What a Terrifying Summer Camp Taught Me About Bear Safety

bearpacker 2022

I learned the basics of bear trapping at age eight, when I attended a weeklong Junior Ranger Camp. The experience took place at a state park on the eastern seaboard and was led by park ranger Dan Danners (whose name has been changed, but whose pseudonym resembles the original in both style and structure). Danners was an extremely enthusiastic yet accident-prone ranger who had—for reasons that remain a mystery to me—been trusted with teaching wilderness safety and survival skills to a group of small children. After a week of activities, in which we would check off basic objectives like hiking, water sports, and bear-safety skills, we would supposedly earn our Junior Ranger badges.

My godmother drove her son, Max, and me to the campground where Ranger Danners introduced himself, shaking parents’ hands and saying hello to us wannabe rangers. I remember him as rotund, grizzled, and whiskery, but like nearly everything about the week, it’s possible that my memory is skewed by the fact that I was a very small child.

The campers and parents pitched tents, grilled hot dogs, and gathered round the fire. Then Ranger Danners settled back in his canvas chair and proceeded to relay a ghost story so grisly, disturbing, and wholly inappropriate that a parent had to step in and cut the festivities short. This is the worst thing I’ve ever heard, I remember thinking, and promptly repressed the entire tale. But Max did not.

“It was the one about the sleeping bags that consumed children,” he said when I called him recently, as if he’d been waiting 21 years for me to ask this very question. The yarn ended with a pile of childrens’ carcasses entombed in sleeping bags in deep Appalachia, bones picked clean of meat. While I hadn’t remembered the story, I do recall not being able to sleep. Not because we refused to crawl into our sleeping bags or because the ground was hard—although we did, and it was—but because half of us were sobbing and the other half were listening to them sob.

The next day, excited to officially begin our Junior Ranger journey, we bid our parents goodbye and set off after Ranger Danners. We would start by learning hiking skills.

“Good idea,” Danners said when one of the aspiring junior rangers took off his shoes. “I like to hike barefoot, too.

We followed Danners through a meadow filled with elderberry, bee balm, and yarrow, past a clump of rhododendrons and tulip poplars, and over a slapdash footbridge. Then we heard a cry. The barefoot kid was sitting on the ground beside something sharp. A rock, a piece of glass, a rusty nail? I don’t remember, but there was blood trickling from his foot. Danners began rooting around in his backpack for his first aid kit. It wasn’t there. He patted his many pockets but came up empty. “OK, kids, plan B.” Looking at the child, who was growing increasingly pale, Danners instructed us to search the woods for comfrey—a medicinal plant he had no photo of and wasn’t able to describe very well.

We were late coming back. Danners carried our injured comrade, his foot bandaged chaotically with leaves. “Just a little mishap,” said Danners, placing the boy on the ground. His mother rushed over. “Better luck tomorrow.”

The following morning, Ranger Danners surfaced 30 minutes late, looking haggard. Today, he said, we would be paddling out on the lake to learn about water safety. It was a lovely day, and I remember feeling optimistic—maybe things would start to get better.

As we neared the middle of the lake, three to a canoe, thunderheads appeared. “The weather report did call for fierce thunderstorms,” he admitted as sheets of rain descended and the water grew choppy. “But what do they know?” When the first bolt of lightning flickered, we were well past the halfway point. “Too dangerous to turn around now,” said our slightly too fearless leader.

By noon we were trapped on the far side of the lake, our canoes lined up along a near vertical embankment with no discernible docking area, floating above a dam several dozen feet high, while a lightning storm raged. Ranger Danners extracted a piece of rope from his canoe, tied it to a flimsy-looking root sticking out of the bank, and encouraged one child from each canoe to hold onto it. “So we don’t go over,” he said, as if not going over the dam wasn’t all we could think about.

That evening, after we had eventually managed to dock and the park service’s emergency van had collected us, I overheard two of the parents whispering.

“Just one more day,” one of them said. “Hopefully everyone gets through it OK.”

Our last lesson, it turned out, would be the strangest yet. Ranger Danners was three hours late to pick us up. When he eventually materialized, carrying a McDonald’s bag and looking like he’d crawled through a sandstorm, he said it would be a “very chill” final day. Just a little lesson on bear safety. The parents looked relieved, no doubt imagining a picnic-style lunch accompanied by a lecture on the merits of bear spray.

Carrying our lunch boxes, we followed Ranger Danners into the woods. We were in high spirits; bear safety was the last learning objective before we became Junior Rangers. Then it would have all been worth it.

We entered a clearing and Ranger Danners announced that today we were going to… capture a bear. The plan was to create a shallow pit, bait it, and cover it with leaves and twigs. Ideally, Danners said, the bear would step in the hole, twist its ankle, and, well, honestly there wasn’t much of a plan after that.

“Better get digging,” he said as he extracted his Big Mac and shooed us away. “Hopefully it’ll be a mama bear with cubs.”

Looking back, I think it’s possible that Danners just wanted to occupy us so he could eat his burger in peace. But I can’t say for sure; becoming an adult myself hasn’t brought me any closer to understanding this man’s thought process. All I know is that we put our lunches aside and set to work making a shallow pit. When we were done, Danners placed the remainder of his Big Mac inside and covered it with foliage. “Run!” he said, and we sprinted to the hickory trees ringing the clearing, diving behind them to wait.

I’ve learned that people trap bears for reasons mostly related to science and (human) safety. What these trappers all have in common is that they are not hapless children who signed up for the wrong summer camp or park rangers who are as easygoing as they are overconfident, but trained professionals. I now understand that responsibly ensnaring a bear requires planning and a permit, along with some combination of leg snares, box traps, capture poles, live traps, and tranquilizers. I know too much about a cylindrical trap called the Crit-R-Done, and even more about a patented foot-snare device called the Select-a-Catch 1000. Trapping a bear is more art than science. It can take weeks.

I am also aware that park rangers’ responsibilities vary, ranging from rescue to wildlife control to law enforcement. Most important, the rangers whose job it is to actually trap bears aren’t assuming that the bear will step in their makeshift hole, stub its toe, and have to take a minute to recover. Instead, they have a fail-safe plan for retaining the bear—a plan aided by sedatives and thousands of pounds of steel. We, on the other hand, had only Ranger Danners. And Danners had a plethora of pockets, a first aid kit he perpetually left at home, an arsenal of questionable ghost stories, a bundle of rope that wasn’t very long, a half-eaten burger, and, apparently, a death wish.

Luckily, we didn’t encounter a bear that day. We eventually gave up waiting and went back to camp. But something visited our trap: when we returned later, the hole was empty, the Big Mac gone.

“Shucks,” Ranger Danner said, seemingly most upset that he had sacrificed the remnants of his meal in vain. Later that day, we received our Junior Ranger badges from the most unqualified park ranger we’d ever met, and our parents hurriedly drove us home.

I was never very interested in going to sleepaway camp after that—and had I been, I can’t imagine my parents would have been encouraging—but I never lost my love of nature. A decade later, I was hiking alone, about a mile from a lake where my family was swimming, when I crested a hill and found myself face to face with a black bear and her three cubs.

I had spent an ill-fated week learning wilderness skills and the past 18 years hiking, yet in that moment, everything I’d been told to do in such a situation felt like a bundle of contradictions: Back away slowly. Stand your ground and make noise. Maintain eye contact. Look at the ground.

I attempted to do all of the above which, unsurprisingly, resulted in me staying completely still. The mother bear, maybe 20 feet away, looked up. What would Ranger Danners do? I wondered. What’s the plan? It was the same thought I’d had as I’d sprinkled the last few leaves over Danners’s Big Mac and ran to hide.

And then, as the mother bear nudged her cubs behind her and took a step forward, I knew: Ranger Danners would improvise.

The bears still watching, I retreated until I was at a safe distance. Then I diverted from the path and sprinted madly through the woods toward the lake, not stopping until I spotted my mother waving from an inner tube.

When I asked Max recently if he’d learned anything from Junior Ranger Camp, he said, “Oh, definitely” and proceeded to talk about self-reliance and questioning figures of authority. Which makes sense. But the lesson I learned is that surviving—in nature or anywhere, really—requires constant creativity. I hadn’t meant to go on a bear hunt that day, and I never intend to again. But unless someone like Ranger Danners is involved, most hikers rarely do.

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