Mugged by a bear
The ground trembled, but it was the huffing and snorting outside that woke me in the dead of night. Looking through the screen of my tent, I saw the large black bear lurking about 10 feet away and staring back at me. I struggled to get my brain around what I was seeing while working to shove the sleep away and awaken my senses. It huffed again, and it seemed that bubbles blew from its nose.
I knew that my food was safely stored in a metal bear-proof box 50 yards away, but I could not remember if I had brought a snack into my tent. As that thought formed, there was another loud huff and the tent rattled. My empty backpack was outside leaning against the tent less than a foot away from my head.
There was a snort, a shuffling sound, and a bang as the tent shook. Rattled, I screamed and looked outside the tent, but the bear – and my backpack – were gone.
Oh my Lord, I thought, heart pounding. My watch said 3 a.m.
Unzipping my tent, I grabbed my headlamp, and crawled cautiously into the night. The lamp was only mildly effective in the mist, but I walked a ways in the direction I thought the bear had gone. Nothing.
I had been mugged and robbed by a bear, and it was running away into its neighborhood, much as a downtown mugger would have disappeared into its hood. I am guessing that the bear weighed about 300 pounds and was an adult, probably a male, though I have no idea why I assumed that.
Wandering aimlessly through the mist, a harsh reality hit. My wallet and truck key were in the inside pouch of my pack and that meant my driver’s license, Social Security card, debit and credit cards and other stuff were gone. My brain went into overdrive at the major mess that would cause. I had no ID, no money, no transportation, no way to get someone to cut another key; it was Sunday and the banks were closed. How would I get a South Carolina driver’s license in New Jersey? Where do I start?
I crawled back into my tent and struggled with those questions while also trying to be optimistic that I would find my stuff the next morning. I had carried that Osprey backpack on my 2011 thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail and for three seasons as a ridgerunner in New Jersey. My keys, wallet and the rest of my stuff could be replaced, but I surely would hate to lose that pack. It carried my gear, years of sweat and grime, and tons of memories.
My thoughts also wandered to life on the trail. I knew there had been bear activity near Brink Shelter in Stokes State Forest this summer. The previous afternoon I had cautioned a thru-hiker that a bear and a couple of rattlesnakes had been seen on Bird Mountain just ahead. He grinned with eager anticipation.
I was always hoping to see bears. New Jersey is known for having more bears than anywhere else on the AT, but I had not seen any when I passed through in 2011. I saw just one the following summer, that a small one on Labor Day, the final day of my first ridgerunner summer. I saw 20 or so in 2013 (not as many as boasted by other ridgerunners) but I had seen maybe two dozen so far in 2014, and I and was eager for more.
Bears are more of a problem at public campgrounds and in suburban neighborhoods than they are deep in the woods.
Folks using these campgrounds are typically less careful with their food and bears soon learn that this is a fine place for lunch or dinner. This summer, Park officials killed one young nuisance bear at a public campground in Stokes and others here and elsewhere have been driven away by park police firing rubber bullets. Bears also are seen digging around in trashcans in nearby towns, and just last week, a large one broke into a house through a screened window and then went out the same way after being caught rummaging around in the kitchen.
But the trail is by no means immune.
The Gren Anderson Shelter in Stokes was closed off by crime scene tape when I came by on my Long Walk in 2011. Two youngsters in a camp group had complained that a bear had attacked them in their tent. Officials tracked the bear, wounded the bear and finally caught and killed the bear, though doctors said later the reported youngsters’ “injuries” were healing and happened much earlier than the alleged attack, so their story was, essentially crap. (Explain that to the bear.)
All these thoughts – but mainly my pending ID crises – rumbled through my brain as I lay back in my tent.
I was surprised at what had happened because on the trail, bears had always been a novelty, not a threat.
My pack had been leaning against the head end of my small one-man tent, which, without the rain tarp, is essentially a 30x85-inch screened space. As I lay there, still shaken, I realized that bears do not have opposable thumbs, meaning he grabbed the pack in his teeth and that those teeth had clamped shut less than a foot from my head. It mattered little that a screen mesh separated us.
Then the pounding started.
The sound of clanging metal echoed across the campsite, and the only rational explanation was that the bear was hammering at the bear box trying to gain access to the goodies within. The nuisance bear was back after barely an hour. I roused myself and went looking for it, hoping to track my missing pack while telling myself that I was not putting myself into harm’s way.
No luck, as I could find neither the source of the commotion or my missing backpack.
I returned to my tent and dozed, only to be jolted awake again by snorting and huffing. The bear was back and 10 feet away. I screamed, but he ignored me, instead continuing to paw at a nearby log. I screamed again and he left.
Sleep finally came again, and I awoke at 7, looked around and determined that I had not been having a bad dream. I noticed my water bottle 20 feet away and found teeth marks on it, signaling that the bear had picked up from right beside my tent (and me) but dropped it as he moved away.
I wandered the site again and then headed up a small rise to share my tale of woe with campers I had met the night before.
“He was here too,” the man said. “He grabbed my son’s pack last night and ran, but we hollered and he dropped it. We were in the tent when another hiker yelled, ‘hey, you in the white tent. There’s a bear outside!’”
That happened at 9:30 p.m., which means there were four separate incidents involving the bear – that one, plus the two at my tent and the pounding on the bear box. Unbelievable.
I phoned the park office to file a report, and the man and his son stopped and offered to help me look for my pack before they moved on. We fanned out and moved through the section of forest where I thought the bear had gone. Five minutes later, I found my pack, about 150 yards from my camping spot. The pack’s bright blue rain cover was slashed and so was the outside pocket of the pack, but that was the only damage and by keys and wallet were still inside.
Stokes’ staff reported the bear incident to the Fish and Wildlife folks, and I also called in later, figuring a first-hand report from a trail worker and “victim” would carry more weight than a secondhand report from the park office. And, it being Sunday morning, I figured that two calls on the weekend would up the odds that the incident would get some attention.
Worried about what might happen to someone else, I wanted the experts to decide how to handle this aggressive bear.
I telephoned Trenton Dispatch to report the bear incident and talked to an operator who took the basic information and patched me through to Fish and Wildlife. That led to two more phone interviews and a call back from a park police officer who also took a report. The system worked is it would, but everyone took the incident seriously.
I shared my story with other hikers I encountered, including a troop of young Girl Scouts out for a five-day trip on their first venture into the woods. They were planning to stay at Brink Shelter the next night and their eyes were Very Wide as they listened to my tale.
This was a clearly aggressive bear that had upped its game from simply wandering the woods near campsites and hoping to rummage through the trash. Typically, bears are attracted to food smells, but most hikers are careful while cooking and stash the leftovers, either hanging their food bags in a tree far out of a bear’s reach or stowing it in a large metal bear box placed at every wilderness shelter in New Jersey. Some hikers ignore laws banning campfires and they also burn their trash and leftovers, but the smells linger – especially when the camper unsuccessfully tries to burn metal and foil and then leaves the remains so nature can take its course or someone else decides to pack out their trash.
One former wildlife officer said this bear had probably found food in a backpack before and learned that he might get lucky again, so packs were now fair game. That makes sense. He also estimated that 600 bears are born every year and most survive to adulthood, so the population keeps growing. Jersey has a season for bear hunting, but the numbers of bears killed (harvested) each year is dropping. Apparently hunters who have bagged one bear have no interest in hunting another.
This is what I know about what’s next for the bear. (For me, I am going back into the woods on Friday, though will take better precautions with my backpack and my keys, wallet and other personal stuff.)
The folks at Stokes are posting signs at the shelter warning about Bear Activity in the area. Fish and Wildlife is talking about perhaps bringing in a trap to catch the bear and then take appropriate action. I was not much help in giving them a description – I could not see any tags, could not tell its sex, and guessed it weighed 300 pounds, but “large, black, and snorting loudly” didn’t add too much.
“Big, ugly and pretty darned scary” is not an official designation either, but the experts will have to trap it before deciding what happens next. (Bear traps are large tubular cases with an open door. Officials use bacon to lure the bear to the trap, where a bag filled with bacon and donuts – really-- hangs inside. If the bear comes in and grabs the bag, the door slams shut behind it and traps it inside.)
Category One bears are those that have attacked someone or caused serious property damage and are deemed to be threats to public health and safety. These bears are killed, put down, or euthanized (pick your phraseology), typically by lethal injection if they have been caught or by gunfire if they are running loose.
Some bears can be rehabilitated or re-educated in a Pavlovian or Orwellian sense and taught You Will Not Do That Again.
These methods are designed to teach the bear to associate Bad Things with human contact. Trapped bears are anesthetized, examined, given blood tests and tagged. As the bear wakes, I am told, officers might bang on the bear trap with bats, shoot it with rubber bullets as it is released back into the wild and then let dogs chase it away and hound it up a tree.
My zeal for seeing bears in the wild has faded, though I am sure I will smile the next time I see one in its element. The forest is, after all, their home and I am just a visitor passing through. I will continue to encourage hikers to Leave No Trace, hang their food or use the bear boxes and to please not burn trash.
I will tell them that bears have been known to steal packs looking for food, and I will to a better job of protecting my backpack, keys and personal information. The last thing I need is a bear using my debit card or hacking into my bank account.
About the Author
I am retired from careers in journalism and public affairs, and am now working to help people enjoy and protect the Appalachian Trail. I have been backpacking for more than 30 years and thru-hiked in 2011. Nearly all of my gear and expertise comes from The Backpacker and the good people who work there.