“I’ve never had a bear on my campsite”

“I’ve never had a bear on my campsite”
By: Kirsten Graham-May

I have a confession to make: I have been backcountry camping for over 30 years and I am secretly terrified of bears, particularly at night. As I graduated from camping with family – where my Dad protected me from all the nighttime creatures – and started camping with friends, I was often the “experienced” one on the trip. In order to reassure my friends – and, quite frankly, in a secret attempt to reassure myself – I would put on an air of faux-confidence and diligently reiterate my mantra that there was nothing to worry about. We always kept an immaculate campsite and were extremely careful with our food and cooking supplies, obsessively setting up a solid bear-hang and ensuring all things with any odour were safely suspended by dusk, in multiple layers of airtight and/or solid containers. Despite this, I have spent full nights awake listening to all sorts of creatures – toads, squirrels, racoons, deer, and even beaver – visit my campsite and been certain they were, in fact, bears. The beaver incident, in particular, is told in a previous ManCamping blog (https://www.mancamping.ca/how-i-grew-some-lady-balls/) where I publicly claim to have “grown some balls”. It’s all a lie: I’m still petrified.

Two years ago I decided to finally attempt a solo canoe trip. I thought, OK, I’ll go to Frontenac Provincial Park to ease myself into it – a relatively easy park with campsites in clusters and, generally speaking, not in full-blown Bear Country. And also very close to Daddy’s house – because somehow that made it feel safer. (Of note, he’s a few hours’ paddle from the edge of the park but, hey, whatever.) Of course, my helpful colleague, Allison, pointed out that I should primarily be very concerned about serial killers and psychopaths so I reassured her there would be other people within earshot so this was nothing to worry about. The trip was in May and I had to laugh (and maybe cry a little) when, on the first night and pretty much every other night of the trip, I was the only person on each campsite cluster – so much for safety in numbers! Despite this, the trip was game-changing and I was already planning new solo adventures in my head while paddling the waters of Frontenac – I was immediately hooked on the empowerment and sense of freedom that solo tripping gave me.

First night ever solo, right alongside the psychopathic serial killers, Frontenac Provincial Park.

That same summer, I “accidentally” embarked on a second solo trip in Killarney. I was supposed to have gone with a friend but the plans fell through. Luckily I had planned a loop that was more than manageable solo and my only concern was a bear encounter. I spent the weeks leading up to the trip reassuring my friends – and, mostly, Allison – that I’d be fine and frequently the phrase “I’ve never had a bear on my site” cavalierly came out of my mouth. On the long drive up to Killarney, I had a bit of a meltdown and called my Dad in tears looking for a pep talk. By the time I got off the phone with him, I was back to feeling confident in my skills and abilities and drove on to the park. I landed at my first campsite, set up camp, and carefully cooked and ate my supper, immediately putting all food-related items away in my newly-purchased Bear Vault which I was later planning to hang as a further precaution.

Silently giving myself a pep talk while paddling Killarney Provincial Park.

Near dusk I poured myself a nice glass of red wine and settled into my chair at the shore to read my book. Within minutes the bushes started to rustle about 25 meters down the shoreline and downwind from where I was sitting. My immediate thought was “That is not a beaver” and I was right. A few seconds later a small black bear wandered out and walked along the shore towards me, apparently completely oblivious to my presence. It ducked back inland at the edge of my campsite so I carefully walked into the site to ensure it was not headed towards my kitchen area. I grabbed a pot and my spork and watched the bear quietly, with my knees shaking, as it skirted the edge of my site and headed further inland, still seemingly unaware of me. It stopped to snuffle some leaves near the Treasure Chest (my Mom’s sugar-coated term for The Shitter) so I finally banged my pot and spork together; the poor thing bolted!

A really terrible photo (read: proof) of my first ever bear-on-my-site experience, Killarney Provincial Park.

To conquer my now-completely-empty adrenalin glands, I poured myself a second glass of wine and read another chapter of my book before hanging my food and heading to bed. Based on what I’d learned from my previous bear-beaver experience (see aforementioned blog), I put in some earplugs and surprisingly had one of the best sleeps I’ve ever had on a trip.
While I could no longer claim that I’d never had a bear on my campsite, I figured that experience was a one-off and embarked on a third solo trip last year, this time to The Massassauga Provincial Park. Quite frankly, I was far more concerned about rattlesnakes than bears this time around. Regardless, for Christmas my husband got me bear spray and I also decided to purchase a bear banger kit; I took both on the trip as a precaution and, honestly, felt like a bit of a fool.

Embarking on my third solo trip in The Massassauga Provincial Park, armed and dangerous. Or something like that.

On my second night out I was camped on a narrow peninsula, my second-choice preference topped only by an island site because psychologically I feel safer; somehow I have it in my head that, by camping surrounded by three or four sides by water, I am more likely to hear any two- or four-legged creature that might approach. (I am well aware this mentality is a load of crap and, in fact, one of my favourite bear sightings was one that swam right in front of my canoe but I digress.)

Bears are great swimmers but I still feel safest camped on an island for some unintelligible reason.

That evening after supper I once again poured myself a glass of red wine and settled in to read at the shoreline – sound familiar? Soon after I heard rustling in the bushes right at the tip of the peninsula and it was surely not a chipmunk. I very slowly stood up and saw a black bear poking around in the brush perhaps 10 meters from where I was reading. I quietly crept over to my site’s picnic table (The Mass is one fancy-ass park) where my bear spray and banger kit were conveniently stashed. I loaded the banger and climbed up on to the picnic table, banger and bear spray in one hand, camera in the other – because it’s highly recommended to hold a flammable product and an ignition source in the same hand – and watched the bear as it obliviously wandered around the tip of the peninsula towards my abandoned chair, book, and glass of wine. It ended up smack between myself and my wine – not a good place to be, in my opinion – before it looked up and discovered my oh-so-brave presence on top of my picnic table. I managed to snap one quick photo before the bear took off back around the tip of the peninsula. While I was quite certain it was long gone, I picked up a pot and my mug and banged them together a number of times just to be sure. I never set off my banger but I can tell you that for the remainder of that evening and the entire trip the banger and bear spray did not leave my side!

My newest bear friend in The Massassauga Provincial Park.
From my experiences, I have drawn a number of conclusions:
  1. Solo canoe tripping in Bear Country guarantees a bear will visit your campsite (n = 2).
  2. The words “I’ve never had a bear on my campsite” should never be uttered.
  3. Bears like quiet people; I need to make more noise when camping solo.
  4. You are more likely to have a bear – or a beaver – visit your site than a psychopathic serial killer.
  5. Bears enjoy red wine and a good book.
    Most notably, I’m still scared shitless but it’s not enough to stop me from continuing my solo adventures!

2 Responses to ““I’ve never had a bear on my campsite”

  • David Cook
    1 year ago

    Hi Kirsten,
    I really enjoyed your blog! Reminded me of canoe trips and close encounters of the bear kind! My trips were not solo. Usually our canoe group numbered four. Being really deaf I always slept well because I trusted, perhaps naively, that my friends would wake me should a bear decide to visit our camp site. We took all the necessary precautions to avoid contact. In my case, because of deafness, perhaps obsessively. In retrospect I guess that we were all perfectly safe – one of our group was a loud snorer and all four of us were infamous farters. Bears have have great hearing and their sense of smell is supercharged.

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