Monday, March 15, 2021

When nature calls, let’s hope there isn’t a bear in the outhouse

outhouseSay what you will about Adirondack bears, but they have their dignity. They may trash your camp, scare the city folk and steal your salmon sandwich, but at least they don’t hide out in the bowels, so to speak, of ADK privies, lying in wait for the next passing derriere to present itself for a quick snack.

At least not that we know of. At least not yet. Let’s hope bears can’t read.

An extremely disturbing story was reported by the Associated Press in late February about an Alaskan woman visiting an outhouse and — well, best let her tell it: “I got out there and sat down on the toilet and immediately something bit my butt right as I sat down. I jumped up and I screamed when it happened.”

No kidding. And if you’re the bear, you’re lucky that’s all she did.

The young woman was wounded, but not badly, and her brother Erik assumed it was a squirrel or a mink that had done the damage. So he shined his headlamp down the pit and — well, long story short, for the second time that morning someone ran screaming from the outhouse.

Both sister and brother said it was a miracle her injuries weren’t more severe. That should be obvious. The bear was at the bottom of an outhouse, so he couldn’t have been in a very good mood to begin with. I know I wouldn’t have been. Then someone comes along and moons him, and you have to figure that’s the last straw. 

So why wasn’t it worse? If you recall James and the Giant Peach, the sharks had the same problem trying to take a bite out of a round fruit. And anyone who bobbed for apples as a kid (if you’re under 50, don’t ask) knows what this bear was going through.

Speaking of children’s books, this story has potential. Instead of The Lady or the Tiger you could have The Outhouse or the Bear. All it would take is a two-seater, a sadistic king, a bear and a heartbroken princess. You wonder why Frank Stockton didn’t think of that one.

Here in the Adirondacks, the last thing we need is people getting the idea that outhouses are dangerous. Already, the DEC feels the need to post signs on popular trails begging hikers not to scatter “human waste” around the trail in ways normally associated with chimpanzees.

To me, these signs are almost worse than the unsavory behavior they are designed to prevent. If you’re looking to sallie forth into the pristine wilderness, the last thing you want to see is a Lutheresque treatise on sewage nailed to a hemlock. Frankly, if you have to tell people to get a respectable distance off the trail before dropping their pants, the battle has already been lost.

And if word starts spreading that there may be a bear in the privy, sanitation problems in the ADK will just get that much worse. Let’s face it, outhouses aren’t Tavern on the Green to begin with. If you shine a light down into the pit, the only thing worse than seeing a bear is not seeing a bear, if you know what I’m saying.

We don’t know why the bear was in the outhouse to begin with, especially when any self-respecting bear should have been hibernating. A biologist for the Alaskan fish and game department speculated it was hungry, and told the New York Post, “As far as getting swatted on the butt when you’re sitting down in winter, she could be the only person on Earth that this has ever happened to, for all I know.” Oh sure. Sounds like the bears have gotten to him, too—that’s just what they want you to think.

Of course, to people from further south, a bear would only be about the fifth worst thing that might come after you, after snakes, alligators, tarantulas and Matt Gaetz. A bear? Meh. There’s spray for that.

I’ve actually seen more bears in populated areas than in the wilderness by a score of 3-2. The two bears I saw on the trail ran away from me like a deer, or any other wild animal would. There wasn’t any question of me having to make noise or “get big,” one look and they were gone, like maybe they expected me to ask them to join a Zoom meeting.

The only other even semi-bear-related experience I have comes from the days back in the newsroom, where every April 1 the new guy would return from lunch to find a phone number with the message on his desk to “Call Mr. Bear.” 

Which they would always do, failing to process until it was too late that the number we left was for the National Zoo. And naturally the rest of us practically spit our tonsils out trying to keep a straight face as we listened to them brightly ask, “May I speak to Mr. Bear? 

Newsrooms used to be fun places. Today? — the best you can say is that a newsroom still beats an outhouse.


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Tim Rowland is a humor columnist for Herald-Mail Media in Hagerstown, Md., and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include High Peaks; A History of Hiking the Adirondacks from Noah to Neoprene and Strange and Unusual Stories of New York City. He has climbed the 46 high peaks, is an avid bicyclist, and trout tremble with fear when they see his approaching shadow. He and his wife Beth are residents of Jay, N.Y.

22 Responses

  1. Steve Stofelano Jr says:

    After working at Indian Lake Islands boat access only campground where all the privies are similar to the one pictured, I have seen only red squirrels and their nesting materal in many outhouses, no bears inside…but they do like to chew on the outside, that I have witnessed several times! Which I do have pictures but see no way to upload/share.

  2. Boreas says:

    There are safer places to store your food…

  3. Vanessa says:

    Jeez, people, don’t moon the bears! They have enough to deal with ??

  4. Boreas says:

    Is the bear still there??

  5. Ed Burke says:

    And I thought dragons were the most dangerous animals when playing a Game of Thrones.

  6. Pete Nelson says:

    Well then, Tim. I have to tell you, I’m really offended. I mean, I know we were just on the phone the other day, and you always seem like a nice guy, but if you think I’m going to sit here with the immense, terribly important, substantive, deeply meaningful power of social media blog commentary at my fingertips, and not answer your perfunctory, textbook slight of a revered and cherished member of the animal kingdom… well, buddy, you’ve got another thing coming.

    I have been the proud master of a veritable bevy of tarantulas over the course of my long life. I procured my first one as a teenager, Mr. Janet (named after my girlfriend at the time… high school boys are so wise). I used to have Mr. Janet navigate the piano keyboard while my mother attempted to practice her Chopin, always to great effect. You may think tarantulas to be disgusting and creepy, but you’d think differently if you saw that cute, cuddly thing crawling around your plate while you ate dinner, or hanging out in the sink whilst you brushed your teeth.

    My current furry companion, Lawanda, was a rescue, picked up by a nice lady from the Cornell Cooperative Extension who discovered her wandering around the streets of – believe it or not – Keeseville (now that I mention it, before COVID there were a couple times I needed a nice lady to rescue me from the streets of Keeseville… but I digress). Now, Tim, if a tarantula can hang out in Keeseville, you can bet your privy-bound ass that a bear can hang out in an outhouse if he wants to.

    I will admit there are exceptions. When my kids were themselves teenagers, we made the brilliant decision to get ourselves an old-world tarantula, an Usambaran Baboon Spider we named Tindiga. Yes, an Usambaran Baboon Spider is as bad as it sounds. Here’s an excerpt from that authority of authorities, Wikipedia: “This species is incredibly defensive and, as with most old-world tarantulas, should not be held. The bite of this species, while not serious, is extremely painful. Moreover, the species is more than willing to inflict such a bite before presenting the typical threat display. Caution when dealing with this species is strongly advised.” Of all the members of our family, only my idiot son Alex actually attempted to pick her up. This was met by a purring sound, a good sound coming from a kitty, a bad sound coming from a spider.

    Tindiga notwithstanding, tarantulas are, in the main, gentle, lovely little things, not to be trotted out for effect every time a writer such as yourself needs to ick people out. So, Tim, get your head out of your privy. Come to dinner sometime and meet Lawanda. She likes beef.

    • Tim Rowland says:

      I can assure everyone that no tarantulas were harmed in the writing of this essay. Actually that’s not completely true, but it’s a long story and I don’t want to talk about it.

  7. Tim says:

    My son and I were staying in a Colorado hut at about 13,500 feet on a backcountry ski trip. While sitting in the outhouse, something snarled underneath him. My son has never been the same

  8. Tom C says:

    I enjoyed the story. But to the comment “Here in the Adirondacks, the last thing we need is people getting the idea that outhouses are dangerous”, I’ve never worried about a bear or any large animal being down there – until I read this!

  9. Wade Bittle says:

    Great article with a nice sprinkling of humor.

    As crazy as it sounds … back when I was a kid we would visit my grandparents on their farm in central Mass. on all the holidays. A beautiful area with hundreds of acres to explore, bounded by boulderer stone fences. They only had an outhouse and the smells and sights of such left an indelible impression at such a formative age. Now, some 50 years later, every time I visit an Adirondack out’ie I am reminded, quite strongly, of Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving …..

    Seriously, nothing spoils a campsite more than a pile of toilet paper in the surrounds where it shouldn’t be. Even in the woods, etiquette is a must … and thankfully the bears are more afraid of us then we of them in the Adirondacks. Use the outhouse!

    • Drew P Weiner says:

      The city of San Francisco issues city maps indicating were the most likely places one may encounter human waste. Maybe DEC could do the same for the Adirondacks?

  10. Bob Meyer says:

    I am so delighted to see that we have finally gotten around to some serious subjects on this forum. ?

  11. Steve Stofelano Jr says:

    as noted by your emoji……

  12. Bill Ott says:

    I remember Assistant Scoutmaster William Collier of Troop 43 in Marshalltown, Delaware telling us what to do if you were confronted by a bear in the woods. He said, “Just reach back and grab a handful, because it will be there.” He was a veteran of Guadalcanal in WW2, and he knew what he was talking about.

  13. William Rhoades says:

    Maybe the Matt Gaetz comment wasn’t necessary. Supposed to be a funny story, but you couldn’t resist taking a political shot. Guess there’s no where you can escape that stuff.

  14. David Thomas-Train says:

    Hi Tim,

    Your piece brings back distant memories of my first camping trip at age 6, when my Mom got trapped in the outhouse by a bear nosing about the threshold.Eventually it took off, and she got out, with everyone breathing a sigh…everyone except me, who spent the lean-to night in nonstop terror at the slightest sound out there.

    At least the bear didn’t tip over the privy, with her inside, though that might have given her a second exit…

    And speaking of James and The Giant Peach, I’d far rather have the bears nosing about everywhere than have the likes of Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker, of whom we have too many, anywhere.

  15. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Outhouses, are an interesting feature on the landscape! The old story goes that in those depths where aromas abound are buried things from the past. Of course i’m talking old outhouses which sit down from old farmhouses, not those in the Adirondack woods (though you never know!), but they all have their charm to me. Some graveyards still have outhouses (I have come upon at least five) within, one or two-seaters, which makes them graveyards more interesting. There’s something about outhouses that draw me near, even if there’s no urge to relieve myself.

    • stephen a stofelano jr says:

      Indian Lake Islands campground was officialized in the early 1960’s but folks were established and camped on sites in the 1920’s…they have privies and dumps of theeir own.

  16. Fred says:

    Bear witness to nature and all it’s glory
    What else are you going to do in the middle of the wilderness besides
    Grin and bear it

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