Part I : Bear Essentials
Wednesday, July 11, 2018, 3:30 pm- My cell phone rang. It was my brother Ray, calling from the lean to on Bull Rush Bay.
“Hey- I’m in camp for the day. Pepper’s with me. Two food bins are missing from the lean to and the Yeti is tipped over.”
We ran down the list of potential culprits- vandals, raccoons, bears. Missing food bins didn’t fit any known raccoon MO. It would have taken Racczilla to tip over that Yeti. Scratch raccoons. That left two suspects- vandals, or bears.
I said “Vandals would have stolen the Yeti, and the beer. Bears leave drag marks. Be careful, especially with that pup! Keep your eyes peeled for drag marks. Call me back.”
3:42 pm. My phone rang again.
“Hey-Pepper found a bin. It’s got a couple of puncture holes and what might be a claw mark on it, but it’s still serviceable. I’ll look for the other bin and call you back.”
I thought to myself ” Cripes- Ray- just be careful with that dog!
3:51 pm. My phone rang. “Hey, me again. Pepper found the second bin. It’s toast. We need a new bin. Stuff is strewn around pretty good. Looks like we’re missing some rolls and bags of chips. I’m gonna clean this mess up, pack up all the food bins and the yeti on the Starcraft, and take it all back to the house.”
We agreed. The 2018 Monroe camping trip to Bull Rush Bay had just gotten a whole lot more complex. We had a bear in our camp.
The basic presence of a bear was really no surprise. We’re in the Adirondacks. Camping inside the Blue Line. We go into camp every summer assuming bears are around.
We take basic precautions- absolutely no food in the tents, clean up after meals, practice “Carry It In- Carry It Out”. Maybe we’ve just been lucky, but in over 45 years, we’ve never had a bear in our camp. Until now. We needed to identify our options, develop a strategy-make a bear plan.
As both hunter and gun owner, my immediate reaction was “I’ll bring my 12 gauge.”
Almost as immediately, I ran down a mental checklist of potential outcomes of that plan. All ended badly. I suppressed my inner Davey Crocket and dismissed that thought almost as quickly as it came. We had a bear in camp. We did not need a gun in camp too.
My son RJ came home from his summer job working for the Adirondack Watershed Institute on Millsite Lake as a Watershed Steward. Headed into his second year at Paul Smith’s in their Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences program, he’s working his way through the 46 with his friends. Air horns came to mind. I briefed him on the bear.
“Air horns-yeah- I carry one in my pack. Standard equipment.” Air horns went to the top of the list.
Then I called Gary Hodgson. Gary attended Ranger School with my Dad. Dad always described Gary as “The only man I know who could have been a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.” Others visit camp on some form of modern watercraft- not Gary. He comes sailing quietly into camp in a 100% hand crafted birch bark canoe. 719 High Peaks rescues to his credit. Even in retirement, Gary remains the Forest Ranger other Forest Rangers call when they need advice or assistance. When Gary talks, I listen and learn.
As luck would have it, I had just visited Gary before my last trip to camp. In all my years, one skill I continue to lack is that of making fire without match. Aware of that fact, Gary had made me a bow drill and given me detailed instructions on its construction and use. I had it with me in camp.
Gary called me back almost immediately. I briefed him on our bear, and asked him about air horns. “Well, once you’ve got a bear in camp- an air horn might startle it off, but it will most likely come back. In the high peaks- they require bear proof food canisters now.”
He shared with me several bear encounters and stories of his own, and strategies he had evolved for dealing with bears in one’s camp. From his recommendations I seized on one key ingredient that we could employ expediently- ammonia.
So, armed with air horns, a spray bottle, and 2 half gallon bottles of ammonia, I coordinated with my brother. We made a bear plan. We discussed concerns about dogs, camp and bears- topics on which neither of us are particularly well versed. We agreed, while it’s common practice in some quarters to hunt bear with dogs, those are trained bear dogs. Ours are house pets. We aren’t hunting bear. Ray decided to continue bringing his Labs, but not overnight.
With that, we agreed to load up on Saturday and head back, determined to make an effort not to desert camp.
Ray and I reached Bull Rush Bay around noon. The drink cooler was open. The bear had returned, leaving two empty Bud Light Lime cans with puncture holes in them. The remainder of camp was intact.
My daughter Chelsea walked in at Ampersand later that afternoon for the night. She’d been briefed on bear status and left her dog “Captain Blue” home. We prepared bear defenses- moved all food containers 20 feet away from the lean to-against a big rock, in plain view. We sprayed everything with ammonia, gathered bonfire wood, armed the air horns.
Ray and his family stayed for venison Hunter’s stews. I did a bear dance. Armed with an old garbage can lid that had been hanging around camp for years as a drum, and a birch log baton, I did my best adaptation of a vintage rain dance around camp.
“Hey Yah Hoy Yah Hoy Yah Hey Yah- Hey Ya Hoy Ya Hoy Ya Ho!” Each verse accompanied by a thump on my drum. All were entertained. I’m pretty sure I made social media. Less sure what bears thought.
Ray, dogs and family left at dusk. After dropping them at the walk in, Chelsea and I returned to camp. We moved our sleeping gear to the lean to. I prefer sleeping there anyways, and especially with a bear- I can see better, tend the fire better, and react faster than if confined in a tent. Air horns at the ready, we built up the bonfire and settled in for the night.
About 1 am we heard noise by the coolers. We shined our flashlights- there it was – caught in the act. The bear had dragged the smallest of our coolers from its perch. It wasn’t a big bear- maybe 200 pounds, I’d say, not much bigger than our Yeti cooler. At one and the same time my immediate thoughts were “Cool! There’s the bear!”- and “Oh Crap – There’s the bear!”.
It was standing there looking at that cooler- and in that second, I could read that bear’s mind – “How come that tastes so AWFUL?”
Chelsea blasted her air horn. We watched bear butt scoot up the trail. At that point, we agreed to take turns on watch. Armed with the big flashlight, Chels volunteered for first watch. I dozed next to her- one eye open. Even a small bear is a big bear. We agreed, if the bear returned, we would leave.
Shortly thereafter, Chelsea gasped – “Dad it’s back!” She blasted her air horn.
“Dad, the bear came back. I don’t feel safe. I’m scared and I want to leave.” I agreed, we grabbed our “go bags,” got on the Star Craft, navigated the night lake to the walk in, and spent the remainder of the night in the bear-free environment of my brother’s living room.
Fortified with pancakes, coffee, and several hours of sleep, Chelsea and I returned to camp in the morning. There were no signs that the bear had come back. My wife Robin and daughter Abby walked in later with reinforcements – bigger air horns, more ammonia. I made six “bear bombs” – bundles of dried cedar boughs designed to throw on the fire at bear sighting to make an immediate big blaze- make us big with fire and noise. Put big fire between us and the bear. Blast air horns. That was the plan.
Everyone came in for dinner, I reversed my polarity and did another bear dance. Family left, Ray stayed. We deployed a camp early warning system of noisy pans and clattery stuff on paths and bushes. Armed with ammonia, air horns, bonfire and bear bombs, we manned the lean to for a 2nd night. The bear lives here, but so do we. As long as it’s not wounded, rabid, cornered, aggressive, huge, a mother with cubs, or doesn’t bring reinforcements – we ought to be able to intelligently weather the presence of one adolescent beer chugging bear.
July 15th-No bear came that night. RJ came in. Ray went out. RJ brought game cameras. They didn’t aid our security, but bear footage on game cam would be video worth watching. We repeated our strategy for the next two nights. No bear.
RJ went out to go back to work. I stayed to button down and bear proof our camp as best as possible. I ferried all the food coolers down to my brother at the State boat launch on Lower Saranac. I left no food behind while camp was unoccupied, although the drink cooler was still full. I took all the beer out and hid it in the back of the lean to, just in case. I positioned “scare bear” traps inside the lean-to- pots pans and metal camp plates from the cook kit perched precariously on stuff. I sprayed everything with ammonia.
I met a DEC boat coming out of the channel as I was going in. Two Park Rangers were coming up to post bear warning signs on Weller Pond. Apparently the bear activity has been heavy up there the past 3 days. Same bear? Different bear? Both? Who knows. I updated them on bear status in our camp, and headed for home.
Ray would be in camp during the upcoming week, I planned to return with RJ on Sunday through Tuesday when he had days off from work.
We needed to be smart, be alert, and have a plan. We understand that this is the bear’s home. We respect the bear.
Somehow having bears around makes me feel more alive, more in tune, more aware. We are willing to make the necessary adjustments required to camp smartly in the Adirondacks in the presence of bears. I just wish they would learn to close the cooler after making a sandwich, and not drink all my beer.