There it is again – the cracking and rustling, then all is quiet. You lie in your sleeping bag, rolled up tight like a tortilla, trying to calm your pulse so you can hear what’s going on out there in the semi-darkness, in the trees around your tent. You feel conspicuous with all your nylon gear and people smell, a blatant invitation for a late night snack. Aren’t bears always hungry?
There comes the cracking sound again. Something is definitely sneaking around out there. With endless wilderness stretching away into all directions, surely there is no good reason for wildlife to snoop around your campsite. Whatever it is, it must have something on its mind. Should you pretend to be asleep or have a look? But what if it’s something scary that you see – like a bear?
I guess anyone who has ever pitched a tent in bear country has felt this way at some point. With summer well under way now, there are people trussed up in their sleeping bags at night all over the Yukon, listening to the unnerving sounds that for some reason don’t even register in the daytime. Is the food stashed away safely?
And then there is the question of foul smells working their way out of the sleeping bag, the aftereffect of a freeze-dried dinner percolating through protesting intestines. Would a bear be attracted to stinky farts? A topic sadly disregarded by bear researchers, as far as I know.
It is amazing what questions and scenarios an overtired and imaginative brain will come up with on a summer night. By the time morning comes around, it all seems pretty silly, of course. And it really is. By reason, campers who keep a clean camp should be a lot more scared of driving to the trail head, hypothermia and taking an unfortunate stumble or tumble. When you look at the statistics, other people and dogs are a lot more likely to cause us harm than bears – though I don’t know if those numbers have been adjusted to account for the infinitely greater exposure we have to dogs and people than to bears.
I prefer my personal statistics. Over the years, I’ve spent well over 500 nights in tents of all makes and sizes in bear country, with my partner, friends and alone, with dogs and without dogs. And the only creatures lusting for my blood, trying to force their way in, have been mosquitoes and black flies. So far, bears have never been a problem on my camping trips, not at night and not while out hiking either.
There was one night in Quebec though, when I was the sole camper at a provincial campground already closed for the season and suddenly woke up to a loud sniffing sound next to my head. Louder than a dog would sniff. There is not much more to tell about that night because my pulse was thudding so hard I couldn’t hear anything else anymore. Eventually, morning came and I discovered fresh bear poop close by my tent site, so I assume it was a bear that gave me a sniff-over and decided to let me stew in cold sweat in peace.
Which is so typical. Nothing happened at all, it was just a good scare that I mostly brought on myself by letting my thoughts still go shrieking down the “what if” trail long after the bear had continued on its way. Though most nights in camp, I sleep as well as in our cabin, there is still the odd night when I am jerked out of an uneasy slumber by the slightest sound and then lie there with a pounding heart, listening into the night.
That’s when I think of all the times I’ve slept in a tent, the time I was sniffed and left alone, when I remind myself of the bears I’ve met around our cabin and on the trail. Most have been shy and run off, while a couple have been assertive – but never aggressive. There may well come a day when I do something wrong or meet a grumpy bear in an unfortunate situation but so far, my personal statistics help me go to sleep again on those nights in camp when I make life hard for myself.
The intermittent cracking noise, by the way, is often made by moose as they look for browse.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.