I’m crouched in a tent peeking through a zipped-up screen, shaking.
At my side, my girlfriend, Keshia, is doing the same. If she expects me to be any match for the bear outside our tent, she’s wrong.
Moments ago, a black bear, about as tall on all fours as my Hyundai Accent, had come hulking through the woods within 100 feet of our campsite near Marcy Dam in the Adirondack High Peaks. We had hiked two miles to get there after parking the Accent at the High Peaks Information Center and renting a bear canister in which to safely stash our food. The plan was to see the super moon over the dam at night and hike a mountain the next day, our one-year dating anniversary.
Our packs were stocked with maps, extra wool socks, a compass, a first-aid kit, beef jerky and more. We were prepared for anything — anything but a bear.
According to Ed Reed, acting regional wildlife manager of Fish, Wildlife & Marine Resources for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, 2014 has been an average year for problem bears.
So far this year, the DEC has received less than 100 bear complaints in Region 5, compared to nearly 200 in 2012, he said. In 2013, there were 46 complaints, which are defined as any report of a bear doing something other than being observed and usually involve damage to property or a bear being close to people.
Bears tend to seek out people’s food when natural sources are low, and natural food has been mostly plentiful this year, Reed said.
“This summer, the weather has been relatively conducive to growing natural sources of food, such as green plants and soft mast [like berries and apples], except for a brief dry period in late July,” Reed said.
As our camping trip was in early August, I’m led to believe the bear we saw was recovering from the late July dry spell. Maybe not. Either way, it was hungry.
We were eating a calzone out of aluminum foil and cooking another over a gas stove — right outside our tent — shortly after 7 p.m. when Keshia saw the burly ursine.
“Ned! There’s a bear!” she said. "What do we do?"
Keshia suggested we throw the calzone into the woods to keep the bear at bay. That sounded good to me, so I wrapped it in foil and chucked it in the direction the bear was walking — toward another campsite. We took refuge in the tent and soon heard a loud clattering of metal, the sound of our neighbors successfully scaring the bear off with pots and pans.
That’s when a bearded camper named Ave peered into our tent and told us the thin layers of plastic would not protect us from a bear if it wanted to hurt us. We crawled out and told him we had thrown the calzone at the bear, hoping for validation.
“You did what?” he asked. “Never feed a bear.”
The first thing a bear will do is try to get you away from your food, he told us, so throwing it into the woods and then hiding in the tent while more food cooked on the stove was about the worst thing we could do. He instructed us to get the flying calzone out of the woods, and I did as he said.
What followed is what you’d expect from two reporters (Keshia’s a reporter, too): We asked Ave, the apparent bear expert, a lot of questions. We learned black bears — unlike grizzly bears, which don't live in the Northeast — generally don’t attack people. They will sometimes do what is called a “bluff charge” where they run at you and stop a few feet from your face. They just want to see how you will react, Ave told us. All you have to do is stand your ground.
Easier said than done, I thought.
Before the bear disappeared back into the woods, Ave told us not to worry. Should the bear act aggressively, there was an army of campers to come to our defense. He offered to set up camp at our site, which I briefly entertained before Keshia said no thanks.
We moved fast to pack all our food and any scented items — deodorant, bug spray, lip balm — into the canister. By now, the second calzone had finished cooking so we unwrapped it and dug in. I’d lost my appetite (Keshia, my braver half, had not), but we had run out of space in the canister and the calzone needed to go somewhere.
The only thing we couldn’t fit in the canister was a bottle of Gatorade, so I threw it deep into the woods, planning to retrieve it in the morning. We should have used it to wash down the second calzone.
Keshia remained determined to see the super moon (I could have gone without it), so we hiked to the dam and spent about a half-hour taking pictures and enjoying the view. We returned to our tent hoping to get some rest before the next day’s hike.
Sure enough, within an hour, we heard some rustling. Then, a crinkle of plastic and a loud pop. The bear was back and hopped up on electrolytes, looking for seconds.
“Never feed a bear,” I could still hear Ave saying.
As I lay face down on my sleeping bag with my headlamp on, a utility knife next to my pillow, I told Keshia that I’d never been so afraid for my life. Her response: “At least I know not to rely on you to protect me from a bear in the future.”
Neither of us got much sleep that night. We woke up early, and it was the happiest I’d ever been to see the sun rise.
The first thing I did was fetch the Gatorade bottle. It was crunched, with one tiny hole where the bear had strategically inserted his tooth and sucked it dry.
After cleaning up our campsite, we crossed Marcy Brook to access the trail to Phelps Mountain. We came across a sign with seven steps to ensure our safety and that of the black bears, which the sign said are “very active in the High Peaks Wilderness.”
If only we’d seen a sign like that on our way to the campsite the day before.
If you’re planning a trip into the woods, follow the sign’s steps and you'll be more prepared than we were:
• Use bear resistant canisters only
• Keep food stored at all times and only take out what you need for cooking
• Never leave food unattended
• Never cook and eat in your sleeping area
• Cook early, no later than 7 p.m.
• Avoid walking trails at night
• Never approach a bear; if approached, make noise and never run
I’ll add my own step to the list, courtesy of Ave: Never feed a bear.