Kim Nelson: How to Camp in Bear Country

photo (10)My husband and I recently returned from our 2-week honeymoon, during which we camped in the Badlands, Black Hills, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Park. Grizzlies and black bears are native to some of these areas, and Yellowstone usually experiences a bear attack each year. Before we left, we did lots of research on how to camp in bear country. Below are some of my reactions to the guidebook “Beyond Road’s End: Regulations and Guidelines for Backcountry Travel in Yellowstone National Park.”

Book: “Be alert: Watch for tracks, droppings, diggings, and other bear signs.”

Me: OK, this is easy enough. Watch where you walk and look out for poop. I can do that; I’ve been on farms and to music festivals.

“To avoid surprising a bear, make noise and stay on the trail: talk or sing loudly, clap your hands, shake rocks in a can, or make loud noises frequently… Stay on the designated trails.”

Yes!!! Don’t ever tell a person with a BA in theater to sing loudly and frequently if you don’t really mean it. While hiking from Kintla Lake through a wooded area towards a view of glaciers, I took my husband (and any unfortunate people who might have been in earshot of us) on a musical journey through time, hitting all the milestones including classic country, 80’s monster ballads, 90’s pop divas, and Broadway showtunes. It began out of the fear of running into a snarling grizzly bear, but evolved into me just really, really enjoying belting out En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind” into the untamed wilderness. (Looking back, this could have actually backfired on us since my singing could probably be easily mistaken for the sounds of a dying animal.) I was pretty pleased with what I was sure was a life-saving musical performance, until a few days later we heard a group of about twenty 12-year-old girls shrieking “Let It Go” from Frozen as they hiked the trail around Swiftcurrent Lake, while we sat in kayaks on the lake about 200 yards away. They must have scattered every animal in the park, and that was before they even started on One Direction songs.

“Don’t hike alone or at night.”

Well, obviously. I know that much at least from The Walking Dead.

“Never approach or camp near a carcass.”

Oh really?

“What to do if a bear charges you: stand still, do not run. Charging bears often veer away or stop abruptly at the last second.”

This sounds like the worst game of chicken ever. As someone who constantly flinched through every childhood game of Red Rover, I don’t think I am capable of standing still and trusting that a charging bear is just bluffing. I will go with the unwritten Option B, which is dropping into the fetal position while simultaneously pooping one’s pants.

“Although night attacks are extremely rare, there are documented cases in North America of black and grizzly bears preying on campers in a tent or sleeping bag. A bear attacking at night is not being protective–it is treating humans as food. Do not play dead. Fight back aggressively. Use anything available to defend yourself.”

Luckily, no bears came close to our backcountry campsite craving humans with a fluffy sleeping bag topping. However, we did wake up on our last morning in Yellowstone to a bison huffing angrily right outside our tent. There are signs all over the park warning visitors to stay at least 25 yards away from bison, who can act aggressively and charge, goring you in the stomach and groin. “Would a bison charge a tent?” Kurt whispered to me; I shushed him in a panic. We hadn’t heard of any cases of bison charging tents, but for all we knew the bison grunting angrily at our North Face three-man Tree Frog was the herd’s one dumb lunkhead who enjoyed ramming his horns into inanimate objects. For what felt like eons but was probably more like 30 seconds, we stayed perfectly still and quiet like Von Trapps hiding from Nazis. Finally, the bison decided that our tent was not a threat and it continued on its way. We breathed a sigh of relief and thanked our lucky stars that in a sprawling wilderness full of bears, wolves, and mountain lions, we were not killed by something in the cow family because that would just be embarrassing.

“For more information, ask for the ‘Bears and Menstruating Women’ handout at backcountry permit issuing station.”

This is why sane people go to Hawaii instead.

Author’s Note: In all seriousness, we had an amazing trip and the national parks are beautiful places to visit. As long as you follow the safety guidelines, your odds of getting eaten by a bear are pretty much 1 in a million, so don’t let fear keep you away. Carry bear spray, hang your food 100 yards away from camp, and sing the full soundtrack to Little Mermaid; you’ll be fine!

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