The sound of a large mammal breathing outside the tent interrupted my sleep. It was well after midnight. Snow was falling thick in the high foothills on the eastern slopes of the Mission Mountains. Every now and then a drift would slide from the tent roof with a gentle sound of snow on nylon. I just knew an animal was outside, nosing in the soft powder.
My bear spray, as usual, was propped in my boot near my head. My hand found it in the darkness. I lay still, listening intently, gripping the cold can of spray. My son slept peacefully beside me, comfortable in two sleeping bags. (That’s the way we roll, we like to joke, as we stuff our sleeping bags, one into the other, on our winter trips into the backcountry.)
This time our goal was to chase whitetail deer. We were high by a lake that would have a ring of ice in the morning. It’s pristine country – and perfect bear habitat. (A friend on the trip with us wondered why I would carry bear spray while also packing a hunting rifle. “You’ve got lead spray,” he says, gesturing to the gun. But I don’t want to shoot a bear – unless I have no other choice.)
That doesn’t mean I’m not terrified of bears. I can’t say how many times the night sounds of the forest have taken me from deep slumber to high alert. But it’s something that only happens when I’m in a tent with my son. When I’m alone, bears hardly cross my mind. Surprisingly, I slept like a log a few months ago when our family of four camped in Yellowstone National Park, even though our infant daughter was the picture of sweet vulnerability and a sow grizzly with two cubs had been reported in the area. But as a family unit, we seemed somehow stronger, tougher.
Not so when it’s just my boy and me. A few summers ago I harangued myself into the wee hours for bringing him, then six, into the Bob Marshall Wilderness to a place called Grizzly Basin. In any other place, a name like that would be poetical exaggeration. In the Bob Marshall, it’s an honest description.
It was a horrifying night. Something kept smacking the wall of the tent. I argued with myself about what would be worse – getting out of the tent, spray in hand, to confront the grizzly (I knew it was a grizzly), or staying inside the tent and, what? I realized the spray was useless inside the tent. A bear could collapse the tent and maul us, and I probably wouldn’t get a chance to cut loose with it without giving an eyeful to Josiah and myself. That night, at length, I realized that the slaps against the wall of the tent came from my son, who would roll over in his sleep and throw out an arm to cool off.
My tortured sleep that summer night and my fear of bears in the Bob Marshall prompted me to pick a spot in the mountains east of Hamilton for our backpacking trip this past summer.
I should add that we’re careful backpackers. As usual, we prepared and ate our food – and then hung our food stash – more than 100 yards from our campsite. We don’t even keep toothpaste in the tent.
Still, east of Hamilton in the middle of the night, I woke to hear snapping sounds as an animal walked clumsily through the brush nearby. As I strained my ears, I caught what seemed to me a clear progression: from the food stash and eating area toward the tent. Steeling myself for action, I reasoned that this black bear (it had to be a black) was about to get an appropriate lesson. Unable to get an easy dinner from our out-of-reach food bag, it would now get a solid blast of pepper in the face.
I stepped from the tent to find myself face-to-face with a good-sized whitetail buck. Surprised and chilly in the mountain air, I almost sprayed him. In the moonlight, a string of does was visible behind him, the whole train of them munching on bushes and stepping on twigs.
All these previous scenes flashed through my mind on our most recent trip. A phrase came to me – “obligatory bear noises” – as I forced myself to drift back to sleep. The next morning the snow recorded no bear tracks, no tracks at all.