Summer in the northern latitudes means long, long days, early mornings, and late sunsets. During our travels in the Great White North (Canada), we often turned in before it got dark. With the tent pitched, our gear neatly stowed, a flashlight carefully placed, we’d crawl in and fall asleep under a pale sky that never seemed to go black. It did, though, usually after we’d nodded off. And that’s when the noises started.
The chewing noises.
Bear safety is critical when camping in the Canadian Rockies, and we are extremely careful about following the rules. We bring next to nothing into the tent, only a water bottle that’s been used for water only. And we keep an immaculate camp. Rangers lecture you coming and going, and they wander the grounds issuing citations to campers who leave their gear scattered about the place. They hand you flyers with photographs of cars torn open like tuna cans, big black bears munching away happily on the unsuspecting traveler’s supply of ramen noodles, power bars, and canned goods.
I’m afraid of bears. Though I’ve never had a run in with a bear, I’ve seen plenty of them in the wild and my heart leaps into my throat every time. The day before the Night of the Loud Chewing, the local papers were full of news about bear confrontations. A young man who was illegally free-camping had been nipped on the butt by a mama bear trying to figure out what was in that sleeping bag. He hoofed it top speed, barefoot, and almost naked to the nearest house, where he was treated for bites and fined for camping outside a designated camping area.
Typically bears don’t make a diet of stray campers. They fish and graze, filling their bellies with grassy plants and berries. When the chewing started, somewhere around the foot of the tent, I was sure it was a bear.
Chew, tear, chew, tear, breathe, chew some more, tear some more. The noise got closer, the breathing was uncomfortably clear. Chew. Tear. Chew. Tear. Breathe. I couldn’t see anything because the tent was zipped up and I wasn’t about to open it to look. Plus, what if it was a bear? The zip would startle the animal, and then all hell would break loose. I was terrified. I woke up my husband.
“There’s SOMETHING OUT THERE,” I whispered, panicking.
“It’s just an elk,” he said. “Go back to sleep.”
“What if it’s a bear?!”
“It’s not a bear. Now go back to sleep.”
I could not just go back to sleep. Plus, by then the terrifying creature was chewing and tearing and breathing next to my head. A few millimeters of nylon separated my not-so-bear-proof, flannel-clad pajama body and the monster.
“I’m scared of giant nighttime critters,” I whispered.
“Then you shouldn’t go camping,” he said. He is not usually so unsympathetic.
I am not, I think, irrationally scared, and fear seems an appropriate reaction to something chewing and tearing and breathing by my head. They—and I think there probably was more than one—finally wandered off. Husband unzipped the tent and looked around, scanning the meadow behind us with the flashlight. We didn’t see a thing.
On the way out of the campground the next morning, we stopped to talk with the park ranger.
“Oh yeah, you’re out there by that big grassy area aren’t you? Yeah, it probably was an elk. They like to graze out there. I could see how it could be a little alarming having a giant ungulate (grass-eating beast) right by your head.”
“What about bears?” I asked.
“Yeah, I saw two out there this morning, about 8:30. Just don’t have anything with any smell to it in your tent. A bear might not want to eat it, but it could get him interested.”
I still don’t know what kind of animal it was, but the next night I slept like a stone. In the morning, I scanned the area around us. The campsite nearby was in complete chaos, an ice chest open to the world, paper plates scattered about, garbage bags sitting on the picnic table and the ground.
It might have been the work of drunken, partying campers, but I’m still convinced the mess was caused by bears.