Sunday, May 23, 2021

The Bear Dance: Keeping watch over the campsite

black bearPart II : Bear Watch

Editor’s note: This is part two of a three-part series. Click here for Part 1

July 12, late afternoon- my phone rang.  It was Ray.  “Hey- listen, the only day I can get in here overnight this weekend is Saturday- just me- what’s your plan?”

He seemed a little uneased at the prospect of a night in camp alone.  I couldn’t blame him.  We’d already been visited 3 times by the bear. Twice in one night.  Twice while we were there.

“I’ll be there on Saturday.  I’ll row in- late evening.  We’ll fish, camp out in the lean to, build a bonfire, and fend off the bears.”

July 14th, early Afternoon- Ray called.  “Hey- I’m in camp. Pretty sure the bear was here- figure you didn’t leave our utility bin in the middle of the lean-to with bite marks in it.  There ‘s a bunch of pans on the floor.  The bear must have knocked them over when he grabbed the bin.  Apparently they scared him off, because the bin isn’t opened and everything else looks intact.”

I nodded as I spoke.  “Yeah- I put those pans there.  I’ll be there in an awhile.  I’m on my way now.”  Apparently my “scare bears” had worked- on a bear standing right where I was planning to sleep.

I reached camp around 7pm.  Ray, dogs and family were there, eating dinner.   The bear had been back in our absence.  Our bear plan needed some serious upgrading.

Along with another half gallon of ammonia, I brought with me two hand held spotlights to add to our arsenal. I  traded the birch baton for my hatchet and performed my bear dance.  Turned it up a notch.  I then climbed the big rock overlooking our coolers.  I channeled back into my once upon a time arsenal of martial arts stances- “Crouching Tiger”, “Fleeing Lion”-  a ” One legged Bow Hunter” stance that I made up on the spot.  Certainly enough to intimidate any onlooker bears.   Then I blasted my air horn.  A preemptive strike.

“I’m here.  I’m big.  I have fire bombs, air horns, spotlights and ammonia –  and I plan on sleeping all night in that lean to you’ve been raiding.”  Point made- I climbed down off the rock-before I lost my balance and fell down off the rock.

Dinner show complete, Ray ferried dogs and family to the walk in while I sprayed the whole camp with ammonia and built up our fire.

It always amazes to me just how much wood it takes to keep a big bonfire burning all night. The wind off the lake speeds the burn rate.  We work all day-  huge “yule” stumps,  massive hardwood logs,  punky poplar chunks- no matter what we manage to drag down through the woods, regardless how impressive the pile- by morning – it’s gone.

Ray and I manned the lean-to, took turns stoking the fire. Neither of us slept much.  No bear.

July 15th-Sunday  It was windy all day- that  hard, whitecap Middle Lake wind.  We took the pontoon boat and attempted to fish.

By mid-day Ray and I had trolled across to the upper end of the lake. There, on the far side of the lake, we spotted a young couple in a canoe, with a life vested dog, along the far shoreline just below Bartlett Carry. They were paddling hard, but losing ground in the wind.  We stowed our rods and  motored over.

There was a young blonde gal in front, sturdy male in the back,  a young couple-with dog and gear sandwiched between them.  The young woman’s hair was matted to her head, she looked near exhausted.

“Hey, pretty windy today- can we give you a tow?”  Ray was shouting through the boat engine and wind.  They eagerly agreed.

We directed them over to a small cove, out of the wind, so we could safely get situated and toss them a line.

“Where are you coming from?”

“Whellen Pond”  “”Hmmm…..” I thought.

“Okay- Weller Pond.  Where are you headed?”

“The boat launch.  We’ve got to get this canoe back- it’s a rental.”

“Where are you from?”

“Philadelphia.”

How a seemingly intelligent young couple from Philadelphia could be in the middle of the Adirondacks, in a canoe, with a dog, without a clear idea of where they had been, or where they were going, was beyond me- but I kept my thoughts to myself, and manned the tow line while my brother slowly steered towards the mouth of  South Creek, the closest thing to a “boat launch” on the middle lake.  My brother and I agreed.  If that wasn’t where their car was, it was as far as they were going in this wind, a safe landing spot, and from there they could call if they needed more help.

It was also clear that our male friend had no concept how to steer a canoe with a paddle.  Now was no time for a tutorial, so I stood on the back of the pontoon boat and guided the canoe with the tow rope from the front.  This is no task for amateurs.  I might not recommend it for anyone who hasn’t practiced.  Those who think otherwise should try it. One wrong move and a towed canoe quickly takes water and submarines.  We know.  We’ve done it.  Submarined a towed canoe- I mean.  The lake bed may still be polluted with the Teddy Grahams Ray jettisoned one summer.  Happens fast- gets worse quicker.

So Ray and I worked in concert, slowly, deliberately, into the wind, until we had the young couple, and their dog, safely to the entrance to South Creek.

Clearly exhausted and relieved, the young woman suddenly produced a wad of bills from some pouch or pocket .

“Don’t you dare- young lady!” I said.

“We’ve all been there.  Just glad to be able to lend a hand.”

They thanked us, made some remark about “Legendary Adirondack hospitality”- and were gone.  We motored across the lake back to camp.  At least they’ll have a story with a good ending to tell once they get home to Philly.

Ray stayed for dinner but couldn’t stay the night.  RJ wasn’t coming in until later the following day. We spent the afternoon restocking the  firewood pile.  I ferried Ray across to the walk in around 5pm.   I was on my own for the night.

I have always enjoyed time alone in camp.  Days alone, nights alone- it’s peaceful, somehow cleansing. In Colden, working on the trail crew, we had bears- but that was different.  We had a cabin.  Here, I was in the open, more vulnerable, perhaps- more exposed.

Being post-cancer tube fed- I have a tactical advantage over others.  I don’t eat food.  Don’t cook food.  Don’t carry food with me.  My prescription formula doesn’t look or smell like food.  I’ve never tasted it, but I highly doubt that it tastes like food.

I find that occasionally.  The “who” I am now is far stronger than the “who” I was then.   Cancer raided my camp.  I blasted my air horn- bear bombed it.  It returned.  It brought reinforcements.  I fought again, hand to hand, with my hatchet.   Cancer did not disable me.  I evolved.

Unfortunately, at this moment, I was fairly certain that any tactical advantage my evolution may have gained was erased by the bear sized Yeti full of food sitting yummily against the big rock in front of our lean to.

It also occurred to me that I somehow, as the only non-food consuming member of the family,  had managed to find myself as the lone guardian of the camp cooler for the night.  Bear bait.  I was guarding it. Which was okay, as long as I wasn’t it.

I did a bear dance, struck intimidating hunter poses on the rock, blew my air horn, built a bonfire, and manned the lean to for the night.

I sat in my reclining camp chair, sleeping bag as a mattress, filled my feed bag with coffee from my Army issue canteen cup, wrapped myself in an old poncho liner that’s been with me since Ranger School.

About 3am I stepped out into the night air to put more logs on the fire.  Overhead, through a gap in the trees, massive White Pine and Hemlock, the night sky was a bright twinkle array against black, framed in the gentle sway of the trees, mirrored in glimmered reflection off the lake.

I stood there awhile, breathing it in, thinking nothing, everything, life.  It occurred to me right then, that the only way to experience that moment, that space- was to be there, in a lean to, in the Adirondacks, alone, with bears, gazing at the stars in the middle of the night.

I returned to the relative safety of the lean-to. I think I slept some during the night.  I’m not sure.  I greeted the first rays of Monday- July 16th- as I threw the last sticks of wood on the fire.  I decided that morning to be like the bear- and hibernate awhile in the safety of day.  No bear.  Except me, channeling my inner bear while I snoozed.  I wonder if “Snoozing Bear” would be an effective addition to my arsenal of poses.

I spent the day practicing the fire making skills Gary Hodgson had taught me.  I harvested “tinder fungus,” made charcoal and tinder nests, all as instructed.

I worked diligently for several frustratingly sweaty hours with my bow drill, made smoke several times, hot embers twice, fire once. Mission accomplished.  I now have a much greater appreciation for modern fire making devices.  Thank God for matches!

RJ arrived that evening at the walk in – with his girlfriend-a fellow “Smitty” from down Albany way.  A Natural Resources Conservation major with Forest Ranger aspirations.  We’d met her before.  I’ve unofficially dubbed her “North Woods Law”- but her real name is Carrie.  She eats venison, takes her own fish off the hook, camps with bears.  We like her.

The three of us manned camp.  RJ checked his game cams- no bear footage. The wind really picked up, but we managed to fish.  Ray came and went for day visits.  RJ caught two big pike. We watched bald eagles soar, counted ducklings, saw herons, spotted fawns, heard calling loons. RJ and Carrie swam. We gathered, chopped, sawed and split another big stack of wood.

I went on a hunt for genus “Dirca”- Leatherwood- Ropebark, again, per instructions from Gary Hodgson.  Wikipedia info page and photo in hand, I followed the river down to the locks, examining trees, leaves, and branches along the way.  I’m by no means a Dendrologist.  I know the Maples from the Oaks, Poplar, the Birches, Beech, Black Cherry, most of the pines. I know “Ironwood” from Elm, Cedar from Balsam, Walnut from Hickory. I know berries, but not shrubs.

I did not find Dirca.  I did find bear skat, bear tracks, rotted tree trunks torn open by grub hunting bears.  Bears were around here, had been here, were here.  It occurred to me as I passed through scattered clusters of ripe wild raspberry and not quite yet blueberries that the hatchet I carried was a little short as a defense against bears. If it came down to me and my hatchet vs some raspberry patch bear- I’ve already lost. I picked up my pace.

I made the locks in a little over an hour.  Bear free.  Dircaless.  Margaret, the resident DEC lock tender, saw me coming and came over to chat.  I showed her my leatherwood photo.  She didn’t know it either.  I’d have to go back to Gary for further instruction.

I showed her the weapon I had crafted from an old hatchet head kicked up in camp, cleaned up, sharpened, fitted with a hand carved striped maple handle, wedged for tight fit, “Adirondack Outlaw” engraved into the handle.  It’s sturdy, rustic, longer handled and heavier than commercial hatchets, smaller than an axe.  A great camp utility tool.  My desperation defense against bears.

I was fairly tired from my trek, and  somewhat dehydrated, something I have to pay particular attention to.  I sat on a rock on the snowmobile trail above the locks, where Margaret told me she gets her best cell service – and called RJ to come and get me on the Star Craft.  Middle Saranac Ferry Service- can’t beat it.

While I awaited RJ, I talked with Margaret about bears. She told me they’d been active up by Weller Pond, and on the upper sites around the lake. She related a recent incident involving three men in a site  just above us on the lake.  “Three pretty big guys,” she said.  Apparently the bear ambled into their camp right in front of them while they were sitting around their fire.  Tore into their cooler.  Stole their beer. Not intimidated by their presence one bit. I shared with her our  strategy – be big with noise, with fire, spray ammonia, do bear dances.  She chuckled, shrugged and agreed.  That’s the best we can do – try to convince the bear to be somewhere else. And if that doesn’t work, just get out of the way.

RJ showed up with the boat. I rode back to camp.  It was too windy to fish.  We gathered wood, built a fire, cooked dinner, enjoyed time in camp.

Monday night, Tuesday night- Bear dances, ammonia, bonfires, no bear.

Wednesday came.  We broke camp.   I ferried RJ and Carrie to the walk in, took my pickup to the State Bridge, rode back with RJ in his Jeep, and  returned to camp to finish loading the Star Craft, navigate down through the river, the locks and Lower Saranac to the DEC Boat Launch to link up with my brother, who was in Plattsburgh at the moment.

It was 1pm. I didn’t expect Ray until 3.  I was tired, a bit hungry.  I decided to go have a picnic nap with my Dad.  I drove into town, up through the gates of St. Bernard’s Cemetery, parked my truck, set up my feeding pole, hooked up my tube and settled in against an ancient white pine next to the head stone of Dad’s grave.

“Hi Dad- How do you like my new truck?  Gary says “Hi.”  I went to see him like I promised.  He made me a bow drill.”

“Fishing wasn’t bad.  It got windy. RJ caught two big pike.  He’s got a girlfriend now.  Doing well at Paul Smith’s.  Chelsea spent the night, so did Abby.  Robin came in with Mom one day for steaks on the grill.  All good.”

“We had a bear in camp.  About 200 pounds, a  juvenile I think.”

“RJ and I broke camp today.  Ray’s in through the weekend.  Going back up on Saturday with everyone for a chicken barbeque.”

Report and lunch finished, I stowed my feeding gear in my pack, and stood by Dad’s headstone for a few quiet moments.  It’s different without him.  I miss him. We all do.

“We love you Dad.  Thanks for everything.  Rest Well.”

He brought us here, to this place, these mountains, this life, shared and solitary.  He brought us here  to this moment in time, where I camped with family, made fire without a match, caught fish with my brother and son, saw eagles, towed a canoe, heard loons, searched for leatherwood, stood alone in the starlight, and danced with a bear.

To be continued…

Photo of black bear by Pete Patrick/DEC photo

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Richard Monroe

Lifelong NYS resident. Raised in Saranac Lake. Cornell graduate(ROTC). Army veteran, Airborne/Ranger qualified, 10th Mtn Div, stints in Honduras and with JTF VI. 3rd degree Black Belt; 3x cancer survivor; published writer with several featured stories in Adirondack Life Magazine. Residing in Watertown NY with wife Robin & our 3 adult children. Loving Life. Living in the Day I am in.




6 Responses

  1. MITCH EDELSTEIN says:

    Anyone who has tried to make fire without modern help will be impressed that you were able to achieve fire. It is far more difficult than you would suppose. A lighter and OOO steel wool work no matter how wet.

    • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

      Mitch, you are absolutely right! Even with an expertly made bow drill provided by an expert like Gary Hodgson- it took me half a day & multiple failed tries before I finally succeeded. The whole exercise definitely both humbled & wore me out. But now I sure pay a LOT more attention to my fire once it’s going! I learned a lot from doing it without a match. I have used steel wool. It does work well. My personal “go to” in camp though is birch bark & a lighter or matches. I’ve always had great luck kindling a fire with birch bark, even after a good rain. Thanks for sharing your insight. Have a great camping season. Thanks for reading.

  2. Alan Fisher says:

    Had a black visit our camp to steal a bag of raisins we needed for breakfast oatmeal. Five of us inside the tent, one outside under the awning. Dad hollered and waved to try and scare it off. Bear wouldn’t go until it had what it came for, then grunting in satisfaction of the quest romped off into the woods. Our outdoor heavy sleeper never knew anything had happened when told the next morning.

    • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

      Ha! Ha! That’s hilarious Alan! Sounds pretty much like our bear experiences. They sure know what they like & are hard to deter. Sounds like you may need a new exterior tent guard though! Glad it all ended up being a “Bear Dance” you can share & have a good laugh about. I hope your camp oatmeal this year is bear free & keeps its full complement of raisins. Thanks for reading & sharing.

  3. What a great story teller. Your descriptions of the ‘bear dance” were great and giggle getters
    You are living the life I always wanted
    Thanks for the entertainment.

    • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

      A sincere “Thank you”, Marjorie, for your awesome compliments. I’m so glad you enjoyed my written version of “The Bear Dance”. I may be biased, but the live show is even better! Performed nightly in camp for family, friends, & all manner of Adirondack guests. Thanks for reading & your comments. Have a great summer & remember…Bears love to dance!

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