Given the amount of time in my life that I have spent hiking and hanging out in bear habitat, I consider myself lucky to have almost completely avoided any form of contact or encounter with bears. I’ve only once seen a bear while out walking, and that was a fleeting encounter as the bear ignored me and continued along its way – which is how the majority of human-bear encounters go.
I’ve done plenty of day hikes on my own, including many in bear habitat – but most of my backcountry hikes involving overnight camping have been with one or more other people.
A few days ago, I embarked on what was to be a 5 day solo hike in Algonquin Park, Ontario – the first place I experienced backcountry hiking when I was a teenager and still my favorite place in the world to be immersed in nature. It was the third purely solo backcountry hike of my life. I’ve probably hiked through this area 15 times in my life, though the last time was in 2003.
Early October in this part of the world is ideal for hiking: The fall colours are in their glorious peak, the weather is crisp – but still mild enough to work up a sweat in the afternoon, it is generally dry, and the biting insects are non-existent – having perished in the onset of cooler nights in the preceding weeks.
I arrived at the access point to the Western Uplands trail around 1:30 pm after a 3 hour drive from the suburbs of Toronto where I was staying with my family. It was several hours later than I would have liked to arrive given the 12 KM distance to the lake where I would spend my first night, and the limited daylight hours at this time of year. Still – I had enough time if I carried a good pace.
I put the finishing touches on my backpack – which as usual was far too heavy for comfort. In a group hike the shared supplies – such as tent, stove, fuel, cooking equipment, water filter, etc., can be split up amongst the group members. On a solo hike, it all goes on one person’s back – along with the cold weather sleeping bag, extra clothing, thermarest pad, 5 days worth of food, and all the other necessary odds and ends to survive and have some relative comfort in the backcountry for a week.
It was a warm and sunny afternoon and as soon as I entered into the wonderland of colours and smells, all of my sense doors came to life and synchronized with my nervous system and inner being. I felt happy, calm and aligned on all levels. As humans, we place far too much importance on our relationships with each other and with our human-made devices. Our sense doors and nervous systems have evolved over millions of years to be in relationship with the non-human world. There is little wonder that most people feel unfulfilled in life, as they keep themselves isolated in a human–only world and attempt to satisfy their need for relationship in this very narrow realm.
In his excellent book “Becoming Animal”, David Abram suggests that the growing acceptance in popular culture of the connection between body and mind is not enough and that most of the therapists and healers exploring this connection have missed something very vital. He claims that to fully experience balance and well being, we must also emphasize the connection between the human body-mind and the body-mind of the non-human world – the body-mind of the earth. To truly be balanced and whole, our senses need to be in relationship with the non-human world, as they have been “designed” this way by the co-evolution of our species with all of the other non-human entities over millions of years. In essence, we are coupled to the non-human world to such a degree that it is a part of us and we are a part of it. Cutting off this vital aspect of our heritage and our being, as the modern city-dweller does, is to cut of a part of what we are.
Maintaining a reciprocal and communicative relationship with all the non-human forms of life (and non–life) always has a profoundly balancing effect on the senses and nervous system, and on the deeper layers of our being – for those who choose to pay attention. In my opinion, those who are not able to have this kind of ongoing relationship with the non-human world have little chance at sustaining true clarity and harmony.
I feel that the major shortcoming of traditional perspectives on yoga and meditation is that they fail to address or recognize this vital aspect of being human. Just as the reductionist approach to science attempts to isolate a variable from its natural context in order to learn more about it, this approach to understanding the human psyche removes the human individual from the context of its manifold relationships with all that is “other”. Liberation is sought by attempting to overcome or detach from the illusory or impermanent nature of these relationships to the physical earth and all of it’s non-human inhabitants. My own evolving perspective of spirituality is that the relationship between ourselves and the non-human world is so deep and ancient, that we need to practice in a way that recognizes these relationships as a part of who and what we are. We need to remain aware of and immersed in relationship with the rest of the planet earth, if we are to know ourselves completely.
Immersed in the manifold relationships with the non human world, I never feel lonely or bored when I am alone in nature. In fact, I usually find that any concerns that have been weighing on me tend to lighten and become less significant once I step into a world that is dominated by that which is non-human. I thoroughly enjoyed the 4 hour hike to Maggie Lake, though the weight of my pack was bogging down my energy and awareness by the time I arrived.
Maggie Lake is large. There is a 6 KM trail which circumambulates the lake and about 10 designated campsites scattered around its shores. I chose the second site which I came to. There was a large cleared area – perfect for a tent and some extra space on the soft pine needled floor for morning yoga if the weather allowed for it. There was a decent fire pit with some large flat logs surrounding it and someone had kindly left a neat stack of chopped wood. The site was only a few steps away from the rocky shore and clear waters of the lake.
I had not seen any other hikers on my walk in. Sound travels very well across a lake in the silence of the backcountry, and hearing no other sounds or signs of human beings, I guessed that I would probably be spending the night completely alone on this lake.
It was about 5:30 pm and the sun was already sinking low on the Western horizon over the lake. I figured I had about 60 – 90 minutes of daylight left. The beautiful and inviting campsite and lake would soon become completely dark – a form of darkness that is much denser than anything we can experience in human settlements. I had numerous things to accomplish before that happened and I began to feel a little stressed.
In order to prepare for the dark and cold night safely I needed to set up my tent and lay out the things from my backpack in their appropriate places. I needed to find firewood and cut it, as the little bit that had been left at the campsite would not last long. I needed to set up my stove and cooking equipment, collect water, cook my food, eat my food, wash up my cooking equipment, filter water for drinking, repack my food and then hang all the food up in a tree to protect it from animals. This was quite a bit of work to accomplish in a short time, so I kept my focus strong and set into action.
I managed to get it all done, and in the last bit of fading light I roped my food bag over a high and strong looking branch that I had located earlier when the light was better.
I was not completely satisfied with the location of the food pack. It is often difficult to find a perfect location – high enough that a bear cannot reach it from the ground, and far away enough from the trunk of the tree that a climbing bear could not reach over and grab it. The branch also needs to be strong enough to hold the food bag. This particular branch was a little low and a little close to the trunk. Still, I figured it would be good enough. I had never had an issue with animals getting food out of a tree at night and I had used many non-ideal branches in the past.
With the work finished, I was finally able to relax a bit and enjoy the darkness and solitude of the lake. I spent a few minutes sitting by the fire, and then wandered over to the lake to watch the final glow of daylight on the Western horizon fade and disappear. I noted that there were no other lights on the shores of the lake – no flickering campfires. I was indeed alone, probably the only human in at least a 10 KM radius. It was a clear night and an incredible canopy of stars slowly emerged.
I spent some more time by the fire, feeling sleepy and vaguely disturbed in my body due to the tension of carrying my heavy pack over 12 KM and the stressful rush to get everything finished upon arrival. I slowly relaxed and tried to read a little bit. I was too sleepy to focus on the writing, so just sat quietly in meditation until I felt like it was time to get into bed. I walked over to take one last look at the lake and open sky, in the now complete darkness of night.
The star canopy was incredible. I could not focus my gaze on it, it was a bit like an illusion where the more I looked, the more stars would appear and then seem to dance around, flicker and disappear. The sky was alive with an infinite number of points of light, all varying in brightness and seemingly moving around. I could relax my gaze and focus on the recognizable constellations which clearly stood out, but then when I tried to focus more the sky would seem to fill with more and more elusive points of brightness behind the constellations – a background of ever increasing complexity. It had been a long time since I had seen a sky like this.
I walked back to the fire and put the last few things in their place for the night. I had a small machete for cutting wood which I was about to put under a plastic bag cover with my stove and water filter on an old tree stump. I reconsidered and then brought it to the tent with me. Just in case……
Though there are many documented cases of humans who have been killed or badly injured by bears – the probability of this happening is very low. One has a much greater likelihood of being killed or injured in a car accident on the road then of being killed or injured by a bear in the backcountry. Still – just as one takes reasonable precautions against car accidents, or protection (such as seatbelts) in the event that one is in an accident – one also takes reasonable precautions to prevent bear encounters in the wilderness (such as treeing all the food after dark) and thinks about protection (such as a weapon) in the unlikely event that there is a bear encounter.
When I am camping with a group, I don’t think about bears beyond taking these precautions. When I am camping alone, it is a different story. Alone, my thoughts and fears can run wild and on my previous solo trips the process of getting into my tent and lying quietly before sleep was always a very fearful one. I would imagine “what if….” and picture a bear coming into my campsite at night, perhaps with some interest in me as a meal. I would imagine what I would or could do – which generally would be very little. The feeling of helplessness and vulnerability that arose would trigger more fear reaction and the process would build until I consciously applied various techniques to put a stop to it. Still, I was never really completely comfortable in going to sleep at night when alone in the wilderness. The fear was always there, just below the surface, even if I had it under control. Encountering that fear was part of the process of hiking and camping alone.
Mountaineer Reinhold Messner, whom I consider to be a fascinating person and a great yogi, made similar statements. Of the many mind boggling feats of mountaineering which he accomplished – a number of them were alone. He often stated in interviews that he climbed some of his most dangerous climbs alone simply to face his own fear. Being alone at night on the mountain was an almost unbearable fear for him, and the process of encountering that was a way to know himself better. Another very true statement he made was that when you are in a dangerous situation with another person, the fear is much less because you can share it. When you are alone in a similar situation, the fear is much greater as you can only experience it yourself and process it inside yourself.
I was happy to note that tonight seemed different for me. Maybe I was just so tired that I didn’t have the energy to imagine a bear encounter. I did feel the familiar thoughts arising, but it was very easy to let them slide off and I felt quite comfortable and safe as I quickly drifted into sleep, warm and cozy in my winter sleeping bag. That was around 9 pm.
At 12:30 I woke up sharply. A few times in my life I have been awakened with the awareness of a very real danger that I had to respond to. This was a similar experience. I woke up and was immediately very alert. The only way to describe what I felt was that I perceived a vector of energy running at a diagonal to the orientation of my body in the tent, its closest point perhaps 5 meters away from my head. The vector of energy ran directly to where my food was hanging in the tree, perhaps 15 – 20 meters away from my tent.
I sat up immediately and listened. Sure enough, there were some loud noises. Thumping and then some sticks snapping. I realized that something was near my food. There was no fear, just a heightened state of awareness and a calm lucidity. There were several different sounds. The heavy thumping, the snapping of sticks, and then another sound which was the very particular sound that a dead tree makes when you are trying to pull its roots out of the earth – a sort of earthy ripping sound.
There was little doubt that it was a bear. I tried to rationally deny it to myself, thinking that it could be some smaller mammal, but I quickly put my own doubts to rest as it was clear that the sounds I was hearing could only be made by a very large mammal, and a large mammal with some degree of dexterity – which ruled out every possibility except a bear.
I noted with some interest that I did not feel emotionally afraid. At an intellectual level I was quite aware that this was a very bad situation and that the paranoid imaginations of my past were now actually happening: I was alone in the wilderness, in the dead of night, and a bear had voluntarily entered into my campsite and was aware of my presence there and clearly not afraid of me. “This….is….really happening”. I acknowledged the reality of the situation to myself, but the emotional fear reaction that would come when I had imagined this situation in the past was notably absent.
Part of me wanted to react emotionally, as if it was the right thing to do, but the emotions were distant clouds. They could not touch me and I could not touch them. The center of my being and awareness was simply calm and collected focus. I reached for my headlamp and slipped it onto my head (without turning it on), grabbed and unsheathed my machete and held it in my right hand and quietly waited.
There is no standard procedure for a bear encounter. There are common threads of advice, but the advice can be different depending on whether it is a grizzly or a black bear as well as numerous other factors. In this region of Canada it could only be a black bear. Black bears are generally considered to be less dangerous and potentially predatory towards humans than grizzly bears are – but black bears are also less predictable and there are certainly enough documented cases of black bears stalking and killing humans.
Bears tend to avoid humans in general. The vast majority of bear encounters happen because the bear is caught by surprise. Once the bear realizes that a human being is close by, it turns and leaves the area. This is the best case scenario and the most common scenario.
The next scenario is that the bear realizes there is a human close by, but it does not leave or show fear – or the bear voluntarily enters into contact with humans. This increases the danger of the situation significantly and this was the situation that I found myself in at that moment. Bears are very intelligent and have keen senses. The bear could smell me and there is no doubt at all that the bear knew I was very close by, in my tent. This did not seem to faze the bear at all.
The only way the situation could become worse would be if the bear decided to investigate the possibility of making me into a meal. So far, I had no reason to believe this would happen.
“They” say that if a black bear approaches you or your camp, the first course of action should be to try to scare it off. Making a lot of noise, flashing lights, jumping around in order to look big are the commonly listed techniques. I could see this being potentially effective with a group of people, in the daylight. While guidelines can be good, blindly following them without analyzing the unique situation at hand can be troublesome.
I could have put my headlamp (which is particularly bright) on strobe, used my fox 40 whistle, which I had also located and had in my other hand, and stepped out of my tent and shone the flashing light at the bear, blowing my whistle, yelling and waving my machete around. This might have been enough to send the bear running away into the night. It also could have made the bear feel threatened, and liable to attempt to defend its newly found food source from me.
Had I been with at least one other strong person, whom I felt confident would stay cool if the situation escalated further, I might have suggested we do just that. But I was alone and it seemed exceedingly foolish to try to scare the bear away and risk provocation.
I decided to sit and wait. The bear would either succeed in getting my food, have a good meal and leave, it would fail to get my food and leave, or it would either get my food or not, and then decide to investigate me and the tent. I figured the first possibility – that it would get my food and then leave was the most likely. The chances of it coming to the tent were very low, especially considering I had been careful to have no trace of food in the tent.
I devised a plan in the unlikely event that the bear did approach my tent. Once I heard it come close, I would begin to make a lot of noise. I would blow my whistle and yell. If that did not work and the bear attempted to come into the tent, I would move on to Plan B.
If the bear wanted to come into the tent and kill me, it could. A bear could slash or bite through the thin polyester walls of the tent in no time. I knew that I would have one big advantage, however: The bear would have to use its claws or its teeth to rip a hole in the tent before it could reach me. If I stayed cool and poised with my machete and my light, I would see exactly where its limb or face was going to come through the tent, and I would be able to take the first shot. The machete was brand new, the blade was sharp and about 2/3 the length of my forearm. If I struck well, the bear would be seriously injured before it had a chance to hit or bite me – especially if the strike was to its face. It would likely be enough to send the bear running off, bleeding and confused. I seriously hoped it would not come down to this, but it also gave me confidence to know that I had a plan of action which had a reasonable chance of success if it did come down to it.
I calmly waited. The noises went on for a long time. Eventually I heard another large thud and figured my food had hit the ground. The subsequent sounds of wrestling plastic confirmed this.
It had probably been close to an hour since I woke up and I had been sitting upright, half out of my sleeping bag with machete in hand for the entire time. It was close to 0 degrees and I was starting to get very cold as my upper body was exposed to the crisp night air with only a light layer of clothing on. I still felt little emotional fear and was increasingly confident that the bear would not approach the tent. I decided to lay back down and cover myself with the sleeping bag fully. I kept my headlamp on my head and lay the machete beside my sleeping bag, still out of its sheath. I kept both my ears off the pillow and continued to listen intently and wait.
Eventually the noise subsided. I figured the bear had departed. I was surprised to find that I felt very sleepy and eventually started to drift off. I awoke a short time later to more of the same noise. The bear had returned for more. I sighed and stayed in a lying position while the bear apparently went for another round of the same procedure. I actually drifted in and out of sleep while the bear continued to wrestle with the tree and my food. It probably went on for a total of three hours. Eventually, silence ensued and I went back into a deeper sleep.
I awoke to the first signs of dawn around 6:30 am. When sleeping outdoors, the subtle changes that immediately precede the onset of dawn can be tangibly felt and often lead to a natural awakening from sleep. Still tired, I went back to sleep. I was confident the bear had long since departed. Around 7:30 am it felt fully light and I decided to venture out. As soon as I opened the tent door I saw my food bag still hanging in the tree. I was quite surprised and happy but then quickly realized that the bag was empty. Walking over I saw the detritus of my food and its wrappings spread around the ground. It looked a bit like a bomb had hit it, with tiny shards of plastic and little bits of rejected food everywhere. The hanging food bag (which was also my tent bag) had been pulled closer to the trunk of the tree, was looped over the branch a second time and had a gaping hole in the bottom of it.
I took stock of what was left of the food. The bear had been selective in what it ate. It almost completely avoided the dried foods which required a lot of cooking. These would have provided little nutrition for the bear if eaten raw, and the bear knew that. Unfortunately, some of the bags holding this kind of food were ripped open and the food spilled out over the ground. A few meals worth remained untouched. I began to pick up the pieces and salvage what I could.
I noted with some amusement that my Vega Sport Protein bars – all 5 of them – were the bear’s favorite. There was not a single crumb left of any of the 5 bars, and all that remained of the wrappers looked like they had been put through a paper shredder. This was a smart bear! Those bars were by far the most nutrient dense food that I had and would have been perfect for a black bear preparing for hibernation. The next favorite part of my food were all the other fresh and raw foods – dates, nuts, seeds, dried fruits – all of which had been completely opened and eaten, though a few crumbs of each still lay in the bottom of those bags.
Though I was sure the bear was long gone, making fire felt like the first thing that should happen. It was a cold morning – but the main reason for making fire was to re-establish myself as the reigning boss of the campsite. In the daylight and with a good fire burning, the territory was once again mine. Humans are diurnal animals and it is easier to feel confident and able to use our abilities to our advantage when it is daylight.
I tried to decide my next course of action. After rounding up the remnants of my food and deciding what was still usable, I had about 1.5 – 2 days worth of food left. To complete my hike I needed 3.5 more days. During the night I had felt there was little question that I would be heading back to the car first thing in the morning. Now, I felt a little more relaxed and open to other possibilities. There was no hurry. I felt hungry and still had my hot cereal and instant coffee, so started to prepare both things and reflect on my next course of action.
I had three choices: I could try to continue my hike, and ration the food I had out – eating less, or increasing my daily walking distance so I could cover the distance in less time; I could try to shorten my route and spend one more day and night at another lake; or I could hike out the same way I came in and leave.
I didn’t want to give up my hike. 4 more days in the park would have been wonderful, and I had carried in enough food and fuel and clothing to do that. One perspective would be to look at my food loss as a “donation” to the forest, and continue on with what I had. I tried to think of different backcountry hikers that I knew or knew of, and I knew that some people would shrug the incident off and carry on.
On the other hand, I could take the perspective that what happened was a form of a warning and that the forest actually wanted me to leave. I could count myself lucky that the situation hadn’t been worse, and leave with the good fortune I still had. Pushing on could be risking further and greater problems. If I distanced myself more than a day’s walk from the car and another misfortune happened, it could be a very bad situation indeed. I knew the park was quite empty of other hikers and there would be no one to help me out even deeper in the park.
It was a beautiful morning, the sky was blue and the air so crisp and clean. The sun had risen and my spirits were high, in spite of what had happened. I did not want to leave this pristine place after only one night! I decided I would like to carry on and set about preparing to do so. After my breakfast I sat beside the fire and carefully stitched up my tent/food bag with a needle and thread. I re-organized and re-bagged my remaining food. I took my time and enjoyed the place.
After some time, I pulled out my map and tried to figure out the best options. If I quickened my pace so that I only spent two more nights, it would mean hiking 20 KM a day, which felt like a bit much, especially given the shorter days of autumn. If I spent three nights and rationed my food out, it would mean eating very little. If I shortened my route and cut across to another lake that I had not planned for, I might not find an empty campsite. Besides – wherever I spent the next night, I knew that as soon as I made camp my thoughts would be predominantly with worry about another bear incident. It would not be a pleasant evening. I also noted that the bear had only left me with food that would require cooking. This meant I would need to use my stove every time I wanted to eat, regardless of the environmental conditions. Staying in the park was seemingly like less of a good idea. It was approaching noon and I needed to make a decision. It would be 4 – 5 hours walk, whichever direction I was going in. I sat by the lake and noticed the sky was starting to change. Part of the horizon was acquiring a density which I knew was the beginning of an overcast sky. There was a good chance that within a few hours it would be completely overcast and raining. That sealed the deal. I decided to stay in camp a bit longer, eat some lunch and hike back to the car. My excursion was over.
It definitely felt too soon to leave the forest. The clarity and focus of mind that comes from the deepening of relationship with the non-human world and the removal of many of the human made distractions is a real treasure that I only get to touch once in a while. To have to let go of it after only two days felt like a shame. Nonetheless, I was happy and I felt good. It had been a beautiful two days in the forest, at one of the best times of the year. The weather was perfect and I was lucky to have experienced what I did. To walk out in the current nice weather and a full belly would likely be better than pushing deeper into the park, to spend a night in the rain without being able to eat as much as I wanted to. I hiked out in a good mood.
I crossed paths with two groups of hikers on my way out. Both were heading to Maggie Lake. I related the incident to both groups and warned them. It was nice to note that both groups of people were more worried about me and my lack of food than they were about walking into a lake with a habituated bear hanging around. Both groups offered me food in spite of my assurance that I was not hungry. One of them literally forced me to take a few energy bars before they carried on their hike. People are very generous in the forest!
I learned a lot about bears. I used to think of them more as bumbling, brutish animals whose main advantage was in their size and strength – not in their intelligence. This bear was extremely intelligent. In reflection, I was impressed at how it executed the whole operation. It had clearly done this before. It knew exactly when to come – when my fire had died down to nothing and I had been in bed for several hours. It knew I would not dare to challenge it in the dark. It might have been watching me and planning since before dark. It knew how to get my food out of the bag in the tree, and then it knew which foods to eat and which to leave. It was not a bumbling foraging bear that randomly happened onto my campsite in the night – it was a well planned and executed theft by an intelligent and sentient being.
As humans, we often tend to objectify the non-human world to the degree that we forget that we are not only perceivers – but we are also perceived. All of nature perceives us. It all has intelligence – even the trees and rocks have a form of intelligence and can perceive us. This bear had immense perceptive abilities and it perceived and analyzed me in a lot detail. I was an object, a factor in its quest for food before a long winter’s hibernation and it made a number of correct calculations and actions to minimize my ability to keep my food out of its reach.
Another interesting thing was that my previous imaginings of a bear coming into my camp at night while I am camping alone were MUCH more frightening than when it actually happened. Looking back on the incident, I can honestly say that there was next to zero emotional fear while it was happening. Yet, all those previous times that I imagined it happening I would be gripped by an overpowering and visceral experience of fear.
I’m not sure if I will ever hike alone again. I love the experience of the solitude. When there are no other people, we absolutely have to be completely immersed in relationship with the non-human world. While one can experience this on a solo day hike, the longer one stays immersed alone in nature, the deeper this experience gets. It is wonderfully clearing and rejuvenating.
At the same time, I never want to experience what I just experienced again. Though I was able to remain fearless and clear headed, and everything turned out OK (aside from losing my food and ending my hike early) – there is no doubt that being alone in such a situation vastly increases the risk factor, especially if the bear turns aggressive.
We’ll see…..time will tell.