Grin and Bear It

Photo: Paul Stern

My friends Jim and Paul had planned a hiking trip to culminate their pursuit of the Adirondack high peaks and finally join the 46ers club. Three years ago, on his 70th birthday, I promised Jim I’d be there for his 46th summit; I hadn’t expected the trip would include three mountains and two overnights in the deep backwoods, but a promise is a promise.



Jim, Paul, Henri and I left Utica on Wednesday at 3:17 am, and arrived at the Upper Works trailhead in the ghost village of Tahawus at 6:00 on the dot. Jim expected a 6-hour hike in to the Uphill Brook lean-to camping area. I ended up ahead of the group and pitched my shelter in the already-crowded tent community to the left of the single lean-to. There were two empty hammocks in the lean-to as well as a couple in sleeping bags; they were taking a day off and still wore pajamas. They said the majority of the tents belonged to Boy Scouts.

Jim had been concerned about bears as the trip approached; he’d read about several close encounters on the message boards he followed. I wasn’t too worried, because I’d never actually seen a bear in 35 years of hiking in the Adirondacks. I’d camped before in areas where the NYS DEC warned visitors to be cautious, and I followed their rules, printed in bright yellow at most trailheads:

ATTENTION – BLACK BEARS ARE VERY ACTIVE IN THE HIGH PEAKS WILDERNESS. PLEASE FOLLOW THESE STEPS TO ENSURE YOUR SAFETY AND THAT OF THE WILDLIFE:

1) Use bear resistant canisters only.
2) Keep food stored at all times and only take out what you need for cooking.
3) Never leave food unattended.
4) Never cook and eat in your sleeping area.
5) Cook early, no later than 7:00 pm.
6) Avoid walking trails at night.
7) Never approach a bear. If approached make noise and never run.

The DEC also has extensive information about bear safety on their website. I’d reviewed all of it, and remained minimally concerned. Still, Jim pointed out that even if we followed the guidelines, someone else in the area might not. He purchased a can of bear spray just in case.



The rest of the party arrived on schedule, just after noon. They set up their tent next to mine, and prepared their day packs for our first mountain. The Redfield trail branched off just a hundred feet from the camping area, and we expected it to be a 5-hour round trip. We also expected rain.

Suddenly there was a commotion and shouting from the lean-to: “BEAR! BEAR! BEAR! GO AWAY! GET OUT OF HERE!” Someone was banging something and I pulled out my whistle – I always carried one but hadn’t ever had the occasion to blow in distress. I looked over and sure enough, just thirty feet from me, a startlingly large creature was turning away from the lean-to. “BEAR! BEAR! BEAR!” Paul and Henri were taking pictures near our tents, but I was backing away – I wasn’t too scared yet, but my heart was racing. “GO AWAY! GET OUT OF HERE! BAD BEAR!” I blew my whistle.

The bear lumbered off, and though driving it away seemed to have taken more effort than expected (a guide I’d met earlier said, “Bears are like big squirrels – make some noise and they’ll go away quickly”), still, it was gone. “That was a big boy!” Was it ever.

Then it was back. “BEAR! BEAR! BEAR!” (TWEET TWEET TWEET TWEET TWEET) It had found something hanging near one of the Boy Scouts’ tents, about 60 feet from where ours were pitched. That turned out to be a bear sack – NOT a canister – hung just 6 feet off the ground and containing, no kidding, Bacon Honey Jam. (We learned this fact and more about the Scouts the next day.) In the meantime, one of the lean-to couple approached the bear, shouting and waving his arms. It turned with an attitude of annoyance, and growled. The man backed away, returning to the group. They shouted and banged. I blew. The bear opened the sack, had a snack, and eventually left.

Photo: Paul Stern

Next time was when I became scared, because it came from a new direction. Instead of returning to the Scouts’ area or the lean-to, the bear approached from behind my tent, heading right for Henri and Paul. (“BEAR!” TWEET “BEAR!” TWEET) Henri turned and ran. Paul grabbed a daypack off the ground, asking “Whose is this?” Nobody answered, so he dropped the pack and retreated to the lean-to. I was about 20 feet from the bear then, and watched it scoop Henri’s daypack to its mouth, then bound off into the woods. Henri shouted it was hers, with medicine, snacks (including tuna – please remember for later), wallet and phone. We heard the bear tearing into the pack, the sound more terrible because we couldn’t see it happening.

By now we’d been shouting and banging and tweeting for almost an hour; finally, we got a reprieve. A hiker came down the path and said he’d heard the commotion, and had watched the bear cross the brook, away from our camp. We’d driven it away at least three times over the course of the early afternoon, all in daylight. It would visit once more when the Boy Scouts returned to find their opened bear sack (we were on the mountain by then, but got a first-hand account later. It won’t surprise the reader that the Scouts started to cook dinner, right in front of their tents, next to their still-hanging but obviously violated sack.)

I wanted to leave. I was ready to pull down my tent and head back out to Upper Works. Jim wasn’t as sure – he didn’t know if he had the energy for the 7-mile hike out with full packs. We searched and found Henri’s shredded pack – medicine, wallet, and phone were intact. The water bladder was punctured, food gone, and the pack itself was useless. The lean-to couple said the hammock people were leaving, and they’d save space in the lean-to if we all wanted to stay in it together that night. That’s what ultimately persuaded me – the three hard sides of the lean-to, six people together on watch, with bear spray just in case. We’d hike up Redfield and back down, a 5-hour round trip at most. I’d carry Henri’s water and trail food. We agreed none of us would cook anything, to reduce the likelihood of summoning the implacable demon.



7:40 PM, exactly five hours later. We’d made it up Redfield (Jim & Paul’s 44th high peak) and back down. It had been raining on and off the whole time, but the sprinkles were now becoming more insistent. It was dark enough that we needed headlamps at camp. I was unsurprised to find an additional person in the lean-to. Although the official capacity of Adirondack lean-tos is eight, they seem better suited to six people side-by-side. All three were tucked in for the night, so there wasn’t any discussion about re-arranging sleeping bags. Paul decided to return to his tent. Given that, I returned to mine, next to Paul’s. Soon, Jim would join Paul (he said he felt guilty), leaving Henri in the lean-to with three companions and the bear spray.

A brief aside. I carry a Garmin inReach when I’m in the woods – a GPS device that can send and receive messages via satellite. I normally hike alone, so my family appreciates periodic updates that reassure them I’m OK. The one I send most often is “Checking in – things are great!” I’d kept sending it that afternoon, the first time I’d lied about my status. I figured there was no upside, for any of us, to letting them know the truth. Unfortunately, because we’d returned in the dark, I didn’t realize until I was in my tent that my final message hadn’t sent, letting them know we’d finished the hike. (The tree cover around the camping area blocked reception.) Unbeknownst to me, they were Googling “How long to wait before calling rangers?”

I stayed alert for several hours, listening for what I thought was an inevitable return. I discovered that in a rain storm, EVERYTHING sounds like a bear. Just before midnight, I changed into dry clothes and tucked in my down quilt, and actually felt pretty cozy for a while. The rain continued, and I drifted to sleep on the comfort that bears might not like lightning and thunder any better than I did.

At dawn, light began to show on the nylon ceiling, and I woke to feel water sprinkling my face. No evident drips from above, but when I put my hand on the floor of the tent, it rippled like a waterbed. As things got brighter, I could see two inches of water through the tent fabric, surrounding me on three sides. Rainwater was dripping from the fly and splashing from puddles up through the inside screen of the tent. I packed my things and set everything on top of the sleeping pad, reasonably sure we’d be heading out for the car that morning. I walked out to the main trail, and found it flooded as well. Hiking would be a slog in any direction.

Henri hadn’t slept much either. She said there’d been a single loud cracking sound close by, as if a branch had been snapped by a large visitor, but that was all. It turns out, all you see from a lean-to at night is darkness – not much comfort when you’re looking for a black bear. We roused Jim and Paul, and together decided that since we’d made it through the night unmolested, it made sense to finish the 46er quest and sleep together in the lean-to that night. When two of the other tents left, we moved ours from their puddles to higher ground, intending to put them away later when they’d dried a bit. Cooking still seemed a risk, so we ate trail food.

That morning we also met Mitch, a young Scout who’d spent the night in a hammock under a plastic painter’s tarp and had been thoroughly soaked. He asked if he could stay in the lean-to with us that night, and crawled in to a corner where he shivered miserably. Paul and Henri wrapped him in their sleeping blankets. Mitch eventually told us about his group’s return the previous day. Although the Scouts had seen that something had gotten into their bear sack, they’d started cooking anyway. The bear came right into their circle, and as everyone scattered, Mitch tried to save the meal – he grabbed the food and ran. An adult shouted at him to drop it, so at least in this case, props to one of the Scout leaders. They ended up moving their tents and hammock to the main area (near ours) and leaving the mauled bear sack where it was. The Scouts planned a long hike for the coming day, but Mitch was staying behind, BY HIMSELF, in the lean-to. A lean-to that had been visited several times the previous day. /smh/ BAD SCOUT LEADERS! (Mitch slept during the day and it didn’t return when he was awake, thank heavens. But good grief…)



Thursday was beautiful, as close to perfect hiking weather as I’ve ever experienced. We made it up Gray (J&P’s #45), a delightful climb with surprises around every corner. Lake Tear of the Clouds, the highest pond in New York State, was bucolic perfection. We summited Skylight at 4:34 PM, making Jim and Paul virtual 46ers (the rules stipulate that candidates must also descend successfully.) The top of Skylight might be my favorite place on earth – wide open and expansive, with Marcy close enough to leap to, the Great Range over its shoulder, and the remaining 270 degrees packed with mountains and lakes. It might have been the bear stress, or lack of food and sleep, or maybe just sheer relief, but I sobbed for a few moments as I took it all in. Of course, watching Jim and Paul as they had their own moment was good for the spirit as well.

Photo: Chris Bord

We began our descent around 5:00, all but certain to return in the dark again. Paul was behind me, with Jim and Henri farther back. I was determined to spend as little time out after sunset as possible. About halfway back to camp, as the dusk was deepening, Paul said “Do you smell tuna? I keep smelling fish.” I didn’t smell anything, but then I remembered Henri had eaten tuna earlier. I stopped and opened my pack. I’d been keeping our food in a Ziploc bag, with trash in a separate Ziploc inside the first. Both bags were unzipped.

Paul said later that was one of his favorite moments of the trip: “Your face turned WHITE!” Also, my hands and feet had gone numb. I was carrying a pack that was now scented with the same food the bear had scored from Henri’s pack yesterday. Basically, I was walking bear bait. “Paul, I’m going ahead to the brook to wash out these bags.” I took off. When I came to a spot where the brook crossed the trail, I dropped my pack and immediately rinsed the Ziploc bags inside and out, as well as the tuna pouch. I smelled them, then rinsed again. When the others caught up, they said they couldn’t smell the tuna anymore.

We got back to camp with headlamps on again, found Mitch in good shape, and the tenting area filled to overflowing (nobody was near the decimated bear sack.) One enterprising camper had strung colored lights between the trees – ordinarily, I’d have found it tacky, but now it was the perfect comfort. I decided that since my tent was occupying one of the better, drier spots, I’d be a real jerk to occupy the lean-to. I told the others I’d sleep in my tent, and said goodnight.



Friday morning dawned without incident, although I’d been cold and slept less than the previous night. We packed and left right around 8 am. Our party was in good spirits on the trail, despite lack of sleep and nourishment. (I’d brought 6 energy bars with me, and still had one left. Otherwise I hadn’t eaten anything since Tuesday night.) I stayed with the group until just before the Henderson Monument, Jim’s favorite place in the Adirondacks. I was ready to be done with our adventure, and I pushed on until I emerged at Upper Works.

Reflections

I don’t regret the decisions I agreed to, on a moment-by-moment basis. If I’d been alone, I would have hiked out the first afternoon. But Jim had been thinking of this trip for months, and had canceled it twice already this summer; he felt his window was shrinking. Apart from everything else, I’d promised to witness his final peak. I did burn some goodwill at home – once they got the story, Susan and Sarah understandably questioned if they’d be able to trust my future dispatches from the field.

In retrospect, success can seem inevitable. I don’t think it was – a variety of factors besides the wildlife made me wonder if three peaks was too ambitious this time. I’m conservative when it comes to training, packing, preparing, and executing – more so as I get older, and doubly when others are involved. (Henri asked me why I like hiking alone. I said it’s because I’m not holding anyone back, or pushing someone else too hard. My mistakes affect just me, for the most part.)

On the other hand, I’d seen trails and lakes and mountain peaks I’d never visited before. The middle part of Thursday was among the most delightful days in the woods I can remember. And of course, Jim and Paul are in the club – they’d started something difficult, and saw it through. Henri’s also more than halfway there. I’m trailing, mostly because I climb my favorites over and over.

As I read that, I guess it means I’ll be returning. Watch out, bear.

Photo: Paul Stern