Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Night of the Grizzlies

When I was a pre-teen my family went camping in Glacier National Park. This beautiful park straddles that Canadian American border, with half in Alberta and the other half in Montana. I remember little now, except a very curvy road named "The Road to the Sun" and seeing these odd "bear bells" in the stores. Tourists bought them to ward off grizzly bears. I thought it was funny, as if some silly bell would scare off a giant hungry bear. Right.

If you're going camping, my Dad is the guy to go with. He knows the best sites, how to set up the tent, and how to cook the best camping food. He's also the kind of guy that liked to tease us kids, and would tell us bear stories at night before bed. He often would boast about how he would sleep with his hatchet under his pillow "just in case" and if we went to the washroom at night, we needed to be careful. We were no strangers to bears, really, having grown up in Northern BC. We never really took Dad's stories seriously, but they always had enough of a hint of danger to them to make you wonder if it could really happen. Some years later I even found a book about the infamous grizzly bear attack that actually occurred in Glacier National Park, and my Dad challenged me to read the book and then spend a night camping in the back yard. He claimed that I'd be too frightened, but I was up for the challenge. I read the book-gory in parts, yes. But not that scary. I survived the night and went on to claim my prize...a can of pop.

Years later, we were all together on a family camping trip at Miracle Beach Provincial Park. Kevin and I had snacked on cereal just before going to bed, and it wasn't until I was snug and warm in my sleeping bag that I realized I had left the box of Mini-Wheats sitting on the picnic table. I moved to get up.

"Oh hon, just leave it. It will be fine." John grabbed my arm.

"But bears will get it."

"No they won't. Don't worry about it."

"You sure?" I didn't really want to leave it out there. After all, Mini-Wheats are my favorite cereal, it was a brand new box, and the last thing I wanted was some animal pilfering it.

"Just go to bed."

I sighed. Fine. I suppose it will be okay. With that, I drifted off to sleep.

I awoke with a start to the sound of the tent zipper closing.

Mmmmm....he's probably going to the bathroom. I rolled over. Eccentric Boy was snoring softly beside me.

Crunch. Something was behind the tent. Something big. What's that?

Shuffle shuffle. It was getting closer to the tent. I suddenly realized that it wasn't John, because he was in front of the tent. I could see the light from his flashlight. So if he's in the front of the tent, what was that I could hear behind the tent?

I was sitting up now, fully awake, the hairs at the back of my neck prickling in anticipation.
Oh my that a....bear? Why did I leave that stupid box of cereal out? Food attracts them, right?

The light from the propane camping lamp suddenly came on, lighting up our campsite like a beacon.
Crunch crunch snap. Now I could hear that there definitely was an animal shuffling about right outside the tent. I imagined a huge, hungry bear snuffling around on the ground, with only the flimsy material between us, and that was it. I panicked.

I bolted like a shot from the tent and before I knew it I was out of the tent and behind my husband, clinging to him and shaking.

"What was that? Is it a bear? Please don't let it be a bear!"

"Well if it was, you just left it a snack." John laughed.

It was only then that I realized that I had left Kevin in the tent sleeping soundly, completely oblivious to everything that had just happened. I was horrified to think what a bad mother I was to leave my baby alone in the tent to ward off some hungry animal just looking for some fresh meat. However John calmed my fears and convinced me that the animal had taken off, and just to make sure, he'd stay up and keep watch for awhile. I can't say that I slept much that night, but there were no more strange shuffling noises outside the tent.

In the morning Kevin found the box of cereal, or what was left of it, a short distance away from our campsite. It had been ripped open like a fresh kill, with every bit of cereal inside of it devoured. Our breakfast was now gone so we visited relatives to find more breakfast-like food. We told Kevin what happened, which he excitedly relayed to his cousins while waving the box around as concrete proof.
Later on that day John pulled me aside, as the chatter about the bear spread from the small children to the adults in our campsites. The parents were concerned. Would the bear be back? Do we need to take action?

"Um...hon...about that animal last night. It wasn't a bear."

"A cougar? Oh my God, I don't know, maybe we should pack up."

John began to laugh. "No sweetie, it wasn't a cougar."

"Well, what was it? A coyote?"

"Not exactly."

"Would you just tell me?"I demanded, becoming impatient.

"It was a raccoon."

We didn't tell anyone else that day about our huge bear-raccoon, we were far too embarrassed by then. Fortunately nobody else made the mistake of leaving any food outside, and so it didn't pay anyone else a visit.

If there is a gene for camping, I obviously don't have it.

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