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Bear bait in a tent or why I love public bathrooms

Life from Your Window column
By: Elaine Jo Giamona Special to The News Messenger
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It wasn’t a new idea to sleep in a tent at the edge of a river. I’d done it before in a motor home and in a pup tent. But this time would be different, very different. I would be alone in a secluded campground. I decided not to miss the annual bluegrass musical festival that was happening this weekend up in the hills about an hour away. I’d been invited in past years by friends but no one I knew was going this year. The plan was to listen to some great music, take in the people and performers, and then stay overnight. It would be a nice break from the computer, phones and the general “busy-ness” of my life. And it would give me a chance to enjoy the adventure of traveling solo. It would do me good and I had no fear. The website picture of a tent sitting on the edge of a beautiful river caught my eye. The tent came with a futon mattress and rested on a wooden platform with a small deck at the river’s edge. The campground had a shuttle to and from the festival. It would be a peaceful, quiet night since most of the three-day festival-goers would be leaving as I arrived on Sunday, the last day. I never thought a moment about the bears. It had been a year or two since I’d been in bear country and I’d forgotten my pledge to camp closer to larger numbers of humans. After a day in the hot sun enjoying the music, dancers and the children running and playing, I shuttled back Sunday to the campground and was asleep by 9 p.m. All was well until I bolted upright out of my slumber. It was 2 a.m. and I sat still in a state of amazement and fear. Amazed at my stupidity and frozen in fear. I had food in my tent and this was bear country. Inside the little tent was a supply of sweets: dates and chocolate-covered raisins. Bears have a sweet tooth. Outside on the deck was a food cooler containing lasagna in meat sauce. Bears love meat. I was bear bait in a tent. The brown metal garbage cans I’d seen everywhere, with locking handles to keep bears out, should have given me a clue. If that wasn’t enough, the pictures of my brother’s horrifying experience when with bears kept rolling through my mind. I saw my brother and a friend camped in the high country above Yosemite. They awoke in the night to the unmistakable sound of bears sniffing at the edge of their tent. Sitting perfectly still, they listened in terror as the bears ripped through their food locker and cooler, just a few feet from them. After what seemed like hours, the sounds stopped and they sat frozen in the silence for a long time. Then they broke camp in record time, threw everything onto the truck bed and drove off in the middle of the night. Now it was me who sat motionless. It was like I had set a trap for a mouse with cheese. Only this was bear bait, not cheese, and the bait was inside my tent. Just me and the food. I knew I had two choices. Stay or leave. My car was far away, up a hill, and it was pitch black outside. I was not ready to make a run for it. For several hours, I listened for the sound of bears walking in the woods. This was not easy, for two reasons. My bear-detection efforts were hampered by the soothing sound of river rapids a few yards from my tent, effectively drowning out the sounds of things that go bump in the night. And secondly, even if I did hear something, I knew I probably couldn’t tell the sound of a bear walking in the woods from that of an elephant! I laughed silently to myself. I had placed a paring knife near my pillow, just in case of an intruder. The picture of me trying to fight off a huge black bear with that little knife was not pretty. The situation was not good. Around 4 a.m., I was alarmed by the sound of crackling dry leaves. Something was crawling in the bushes a few feet away. I pictured a baby bear, harmless. But wait! Momma Bear can’t be far behind. That thought was all I needed. I decided to make a run for it. The public bathroom would be my destination. It was brightly lit, clean and safe. The problem was that the bathroom was at the top of a long set of stairs and the stairs were more than 50 feet away from my tent. Grabbing my trusty yellow flashlight, I quickly unzipped the tent opening and made my escape. Walking as fast as I could (never run from a bear) and refusing my inclination to look back (in fear of what I might see), I got to the stairs, climbed them at record speed and made it safely to the bathroom. I paced around inside, nervously. The entrance door was latched wide open and I kept checking out front for approaching bears, knowing if I saw one I could lock myself inside a toilet stall and it couldn’t get me there. It was very, very quiet and, after a while, I was startled by that familiar sound of crackling dry leaves. I bravely peeked from the bathroom doorway and saw a small black animal. I sighed with relief as my eyes beheld not a gigantic black bear, not even a baby bear, but a cute little black skunk with a white stripe down its back. And then another, crawling under the fence into the campground. Not too much later, I found the courage to make the dark trek back to my tent, where I remained alert and awake until dawn. Then I slept for a few hours. Lessons learned: Fear can run rampant through your mind, if you allow it to. When sleeping in bear country, don’t set yourself up as bear bait. And if by chance you forget these two things, like I did, make sure you have an escape plan. A public bathroom worked for me. Elaine Jo Giamona is a Soroptimist International of Lincoln charter member. She is creator and administrator of two Facebook groups, Lincoln Nonprofit Coalition and Lincoln Thank Tank. Comments are welcome at egiamona 33@gmail.com or online at lincolnnewsmessenger.com.