Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Dan Crane: Smarter (and Larger) than the Average Bear

My two previous Adirondack Almanack articles about black bears combined with Pete Nelson’s last Lost Brook Dispatch about a black bear named Tractor, started me thinking about my own harrowing bear experiences in the Adirondacks.

Unfortunately, none of my encounters was as exciting as being yanked out of an outhouse, or reminiscent of the black knight scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Nevertheless, one such encounter with a monster of a bear is interesting enough worth sharing. Given the bear’s large size and craftiness, it might even be the legendary Tractor.

Back in 2003, well before bear canisters were required for backcountry campers in the High Peaks Wilderness, being raided by black bears occurred often in high trafficked areas, such as around Flowed Lands (just ask Pete), Lake Colden and Marcy Dam. If one wanted to sleep soundly, and complete their planned itinerary then a bear canister became an essential part of backcountry gear.

A friend and I planned a week-long trip, looping through the High Peaks starting at Upper Works and visiting Lake Colden, Mt. Skylight, Panther Gorge, Mt. Haystack, John Brook Lodge, Adirondack Loj, Rocky Falls, and Indian Pass. Being veterans of the area, both of us carried bear canisters even though the bulky containers were only necessary for the first couple of days on our trip.

After an anxious night at Lake Colden, complete with numerous bear raids during the evening, we hiked up to and took possession of the Feldspar lean-to for a couple nights. Although there was only one other group upon our arrival, the area became busier later on during the late afternoon hours, with almost every campsite taken. Since we arrived hours before most of the other groups, we finished eating early, with all our food safely sequestered within our canisters well before all hell broke loose.

A group of people were mulling around the bridge over the Opalescent River (not much more than a stream at this elevation), with one couple cooking their dinner on the bridge’s steps, their large stuff-sack filled to capacity laid on the ground next to them. We came down from the lean-to as some previous alarms of bear activity piqued our curiosity, and we did not want to miss any of the excitement.

Suddenly, cries of “BEAR!! BEAR!!” rang through the area.

Almost all of the campers assembled en masse, and moved in the direction of the cries in an attempt to repel the bear. My friend and I glanced at each other in apprehension, clearly we both had the identical thought – this cannot end well.

As if appearing out of thin air, the bear, having distracted the vast majority of people, double-backed and rushed in behind them to snatch up the huge stuff-sac at the edge of the bridge. This bear was monstrous; it apparently ate well that summer. Its size did not hinder its speed though, as it shot off like a bullet right up the middle of the river, the long, bulging stuff-sack dangling from its mouth.

Then we heard the berserker scream. What followed remains either the bravest act I ever witnessed, or the most desperate, to this day, I still cannot decide. Running right behind the bear, hot on its heels, was the poor owner of the stuff sac, decked out in shorts, white tube socks and Birkenstock sandals. Without hesitation, he jumped into the river and ran right down its center, just as the bear had done before him.

A valiant effort indeed, and doomed to failure, for when the bear left the river and reentered the thick forest, the poor owner gave up and returned to the bridge, head held low in defeat. Apparently, not only was all of their food in that stuff sack, but so was their medicine, contact lens solution, toilet paper and numerous other odds-and-ends necessary for their backcountry enjoyment. We gave them some of our extra food, and they ended up heading back toward their trailhead, the remainder of their trip ruined.

We left the lean-to unattended the second day to climb Mount Redfield together. Afterwards, my friend returned to the lean-to, while I continued onto Cliff Mountain, as I was still pursuing membership in the Adirondack 46ers, something my friend accomplished many years earlier. When my friend returned to the lean-to, he found a bear track right in the middle of his Therm-a-rest mattress. The giant bruin lingered in the area, and emboldened enough to enter the lean-to during mid-day.

No one remained in the campsite by the afternoon, leaving it entirely deserted on the second night except for my friend and me. It rained fiercely earlier in the day, while I descended from the summit of Cliff Mountain, but it stopped before dinnertime. I navigated through the muddy area, and went down to the river, pan in hand, to put the finishing touches on my cleaning effort after dinner.

From the shoreline, I noticed a plastic bag of garbage across the stream at one of the campsites from the day before. Cursing the bad etiquette of leaving garbage behind, I walked over the bridge, never taking my eyes off the bag. I crossed the campsite, and stared at the refuse, trying to decide whether I could carry it in my bulging backpack all the way over Mt. Haystack, until I am able to dispose of it at Adirondack Loj many days hence.

Suddenly, the hackles on the back of my neck stood up, and as if sensing something behind me, I spun around. Right there, standing halfway up a seedling-covered knoll was the same large black bear from the day before, and it was looking right at me.

This bear was a gargantuan. It easily stood four feet on all fours. My initial reaction was not to run, yell or panic in any other manner though. Instead, I marveled at the outstanding photograph this would make, with the huge, dark bear standing halfway up the seedling-covered, small hill, the background consisting of a uniform dark green formed by the young balsam seedlings’ foliage.

I raised my voice at the bruin, but to no avail. The bear remained motionless, not attempting to flee nor advance. I thanked my good fortune not to have any food on me, except, of course, myself. Finally gaining my wits about me, I slammed the tiny titanium lid to its pan repeatedly; it proved to be as ineffectual as the earlier yelling.

Deciding retreat is the better part of valor, I retraced my tracks, moving methodically and slowly, never taking my eyes off the bear. The bear watched me just as attentively as I watched it, maybe more so, its head rotating as I moved away. Backing down the short trail, I crossed the bridge before finally turning around and swiftly walked back to the lean-to to retrieve my camera.

Unfortunately, the bear was gone when I returned, so I never did get that picture. I never caught sight of the bear again either, and we encountered no other bruins for the remainder of our trip.

Was the bear the famous Tractor? Or, just another crafty bear, made humongous on the carelessness of uneducated novices. We may never know.

One thing is certain though. Despite being larger, more powerful and, apparently, more intelligent, this bear never resorted to violence to get what it wanted. And, I am surely thankful of that. Then again, it did not have to; it was just as easy to fool the poor backcountry rubes into giving their food away.

Photo: American black bear courtesy of Cephas at Wikimedia Commons.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

4 Responses

  1. Pete Nelson says:

    Dan, I doubt that there were two bears looping through the Colden-area interior in the early and mid 200’s that fit that description and behavior. For one thing bears are territorial; for another, black bears that size are not common in the Adirondacks. I’d bet any amount of money that was Tractor. We have his legacy in common.

    Your encounter was more involved than mine and features some truly idiotic behavior (not on your part, of course). Very entertaining.

  2. Ellen says:

    Another great bear encounter story.

  3. Alan says:

    In the 1990’s there was a bear notorious for stealing food and scaring backpackers, nicknamed, ‘Cliff’. Cliff was thought to be a large boar until one spring Cliff was teaching ‘his’ 2 small cubs how to raid leantos and campsites. If I remember correctly, there were attempts to relocate or shoo off Cliff but she had to be destroyed as she’d habituated to humans and a steady source of food. Authorities were afraid of a human-cub interaction with a bad outcome.

    • Dan Crane says:


      I remember hearing about Cliff. I believe he/she was named after the mountain where his/her den was located.

      I wonder if anyone has kept an historical record of the bears in the High Peaks corridor. A history of High Peaks bears would make an interesting book.