but for a trip of this length I opted to take staples and cook all the meals.  We carefully planned the food, bought the supplies, pre-measured servings and packed what was certainly a voluminous food bag, though not impossibly heavy.  We had rice, instant potatoes, pasta, dried beans, olive oil, tomatoes, herbs and spices, cheese, sausage, jerky, veggies that would hold up for a few days in the woods such as peppers and carrots, pancake mix, oatmeal, a variety of fresh and dried fruit, chocolate and a boatload of granola bars.  All in all the food for the trip came to about forty-five pounds and filled a standard sleeping bag stuff sack to the limit.

We did not carry bear canisters; they were recommended but not yet required and I hated them.  In order to protect the food I did what I’ve done for thirty years: hung the food bag from a high limb, well away from my or any other person’s tent site.  In all that time I have never lost a hanging food bag to an animal, this accomplishment no doubt aided by the fact that we almost always camped well off trail, back where no other human being was going to be seen and therefore well away from the interior camping areas that bears have learned to exploit.  These days when I backpack I carry a bear canister because I want to support DEC’s impressive and successful effort to reduce the bear problem in the High Peaks, a problem that is much better than when it was at its zenith, which was the case when we took this mega trip.  It is unlikely that the canister would be necessary where I go, but it’s good form.  At Lost Brook Tract the canisters make for excellent storage of staples, with some rice dumped in to absorb moisture.

The day of the trip arrived and we drove out to the Adirondacks from Wisconsin, arriving as always very late at night (it’s a sixteen hour trip) and staying in our favorite motel.  The next day we drove to the Upper Works trailhead to begin our odyssey.  At the time of the trip my kids were eleven, nine and eight and none of them were particularly good at getting going in the morning.  As a result it was not atypical for us to have a late start.  I had planned for us to hike into Flowed Lands, eat dinner there, then push beyond Flowed Lands at the spot of the breached dam and go off trail north, up the ridge toward Cliff.  However our late start made that plan ambitious.  Thanks to the logistics of packing our packs for a trip of this magnitude combined with foot-dragging children, we did not hit the trail until after 4:30 PM.

The hike on the Calamity Brook trail did not set speed records and it was nearly 7:00 PM before we stopped at the edge of Flowed Lands for dinner.  It was already starting to feel like dusk and I was concerned, understanding from experience that bears start to become more active at dusk and knowing that Flowed Lands was a hotbed of bear activity due to careless and sloppy campers.  I wanted time to be able to find and make a camp well away from Flowed Lands and hang the food bag safely and I recognized that I had little leeway for that.

I hurriedly made dinner and as we ate it three bears emerged from the forest well down the shoreline and began frolicking in a marshy section below a tall bluff.  They were a couple hundred yards away from us at least but it was enough of a signal for me.  “I’m going to go find a place to make camp before it gets dark, go ahead and finish your dinner,” I said.  I grabbed the pack with the tent and the food bag rope and headed down the trail away from the camping area.

The trail hugged the shoreline for minute or so, then headed into the woods.    I followed it for maybe an eighth of a mile but no further as it was getting darker by the minute.  I plunged off the trial into the woods and went far enough to feel that I might avoid any bear trouble.  After a minute of searching I found a flat spot clear enough to fit our tent.  I dropped the pack, pulled out the food bag rope and went deeper into the forest to find a tree branch from which I could hang it.  I have to admit I was unusually nervous; back in the woods it was already like night and I needed my headlamp to see where I was going.  I felt strangely vulnerable even though I had been venturing in the woods all my life.  I found a wide branch and hung the rope.

The quarter mile hike back to my family revealed to me why I had felt nervous.  The quiet of the falling night was being disturbed by more than just my footfalls.  South of me, maybe fifty feet further into the woods there were clear noises of an animal moving through the understory.   As I got back to the trail proper and followed it to Flowed Lands the presence became unmistakable.  The sounds of brush being pushed aside and branches snapping made it obvious that I was being paralleled by a large creature.  It was easy enough to guess what kind of creature it was.  My shadow companion stayed right with me until I hit the shoreline, then its sounds disappeared.

Amy and the boys were casually finishing dinner, talking and laughing.  I jogged over to them.  “We have to leave NOW,” I said urgently.  They understood at once; their happy demeanors evaporated.  I didn’t even bother to repack the bags but simply re-shouldered my opened pack and cradled the food bag in my arms.  We hurried down the trail, my senses hyper-aware of any sound emanating from the forest.  But there was none save those made by us, a group of five people and a dog, walking to our camp area.  My concern ebbed; the rope was already up and we were on our way to our nightly cocoon.

I took us off the trail, headlamp aglow, and after a couple of minutes of hunting we came to the pack I had left in the small clearing.  We dropped our gear and I instructed the family to pitch the tents.  “I’m going to go hang the food bag and I’ll be back,” I said.  I called our golden retriever Solo to my side for reinforcement, picked up the food bag and turned to head for the rope that was hanging perhaps fifty yards distant.

I had taken no more than five steps, just reaching the edge of the clearing, when my progress was arrested by a low growl, a snort and a scratching, hissing sound.  Solo’s hair went up.  My hair went up.  Fifteen feet in front of me, directly between me and the rope, nebulous in the darkness, stood the largest black bear I have ever seen, pawing the ground, swaying back and forth.  I have encountered plenty of black bears over the years.  I have seen grizzlies in the wild.  This looked like a grizzly, so bulky was he.   I had never seen anything like him in the Adirondacks.  I felt my adrenaline spike, along with a healthy dose of fear.  Obviously he had been my shadow.  He knew exactly where I’d put the rope and what it meant.  Now he was deliberately barring my way, demanding the spoils.

I will remember the next forty-five seconds for as long as I live.  Scared but not stupid I stood firm and addressed the bear in a loud voice.  He did not move.  Solo began to bark furiously – I was terrified he was going to rush this bear – and still the bear did not give room but instead increased his vocalizations and slapped the dirt harder with his paw.  This was no typical encounter.  A bear who will stand his ground in the presence of five people (and I am a big guy) and a lathered-up dog is no ordinary bear.

We had ourselves a stand-off.  There was me with the food bag still in my arms and a furiously barking dog on one side, versus several hundred pounds of creature with the ability to tear trees apart and run flat-out at forty miles per hour on the other side.  It occurred to me that such a stand-off was not in my favor.

It is interesting how the mind takes flight at such amplified times.  All of a sudden my head went to Charles Dudley Warner.  I heard all of his marvelous prose in my head.  I imagined a pail of blueberries at my feet.  I thought of him and his gun, firing “generally” at the bear who was coming on.  His tale, included in the Adirondack Reader, is a gem, but I had never thought to relive it so vividly.  I considered how much bigger our bear was – after all, in Warner’s story he is pooh-poohed by other hunters for having shot a bear measuring on the smaller side.  This would not have been the case here.  I considered that this bruin might charge; if so I had no pail of fruit with which to distract him, no gun with which to shoot him and a literary talent quite inferior to Mr. Warner’s with which to describe the dénouement, should I survive it.  In other words, in all respects I was quite unarmed.  I thought about how nice it would have been to meet Mr. Warner, somehow reasoning that it was the imminent prospect of being torn limb from limb that was to prevent said meeting, not the fact that Mr. Warner had left this earth more than a century before.  I felt a distinct jealousy over the fact that Mr. Warner counted Mark Twain among his friends and I did not.

This psychological reverie, which occupied perhaps a full two seconds, was interrupted by the rational and well-considered, though strident, voice of my oldest son: “Dad!  Jesus, let him have the food!”  “Yeah!  Let’s get out of here!” said my equally sage middle child.  Wanting to do my fatherly duty it seemed wise to take that advice.

But then another clarion call entered the fray: “Don’t you dare let him have that!  That’s all our food for the trip!  That’s eleven days of food!”  Thus was my wife heard from.   Now you need to know Amy in order to fully understand the power she wields.  This is a woman who in every aspect of her life is completely unstoppable, almost entirely undeniable.   I have never seen such force of will in all my life.  Amy is almost always right about things and I don’t mean that in a husband’s usual condescending way.  She’s uncanny, that Amy, forceful and beautiful in her presence.  She was right about the food: if we lost it the trip would be before it had even started.  I was frozen with indecision.

The bear, showing an appalling lack of regard for our debate and for the ramifications of my decision, as well as a complete and thorough insensitivity concerning the possible impact of this event upon marital and familial relations, settled the matter by issuing forth a particularly suggestive grunt.  This comment on his part cut through the haze in my head most effectively, summoning a crystal clear desire to move my children to safety.  “The Hell with this,” I spat, dropping the food bag.  I backed away slowly, still facing the bear. “Grab your packs,” I said to Amy and my relieved boys.  We’re going.”  And so the food bag was left to the devices of the bear.

We reversed our way out to the trail and then took off, away from the direction of Flowed Lands and all its bears.  It was now pitch dark and we were quite scared.  To add insult to injury it started to rain… well, it would be more accurate to call it a deluge.  We were soaked in moments, our packs still not fully assembled and closed.  We crossed the outlet of Flowed Lands in the heavy downpour, the visibility only a few feet, the wall of raindrops sparkling in our lamp beams.  We came to a spot where the path widened a little and in defiance of Wilderness regulations I called a halt right there.  We pitched our tent on the trail and dove in, away from the unrelenting rain.  All we could imagine was the bear following us down the trail, looking for more.  It was an extremely discomforting situation.

Showing distinguished bravery I tied poor Solo up outside the tent, to act as an “early warning signal”.  I placed my hunting knife at the ready.  We huddled in the tent, damp, scared and miserable.  To lighten our spirits we decided to play cards.  Amy pulled out a random deck we’d packed and dealt a round of Hearts.  One of our boys noticed right away and pointed out that we were playing with “Death Cards,” a deck marketed by an organization that advocates against the dangers of drugs and tobacco. Each card has an ominous and dire warning or fact about drug use and death and the back of each card is black and lovingly decorated with a skull and crossbones (it turns out that the cards are still available, here, if you are curious ).   These decorations were not helpful to our spirits.  There we sat with the cards, the knife, the rain and the whimpering dog, waiting for the bear.  It was pathetic.

After a few minutes our fears began to subside.  I let the bedraggled Solo back into the tent and our moods went up considerably.  Emboldened by having shot the moon I began to feel more defiant than scared.  I cursed the bear, dared him to come.  The kids joined in and we began a long evening of thinking of every terrible and degrading thing we could think to say about our oversized, omnivorous persecutor.  I dare say no animal of the forest has ever been more thoroughly verbally abused than he was that night.  Still, one would have to say he got the better of the contest.   Eventually fatigue had its way and we fell asleep, the tirade halted for the night.

I woke first, as usual. I felt a small wave of fear as I opened the tent, imagining that the bear would be right outside, waiting to further torment us.  But all was clear.  Solo trotted out to sniff the air and relieve himself.  I did the same.

I realized that I had to return to the scene of the crime in order to clean up the mess, get the rope and salvage anything I could.  I did not relish going back that direction, the bear’s direction, but the morning light bolstered me; after all, he’d had a busy night and would surely be sleeping it off by now.  I went back up the trail with some trepidation and made my way to the arena of conflict, sad to think of our trip being over, wondering how we were going to be able to afford eating out for ten days instead of backpacking.

As I came into the little clearing I was greeted by a massive scene of carnage, food bags and wrappers and scraps of this and that spread all over the ground.  “Goddamn him,” I said out loud and began to comb though the detritus.  Naturally he’d found his way to the plastic bottle of olive oil and pierced it with his teeth, smearing every last item with oil and bear spit. “What a mess,” I said to myself.  “This will take an hour to clean up.”

But as I got to work I discovered a surprise.  The food bags and containers were almost completely intact!  All the flour, all the rice and oats, the potatoes, even the cheese and fruit were uneaten.  The jerky had a hole in the bag but was okay.   The veggies were dirty and bruised but salvageable.  The herbs were undisturbed, proving that bears know nothing about decent cooking.

After a minute or so of going through the mess it became apparent what had happened: the discriminating beast had eaten only the granola bars!  Each shiny wrapper had been carefully torn open at one end, as cleanly and properly as if some graduate of Emily Post had done it, and the contents had been consumed to the last morsel.  There was not a single granola bar left out of the eighty or so we’d packed.  But almost the entirety of our remaining pantry was intact, if not orderly and clean.  I even got a ½ cup of olive oil from the bottom of the mangled jar, ignoring the contamination wrought upon it by our friend.

I grabbed the heavy duty garbage bags I had brought and shoved everything in them, then hiked back to Flowed Lands so as to use the available water and the floor of a lean-to as a base to inventory, clean up and repack what we could.  I returned to the family and woke them with the good news that we likely had at least nine days of food left.  There was much rejoicing and we all proceed to the lean-to to dry out and reset our packs.

While at Flowed Lands we learned that every camper had been hit by the bear that night; clearly he had himself a good deal going.  A group of Boy Scouts had lost all their breakfast makings, though curiously their granola supply was left untouched.  I can only conclude that the bear enjoyed eating in courses, making him a more sophisticated epicurean than I had previously given him credit for.

We had plenty of breakfast supplies including an overabundance of pancake mix and the Scouts had plenty of granola, so we arranged a swap with them and lo and behold we were back in business, with enough food to do the trip.  And so we did.

(the trip was not without further adventures: camped on a ridge that night up from the Opalescent we endured a tremendous thunderstorm with very active lighting, one bolt striking so close that our hair all stood on end and the right side of my body briefly went numb; later in the trip we had quite the adventure in Indian Pass, which I will relate in a future Dispatch).

As we were finishing our packing at the lean-to we were greeted by a DEC Ranger on patrol.  I relayed the details of our little episode, noting that it was the biggest black bear I had ever seen.  “Oh that’s Tractor,” he replied.  “I guess you can see how he got the nickname.”  Tractor, it turns out, was already a legend, patrolling the interior of the High Peaks in a regular order, from Marcy Dam to Colden and Flowed Lands in a loop, taking whatever he wanted.  It was (and is) DEC policy not to relocate or shoot such bears, but Tractor was more aggressive than most.  He had learned he could bully his way to what he wanted and the average camper was an easy mark.  Tractor left his imprint on High Peaks bear policy to be sure.

In subsequent years it was pro forma for us to call out to Tractor when we passed through the High Peaks interior, to challenge him to try again, to defy him in his menacing bulk, to speak brave words, aggressive words – though safely in daylight, I might add.  Truly Tractor became part of our intimate personal wilderness lore, a key part of it, a noble and honored member of the pantheon.  Tractor was, after all, a magnificent beast, a beautiful and powerful wild animal who had humbled us and reminded us that yes, the Adirondacks can be wooly at times, as they ought to be.  We never saw him again, but we lovingly cursed him uncounted times.

A few years ago we heard that Tractor had been shot and killed after cornering a party of hikers in their lean-to.  Rewarded over and over again with food from frail and careless human beings, he had become too emboldened for his own good.  The news of his demise cast a pall over the family; we felt a great loss to the integrity of the woods with this great animal no longer on the prowl, and we felt the injustice of such a bear as him losing his life because of the tawdry and ignorant practices of the back country campers who trained him, me included.  He deserved a better fate.

All there is left to do now is write about him.  But to write this story, Tractor, is to remember your primal power with vividness and reverence.  Amy, Alex, Zach, Adam and I salute you.

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

7 Responses

  1. Steve Hall says:

    Pete: Hilarious and entertaining. With regards to the reference to Mark Twain, your encounter reads like a chapter out of “Roughing It”. Some camping trips improve in retrospect.

  2. Dan Crane says:

    Awesome post!

    I had an encounter with a large black bear near the Feldspar Lean-to many years ago. I wonder if it was Tractor. I won’t go into details as maybe I will write about it in a blog post (since black bears appears to be a popular topic), but this was the largest bear I ever saw, as well as one of the smartest. It obtained the food it wanted, and returned time after time for more. When I encountered it, it held its ground, staring right at me the entire time. Luckily, I had no food on me at the time. Yelling proved totally ineffectual as a strategy for scaring him away, so I had to retreat over the bridge back to the lean-to to retrieve my camera. The bear was gone when I returned, so I never did get that picture.

  3. Pete Nelson says:

    I’ll bet you donuts to dollars that was Tractor. No other Adirondack bears I’ve seen fit that behavior description. Write about him, by all means.

  4. Paul says:

    Pete, In areas like the Flowed Lands aren’t you required only to camp in designated areas? Is that a new rule? I remember getting snagged by Pete Fish for one spot we were camping in there off the beaten path. That guys seemed to be hiding behind every tree!

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Yes, when the new regulations went in place in the mid-2000’s bear canisters became mandatory most of the year and camping was restricted only to designated sites, this last reg to try to cut down on the damage to overused areas where people would camp on any flat ground they could find. My Tractor adventure occurred before that.

      Far be it for me to represent DEC’s views, but in practice if you camp way off trail, that is the least of their worries.

  5. Ellen says:

    Great post. I enjoyed reading it.

  6. Michael McGuire says:

    Tractor’s old partner in crime Yellow Yellow is still out and about. She apparently would often locate campers/food sources then go tell her buddy. She is much shyer, but patrols the exact same loop as her magnificent other once did. Collared AND tagged she is easy to spot. She had no interest in me or my lean to, still, Tractor’s presence had it’s effect and I vacated the area quickly. I too, found myself in a deluge off trail. Dang. Made me feel pretty stupid. Hat’s off to Tractor.

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