Monday, 14 September 2009

And we're back!

Went camping last week at Killbear Provincial Park. As my regulars know, this was a bit of unexpected luck for us (backstory here.)

The weather was fantastic. The days were warm enough to go swimming, the nights cool enough to sleep comfortably. Bugs were practically nowhere to be found.

We were having a wonderful time until oh about 2 am Thursday morning.

That's when we were evicted from our campsite.

By a full grown, massive, black bear.

Let me preface the rest of this story by mentioning that I have been camping in the near-north region of Ontario for over 30 years. Never once have I seen or seen evidence of a bear in a park (other than being informed that there are bears at the garbage dump). This is a first for me.

My wife woke up to the sound of an animal snuffling and licking something outside our tent trailer. Usually this means a raccoon was checking for food. As we secure everything at night, my wife let it be and didn't disturb me. On the table attached to the trailer was the Rubbermaid bin we use for washing dishes. I had made popcorn for the family at the campfire earlier that evening, and the dirty pot and bowl were in this bin. Whatever it was pulled or pushed the Rubbermaid bin off of the table. The resulting crash startled me awake.

I jump out of bed, grab a flashlight and am ready to chase of what I thought was a raccoon. I open the door of the trailer and look out, and no more than 2 feet away from my face is a black bear with its face in the bin. (see map below, point 1)

"Holy shit!"

I rapidly retreat back into the trailer and managed to quietly close the door. My wife is staring at me, and I whisper "Its a bear!"

My eldest son (4 years old) hears this and shouts to his younger brother "Justy wake up! There's a bear outside, lets go look!"

We quickly shush him and he lies back down and does not make another sound (both of my sons stayed quiet throughout the whole experience. They did not panic and did exactly what we asked of them. I couldn't be prouder of them!) We were really scared at this point because the bear is less than 6 inches from the heads of our children.

With order restored, my wife and I listen to try to determine what was going on. We soon hear the bear move past the trailer to the screen tent. We can hear him grunting and scratching (our brand new, never used until now, screen tent!) trying to get at the cooler wedged under the seat of the picnic table located inside the screen tent. At this point I start flashing the lights on the truck with my remote and set off the panic alarm. (point 2)

The bear ignores the noise and continues to work at the cooler. I silence the alarms but keep flashing the lights to watch. Eventually he drags the cooler out of the tent and heads back toward the bush behind the campsite. We start hearing drinking and licking sounds from the back of the campsite as the bear investigates the contents (it was our drink cooler, he got 1 carton of orange juice, 1 carton of lemonade, 1 carton of ice tea and 2 bags of milk. I hope the bugger got indigestion from that mixture, I know I would!) (point 3)

I'm trying to consider if we can escape to the truck on the other side of the campsite. And then we hear loud growling from behind us; followed by some loud squealing and yipping and then a blood curdling animal scream. From the sounds, I swear something just mauled a raccoon to death. Given that we can still see a bear in front of us, we wonder, is there another bear behind us that beat up a raccoon?

"Oh fuck, Oh fuck, Oh fuck!"

Screw it, I'm calling for help. I grab my cell phone and dial up 911.

"911, do you need police, fire or ambulance?"

And then the call drops. Shit! Not enough signal!

My phone rings, 911 is trying to call me back.

"Hello!" I answer

"Hello, did you call 911?"


And the signal drops again. OK, obviously this is not going to work.

My cell phone rings again. Damn it! I hope that the ringing doesn't cause whatever is out there to investigate the trailer. Two millimeters of canvas doesn't provide much protection.

The bear we could see was well up towards the bush. I can't hear anything else from behind the trailer. I make the decision we're going to escape to the truck, its not safe where we are. We grab the kids, exit the trailer and move quickly around the tent and to the truck.

I start the engine, and turn on the lights. The boys are happy now, they can finally see the bear. He's (I think it was a he) a big one. Easily the size of a mid size sedan, if I could guess, probably weighed 500 pounds or so.

I hit the high beams and the bear watches us warily, and then moves off into the bush. We leave the site. I quickly inform our two closest neighbors that there was a bear, and then we went in search of a pay phone, which I find at the entrance to the loop we were in. I update 911 of the situation and inform them we are leaving. The 911 operator, thanks me and informs me she doesn't quite know what to do(!), but she'll notify who she can.

For some unexplained reason, all of us really have to go pee. So back to the comfort station we go to use the toilets. My wife and I confer and agree we should notify more of our neighbors. So we head back to our site (without stopping to pee) and I notify another neighbor that was south of our location. We see that one of the other neighbors we notified had pulled into our site and then backed out. So I drive on up and pull back into our site. At this point I'm hoping the bear had moved on so we could get some stuff out of the trailer.

Sure enough I can see him moving deep in the bush. I get of the car and head for the trailer and grab our bags of clothes. My wife hops out and we quickly gather up all the food stuffs still at the site and load up the truck. I move the cooler and my portable BBQ (which was quite greasy from use) up into the bush further away from our site.

We leave and head back to the comfort station to finally go pee. At this point an OPP cruiser drives past with its floodlights on. I chase him down (remember I'm still not quite healed from my accident), and update the officer as to the current situation.

We leave the park and head into Parry Sound to find a Hotel for the night. The first three we see are all full, due partly to a convention of Ministry Conservation officials. I think, "if you're so into conservation, you go sleep with the bear and I'll sleep in the hotel thank you very much!"

The fourth hotel finally has a vacancy and we pile into the room. The boys fall asleep immediately, my wife and I a few hours later.

Around 11 we leave the hotel and go back to the park. We're going to pack up a day early. We'll spend some time at the beach, but after that we're going home. Don't want to stay on a site that a bear thinks has food!

Approaching the site I worry that the bear had "investigated" our trailer. Not so much because it'd be a write off, its replaceable, but if he even leaned on it, the erector arms would likely be bent all out of shape and there would be no way in hell I could get the top down and secured. What do I do with a busted trailer I can't tow home? What do I do with the gear that was packed into it?

Fortunately, no additional damage was done. All told, all the damage was very minor. Our cooler has 4 puncture marks from the bear's canines, and the screen tent has a small(!) repairable (I hope) tear in it. The BBQ I left out was opened and licked clean (saving me the ugly task of washing the grease out of it) with one of the legs bent at an odd angle. The cooler is still usable, and I straightened the leg of the BBQ. This bear was actually very mannerly and considerate given the size and power of the beast.

We had a great few hours at the beach after packing up and away home we went.

Here's the map showing the layout of our campsite (click to embiggen).

Addendum: The next day I was able to piece together what was happening behind us. When the bear dragged the cooler out of the tent, the cooler flipped open spilling out a bag of grapes and a bag of apples right in front of the tent. The bear left these behind and continued to drag the cooler up into the bush. A raccoon darted in grabbed the bag of grapes and escaped behind our trailer to enjoy his snack. Where another raccoon tried to steal the grapes from him. The sounds of the fight were from two raccoons, not a bear and a raccoon. But holy crap were they loud! I never did find the body of the loser, so they weren't wounded as badly as the scream indicated.

Conclusion: Now the thing is, why did we leave the cooler in the screen tent and not in the car? I wasn't really all that concerned to be honest. As I mentioned earlier, over 30 years of camping and the only animal that has ever gotten into my cooler is a raccoon. Its the same thing for my parents. Our experiences show that a visit by a bear is a rare event. If they're going to show up in your site, they're going to do it regardless of what is out and immediately available. (Hell, we saw sites with their coolers ON the picnic tables. And they weren't touched that night.)

My neighbor at the park has been going to Killbear for over 40 years and until last week had never seen a bear either. They always left their cooler out too. Incidentally, after I warned them, they put the cooler in the car and slept in the car for the rest of the night. The bear came back and started circling their vehicle. They think he could see the cooler and was evaluating what to do. Fortunately he moved on and left them alone. They only had a little Neon, so they felt they would provoke the bear by attempting to drive off while he was circling them.

We had heard from a park ranger during another trip that a bear can recognize a cooler through the window of a vehicle, and will smash in the window to get at it. We were shown a picture of a Ford Explorer where the back was all smashed in from a bear going through the lift gate to get at the cooler.

So given that, I actually think the cooler in the tent served as a distraction. The bear got what it came for, allowing us to leave and also save the more valuable possessions.

However, if we ever go camping again, next time we'll make sure all coolers are in the truck under a blanket or something to mask their appearance. No sense tempting fate again.

IF we ever go camping again....


Ken Breadner said...

Wow. Just, wow. Reading that at six in the morning woke me up.
Glad you and yours are safe and sound. I've heard the bears are particularly bad this year.

Catelli said...

Thanks Ken!

My mother heard the same thing. I wonder how many years we'll have to put up with this?

ADHR said...

Jesus. Glad you're all okay and got nothing worse than a scare. I've seen bears before, but at garbage dumps, never at campsites. Maybe it's time to start packing bear repellent...

Marc Bernard said...

That is an experience the kids will never forget.

We had a bear sniffing around under the trailer at Halfway Lake this summer. As soon as my wife unzipped the tent end to see what was making the noise, it ran off.

We always take bear whistles with us when hiking up North, and I usually have a few stones in my pocket, just in case. So far, we've only seen evidence of bears on the trails.

Catelli said...

I've always wanted to go to Halfway Lake. Never quite made it that far (closest was Fairbanks).

I wonder if anyone sells Armored camping trailers? Maybe I should start a line....