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Encounter in bear country.

It was well past midnight when I awakened by my wife's hushed but tense voice.

"I think there's an animal outside our tent," she said. At first I simply agreed with her, rolled over mad pulled the sleeping bag over my head. I was tired; as long as it wasn't inside the tent with us, I wasn't going to let it bother me. I was suddenly re-awakened by my wife's elbow in my side. With a little more urgency in her tone this time, she said, "Listen, I heard something out there and I think it's a bear."

We were "car camping" at Little Sand Point Campground on Piseco Lake in the Adirondack Forest Preserve. Car camping is camping in a site near your vehicle. Usually the campsites have picnic tables, fireplaces and bathroom facilities. It's the perfect compromise between my love of the outdoors and my wife's need for flush toilets and running water.

Bear warning!

Earlier that day, we had been warned by a park ranger to secure all our food and garbage, because bears had caused trouble the past few evenings. Being careful campers, we always stow our food and garbage safely, so the ranger's remarks didn't alarm us. When we have the car, we put our food in the trunk. When we are backpacking, we hang our food in a tree. We even make sure that we don't sleep in the same clothes we wore when we were cooking. As the day went on, we became busy setting up our tent and making dinner. Soon the ranger's warning faded from our conscious minds. Subconsciously, however, the seed had been planted.

Lying there in my cot, I listened for only a few seconds when I heard the jiggling of lanterns and other camping gear I had left outside the tent, followed by the muffled sound of footsteps. Soon I heard another noise ... the sound of my heart pounding in my chest. Something was out there; and maybe it was a bear!

My mind was racing. Every synapse of my brain was firing as if I had been struck by lightning. I thought about our chances of reaching the car if we made a mad dash. In the tent, all I had was a flashlight and some clothes. So I just lay there unmoving, hoping whatever it was would just scurry away.

In the numerous camping trips I have taken over the years, I have seen many kinds of wildlife. Only once have I encountered a bear--I was 19 years old and camping with friends at Limekiln Lake. Back then, before recycling, campgrounds had big, smelly, fly-infested garbage cans along the road. I stumbled upon a bear eating garbage from one of those cans.

Ursus americanus

The type of bear native to the Adirondacks, and the one I saw at Limekiln, is Ursus americanus or the American black bear. An adult male black bear ranges from 50 to 75 inches in length and usually weighs between 200 and 450 pounds. The largest New York bear on record weighed 750 pounds. You might think such a large animal would be slow--but you'd be wrong. Bears can run nearly 30 miles an hour over short distances. As the name implies, New York bears are usually black in color, but bears can also be found with chocolate or cinnamon-colored fur.

Black bears usually live in forested areas, but are highly adaptable. They can thrive in either arid or moist climates, and are found in 40 states.

All bears have a constant and insatiable drive to find food. Like humans, black bears are omnivorous and will feed on a wide variety of foods, including insects, nuts, berries, acorns, grasses, and roots. In Canada and Alaska, black bears will feed on spawning salmon, like their cousin, the grizzly bear.

Black bears are curious, but will usually try to avoid human contact. They are also intelligent--if they repeatedly find food in garbage near occupied campsites, or in our backpacks and coolers, they will associate our scent with food. This association can outweigh bears' natural aversion to people. Bears who lose their fear of humans are dangerous--in August 2002 a habituated black bear killed an infant in New York State.

That possibility did not matter to a group of "immortal" teenage boys at Limekiln. In a vain attempt to prove our manhood, we decided to determine which of us could get closest to the bear. Fortunately for us, the bear wanted no part of our game. When we got too close for comfort, he simply sauntered into the woods.

Now, lying in a cot at Piseco Lake, I had no interest in cozying up to a bear. But the noises persisted. Soon, my wife said, "Go out there, find out what it is and make it go away."

Absurd as it sounds, I felt reasonably safe in my nylon tent with its razor-thin walls. I said, "As long as it's not bothering us, let's just leave it alone." She insisted, so soon I was standing in the tent shivering from the cold, flashlight at the ready.

Unzipping the flap, I peeked out of the tent. I couldn't see a thing; it was pitch dark. I turned on my trusty flashlight, which gave me about a ten-foot beam. Slowly, I moved the light beam across the campsite. Suddenly, I saw something. I took a step closer and discovered that our visitor wasn't a bear at all. It was a duck!

The realization that a duck had frightened my wife and nearly sent me into cardiac arrest was a humbling experience. We laughed about it, and soon the sounds of waves lapping on the lakeshore lulled us back to sleep.

By the next morning, there was no sign of our fowl friend. What a duck was doing in a campground at night, I may never know. But I learned a lesson about the power of suggestion. When sleeping in a tent in the dark woods, one's mind can turn a small sound into a big problem in no time.

When not off in the woods hiking or camping, William Luppino can be found in Mohawk where he resides with his wife and children.

By taking proper precautions, people can avoid most problems with bears and other wildlife. Below is a list of procedures one should follow when hiking and camping in regions with bear populations.

* Always let someone know where you are hiking or camping and when you intend to return. Sign in and out at the trail register or with the park ranger.

* Take all warnings about bear activity seriously. If you see bears or signs of recent activity, let others know.

* Hiking or camping in groups will reduce the likelihood of a chance bear encounter.

* Don't surprise a bear. Bears usually rely on their sense of smell to warn them of danger. If the wind is in your face, the bear may not detect your presence. One way to alert bears to your presence is to make some noise; talking or singing works well.

* Avoid wearing flowery and sweet-smelling perfumes and deodorants. Using unscented products will reduce your chances of attracting bears--and insects.

* Store food in the trunk of your car. Bears learn how to get food hanging from trees and this method no longer works in areas such as the Adirondack High Peaks. So if you plan to backpack, buy and use bear proof canisters in which to store your food, toiletries and garbage.

* Follow "Leave No Trace" principles.

* Keep your campsite clean. Dispose of food scraps and garbage properly.

* If you encounter a bear, blow a whistle, ring a bell, bang a pan, or shout. Make a lot of noise and back away slowly.

* Remember to respect all bears; they all have the potential to be dangerous! Never approach a bear. If you must take pictures, do so from a safe distance.

* Never feed bears. Once bears associate humans with food, it is difficult to change their behavior. Habituated bears will look for food in areas occupied by people. For humans, this often means a ruined cooler, or an occasional injury. It can be worse for the bear. Nuisance bears will be subjected to aversive conditioning, including rubber bullets, noise makers, exploding darts, or pepper spray. Employing scare tactics is only a temporary measure, however, until a permanent solution can be established. Everyone who visits bear country has a responsibility to ensure that his or her actions do not encourage bears to associate humans with food.

For more information, visit www.dec.state.ny.us and search the words "nuisance bears."
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Author:Luppino, William
Publication:New York State Conservationist
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Jun 1, 2004
Words:1438
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