Bears are a tricky sort of threat when you are camping without an enclosed vehicle. As I moved west on my journey I noticed more and more signs posted at campgrounds depicting hungry bears and the consequences of leaving food unprotected overnight. By the time I got to Utah this threat put me in a very awkward situation.
I had been riding through a remote mountain pass in Utah when I found a tiny spot to set up camp overlooking the pine trees and canyons below. Rarely did a car drive by, and the only sounds were the fluttering birds and the gently howling wind. I hadn’t planned to stay here for the night, but the world felt so beautiful in this spot and I wanted more time to take it all in.
As I unwound the bungees on my bags I noticed faded yellow laminated signs posted at every site. I took a closer look and read, “WARNING- You are in bear country. Do not leave food out- Store all food in your vehicle.”
I decided to contemplate this conundrum of where to keep my food while taking a walk down the road.
I turned right out of the campsite and walked a few miles down the road to get the blood flowing in my legs again after the long day of riding. While enjoying the view I found a self-serve campground, and was surprised to see 2 RV’s parked in adjacent sites. This road was so remote it didn’t seem like anybody would find these spots except by chance like I had. As I approached the area I saw 2 couples huddled around a fire between the RV’s. It looked like they had been stationed there for awhile. Maybe I could ask them for bear advice!
I approached the group awkwardly and introduced myself as a camper from a couple miles down the road. I received a couple rigid hellos- it was clear that they were not interested in company. This would not be one of those days to make friends, so I kept it short and sweet.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” I said, “I just have a quick question about bears.” They all stared at me as if I was crazy, in complete silence. Was my hair disheveled? Did I have blood on my face?
“It’s just- I’m reading signs everywhere that advise locking up your food, but I’m on my motorcycle and don’t have a place to store it…do you know of any other options to keep it contained?” As the words came out of my mouth I was half hoping they would offer to let me keep my food in their camper. After all, they were huge, and all I had for food was peanut butter and tortillas. But one of the women interrupted me- “We come here every summer and have never seen bears. You don’t need to secure your food you should be fine.”
I felt a knot tense in my stomach. I grumbled to myself that the reason they had never seen bears was because they slept in impenetrable metal cages, and I had nothing more than my one person tent. My frustration in combination with my wild worst case scenario imagination got me thinking about what would happen if the next day they found my mangled, peanut butter covered body resulting from a bear attack. They would say “Oh, well, she should have found a place to keep her food secure. Hmmm, too bad.” I shook my head to make my brain stop projecting this stuff.
I took a deep breath, said “Thank you,” and turned around to head back to my site. As I walked away my head spun and my anger tightened in my stomach. I had been so used to encountering pleasant company on the road that I felt blindsided by the dismissal of this particular group of people. Eventually I cooled down, and I remembered an outhouse I had seen on the grounds, and decided to lock my food in there overnight and then throw it out the next day.
Weeks later I found myself in Durango, Colorado looking for a place to camp. Durango sits in the largest range of the Rockies, the San Juan Mountains, in the southwest corner of Colorado. The complex landscape offers diverse and extreme ecosystems, from the semidesert shrub-land at 4,000 feet to the alpine tundra at over 11,000 feet, all housing a wide variety of plants and animals, including bears. My campground sat at about 6,500 feet, an elevation that provides hot day time temperatures that drop to below freezing overnight in the late summer. Although evening was still a couple hours away, the cold mountain shadows offered a preview of the night to come.
I pulled into the campground and walked into the visitor center. A petite, older woman was sitting behind a desk and offered a friendly, “Hello, there!” I told her I just needed a tent site for the night, and her eyes widened in surprise. “Oh, my honey! It’s going to get cold tonight! It’s just you and your tent?”
“Yeah,” I responded. “What do you mean by cold? About how cold?” I was used to night temperatures dipping into the low 50s, so I was prepared to let her know that I could handle such a case.
“Oh my, it’s been in the low 30s lately, we got a frost last night.”
When you have an impulsive mentality like mine, it’s hard to imagine things that aren’t in your immediate reality. When it’s sunny out, I have trouble considering what activities will be like in the dark. When it’s relatively warm, I struggle to imagine getting cold in low temperatures. The way my brain works is something like this. “Just….don’t worry about it. Until you get there.”
Anyhow, despite my initial shock upon confirming that she was indeed talking Fahrenheit and not centigrade, I informed the woman that I’d bundle up and be fine. And I somehow believed it. She ran my card, handed me the receipt, then wished me luck. Before leaving I suddenly thought to ask about bears and food storage.
“Oh, I haven’t seen any bears around here, dear. As long as you keep your food in your car you should be fine.”
I couldn’t help but recall the last time I heard the words, “You should be fine,” in conjunction with a conversation about bears. The image of my mangled, bear stricken, peanut butter covered body flashed in my brain, followed by the apathetic faces of my discovery team. Then I remembered that that only happened in my imagination, so I took her word for it.
I rode to my site, parked the bike, and began to unload my things. I took out my granola bars and potato chips in preparation for a lazy dinner when I saw 2 men pull into a spot adjacent to my own. They were on heavy duty adventure bikes, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of the way I met Greg and Justin in South Dakota. I leaned my backpack against a tree about 8 feet from the tent, filled with the remaining camping gear and food, and laughed at what I saw when I took a step back.
I totally didn’t do that on purpose.
As the shadows grew darker I searched for my headlamp in order to make my way to the bathrooms to brush my teeth. I found it in the top compartment of my bag, with the switch turned to “on” but with no light shining out. I guess it had gotten turned on at some point and drained the battery, which I had no replacement for. It didn’t matter too much because I had a light on my phone, and I figured once I fell asleep, what would I need a light for anyway?
On my way to the bathrooms I waved to my fellow traveling neighbors, and they politely waved back. Ok, we were off to a better start than my Utah neighbors. I brushed my teeth, took out my contacts, then on my way back decided to say hello to these two bikers.
They introduced themselves as Charles and Rick, friends from Canada exploring BDR, or Backcountry Discovery Routes. This kind of riding is off-highway and super badass. It is for adventurers who are passionate about risk taking and being in the natural world. Their bikes seemed pretty big for backcountry terrain, but Charles explained that despite skepticism from fellow riders, they loved the challenge and triumph of working their way through complex terrain.
I sat down with them at their picnic table and we shared stories and pictures from our respective adventures. They showed me the most spectacular photos of their camp sites in the middle of the wide open desert- not another soul around. This is the kind of adventure I want to have next! When asked about my travels I explained that I had ridden from Massachusetts to California and was now making my way back home.
Rick attempted, “Massa-tu-chet… yeah I think I’ve heard of that. Where is that?” I was shocked by the question, until I realized that I couldn’t picture where Alberta was, either. “We know about California,” Charles said, “And like, New York and big cities, but not much else.” Then they laughed at my attempt to pronounce Saskatchewan- had I ever even said that word before? It seemed so odd that we knew so little about the geography of our neighboring countries. I’ll blame it on our education system.
By the time we had shared some small conversation I noticed that our breath was visible in the light of their headlamps. I rubbed my hands together, said good night, and made my way to my tent to prepare to sleep.
As I walked I noticed how stiff my body was from riding all day and from the chilly air. I reached in my bag and put on 2 pairs of pants, 3 shirts, a sweatshirt, 2 pairs of wool socks, a winter hat and gloves. I took my remaining clothes and shoved them in my sleeping bag for extra insulation.
I checked my phone to find the battery at 3%, probably drained so far because of the weak service available in the mountains. “Good thing I’m comfortable and don’t have to get up again until the morning,” I foolishly thought.
I closed the flap of the tent and found myself falling in and out of a rigid half sleep. The kind of half sleep where you know you’d be knocked out if only it were just a few degrees warmer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spent hours in a crappy, shivering, half sleep just because I was too lazy to get up and get another blanket. In this case the only other layer I could add was my riding gear. I tightened the string on my sleeping bag to cover my face, hoping the new warmth on my nose would spread to the rest of me. A couple of times I grew impatient with my shivering and went into an abrupt fit of kicking and wriggling to build up more heat, but this warmth proved temporary.
I don’t know how long I put up with this baloney half sleep for but I finally got fed up enough to get my gear from outside. With my arms still tight in the sleeping bag I rolled out of the tent, grabbed my gear with my elbows, and rolled back into the tent. There was only a thin sliver of moon out tonight, and with no flashlight I realized how lucky it was that I had indeed set everything up in the daylight.
It was a tight fit in my cocoon of a sleeping bag, and I noticed that my options for escape were pretty limited if I needed to fly out of there. But as the new warmth relaxed each muscle in my body I realized that I didn’t care.
I was rustled awake by strange noises, and it took me a few moments to remember who I was and where I was. “Ok, you are… Kristin! And you’re in your tent in… Utah? Nope you already saw Megan in Gunnison so you’re in Colorado…ok…Durango! You’re at the campground in Durango! Got it. Ok, so what is that noise… you’re neighbors? Maybe their readjusting their sleeping situation, too.”
But I soon realized that this noise sounded much closer than my neighbors. It sounded like it was coming from the tree where I’d put my backpack. I heard footsteps in the dry leaves and movement around my bag. “Am I being robbed? Are Rick and Charles robbing me? Oh my god what do they think they’re going to find besides mediocre food and dirty clothes?” My tired brain decided that if I was being robbed that I didn’t really care to investigate it until the morning.
The sounds continued and as I slipped from the dream world into waking consciousness, I realized what was actually happening, and I shot straight up.
“There is a bear outside of my tent.”
My body froze. My heart thudded. My ears pounded. My eyes opened wide.
It was dark. So dark in fact that it made no different whether my eyes were open or shut.
Holy shit. There is a bear outside. There is a bear right next to me.
Everything was dead silent except for the pounding in my ears and the animal outside. Every micro movement I made seemed to pierce the air and give away my existence.
I kept my body perfectly still. My lungs were short of air but I only let them fill part way.
There were sounds of crunching leaves and sniffing, followed by scratching and heavy breathing.
I heard the bag outside fall over and land on the ground. As my heart continued to pound a horrified panic arose that the bear would hear the surging blood and opt to eat me over my trail mix.
The rustling continued, and I tried to convince myself that it could be any animal out there. Even a deer. Maybe a raccoon. But a deep “grumph” shattered any hopeful image of a gentle animal. My arms and legs became paralyzed.
The darkness proved the most crippling obstacle. Although other senses intensify when one is compromised, sight was the most terrifying tool to lose. No matter how I squinted and strained and tried, I simply could not see more than very vague outlines inside my tent.
I must have sat frozen for at least 45 minutes, horrified, listening to the sounds of digging and rummaging. I waited, waited, waited. What was I waiting for? Death? Over and over again my mind played the grunting sounds moving toward my tent. I could almost feel the weight of 800 pounds of bear tear through my canvas wrapper and crush me to the ground. I imagined it’s hot breath on my face, it’s razor sharp claws slicing my back as the last breaths were forced out of my body.
Every escape plan I imagined failed, over and over. First of all, I was so tangled in my sleeping bag, it would be a miracle if I could get out quick enough without tripping over myself. Second of all, it was too dark to run. Third of all, I know I can’t outrun a bear. The only option I could see was sitting in complete silence and waiting until it ate all the food and moved onto another camp site. Would it walk away? Please God let it walk away.
I could hear my bag being tossed around in the leaves, and the defeat settled in my gut like an anvil.
I wished I had gotten the numbers of the guys camped next to me to text for help, then remembered that my phone was dead anyway. No phone, no light.
It’s amazing how long your body can sustain a fight or flight (or freeze) response. I’ve never felt my heart pound in my throat for so long. My mind was present and alert, completely immersed in every ticking second suspended in the air. There was no room in my mind for any other thoughts. I had to squeeze my escape plans from my prefrontal cortex as if from a dried out orange.
As the moments hung in audible stillness, I heard each compartment of my bag being explored and torn through. I heard straps come undone, fabric rip, then the crumpling and rustling of the plastic liner. I heard muffled breathing from inside the bag and pictured the bear’s head engulfed with its body sticking out. It was almost comical. Almost.
Then I heard sharper sounds of plastic crumpling, the sound of food wrappers. There was a brief struggle, then crunching sounds. Sounded like she found the granola bars.
The frustration of blindness soon took a hold and I decided to risk opening the tent to get a look at my contender. I took a shallow breath in and began to wiggle my fingers. With incredibly delicate movements, I sloooooowly removed my arms from my sleeping bag. So slow in fact that it must have taken me 4 or 5 minutes to remove them all the way. The grunting and chewing continued outside. I stopped to take a silent breath. I wiggled a toe, then another, then slooooowly eased each leg from the garments in the sleeping bag.
My body was outside of the chinese body trap of a sleeping bag. My hand searched for the zipper to the tent door, and my fingers found and gripped the cool metal. I began to pull it up so slowly that each zip took 5 seconds to come undone. I could feel each bump come loose, one by one, “bump…bump…bump…” An eternity passed but the animal didn’t seem to notice my movements. There was hardly a pause in her gorging.
The zipper reached the top of the tent. With a shaking hand I slowly peeled the flap open. And do you know what I saw standing 5 feet away from my tent?
NOTHING! ABSOLUTELY NOTHING! I COULDN’T SEE FUCKING SHIT! IT WAS PITCH BLACK AND I COULDN’T SEE A GODDAMN THING OUTSIDE OF MY TENT!
If I felt doomed before then I don’t know what I felt here. I tried to come to terms with the fact that this might be it. This might be my end. Out of all the ways I could have died on a motorcycle, I was going to die from a bear attack. This was it.
Suddenly I heard a “Pop!” followed by more movements.
What was that? More rustling, then all of a sudden-
Crunch crunch crunch crunch crunch crunch crunch crunch.
My ear moved to the open flap, totally alert.
Crunch crunch crunch crunch crunch crunch crunch crunch…
I felt a giggle bubble in my gut. “No Kristin, this isn’t funny, you’re terrified and in danger.”
Crunch crunch crunch crunch crunch crunch crunch crunch…
“But seriously are those my potato chips?”
Crunch crunch crunch crunch crunch crunch crunch crunch…
“Do bears eat that fast?”
Crunch crunch crunch crunch crunch crunch crunch crunch…
My mind began searching for all the information it knew about bears and eating habits. It scanned through all the footage it had seen on the discovery channel, all the scenes from movies, all the descriptions I’d read in survival books, scouring for information on how fast they chew. “This is ridiculous, even if you remember seeing how fast they eat, you’ve never seen them eating potato chips…” But I really couldn’t imagine a massive, 1,000 pound animals munching on anything that quickly. But then how could I explain the loud grunting? Could a raccoon have a voice that deep?
Whatever animal was out there, it finished the chips and the bag fell lightly to the ground. Even though I was still terrified, I felt the grip on my abdomen release as my breathing became more regular. Even if I wanted to stay freaked out, something in my body told me that I really didn’t have anything to worry about. I heard steps in the rustling leaves pace back and forth for awhile, then gradually fade into the distance. My head collapsed on my pillow.
I awoke the next morning in sweltering heat, the sun pounding through the top of the tent. It took quite a struggle to come out of the layers of riding gear, clothing, and the sleeping bag. My head pounded and my eyes felt puffy. I stepped out of my tent to find my bag torn apart, food wrappers and supplies scattered all around the site.
I picked up my bag and got something wet and green all over my hands. “What the-?” It was absolutely all over my bag. “What is this?” It was cold and slimy. For a very brief moment I thought it might be the guts of another animal that the bear had killed, or maybe the saliva of the monster who had actually been rummaging through my stuff all night.
On the ground several feet away were the remains of an exploded avocado. It appeared that the animal had a difficult time opening it, then out of frustration just squeezed it with all it’s might and smeared the remains on everything in sight. It was as if she was saying, “Here, since you tricked me with your booby trapped food, I’m gonna SMEAR it all over your STUFF to show you how MAD I am. Thanks for NOTHING!”
As if the peanuts and potato chips weren’t enough you ungrateful animal you. At this point I’m pretty sure it was a raccoon.
I walked over to Rick and Charles’ site to find they hadn’t fared much better, except that they had slept through the whole night. I was so tired and groggy that I decided to enjoy the fact that I was still alive by taking a warm nap in the sun.