My friend Fred says that what he enjoys most about camping in the wild is watching people hang their food. Though you're miles from a television, it's far funnier than anything Hollywood could invent. And on a recent trip with some friends, Fred and I demonstrated the truth of his theory.
The concept is simple: Because bears can be attracted to the smell
of food, you don't keep it in your tent. You hang it in a tree out
of a bear’s reach: say, 15 feet off the ground and 8 to10
feet from the trunk.
The first step is to find such a
tree. On our trip through the lodgepole-dominated forests of
northwest Wyoming, most trees were tall and skinny, lacking
branches that could extend eight feet from the trunk. Luckily for
us -- and I never thought I'd use the word "luckily" in the context
of being in grizzly country -- black bears are the agile
tree-climbers you need to watch out for.
The next step is
to loop a rope over your selected branch. My friend Charlie would
tie a stick or rock to his rope, throw it in the air, and watch it
fall far from the tree. Each time he threw, it seemed, he got
farther from his target. Eventually, even people behind him would
My softball-trained tossing arm was better: My rock
would sail in a perfect arc over the desired branch. Unfortunately,
the rock would rarely remain attached to the rope, having fallen
out of my attempted knot.
One night, this happened three
throws in a row. Finally, the rock barely visible under all the
rope I'd wrapped around it, I watched it sail perfectly, trailing
the rest of the rope behind it. Every last bit of it sailed
uselessly over the branch: I'd forgotten to hold onto the other
Fred preferred old, dead branches, which are easier
to knot but lacking in weight. I found Fred staring up at his rope
hanging over a tree branch, his stick bouncing uselessly 12 feet
off the ground. I grabbed a long, forked stick with which to haul
down his lightweight one. "Oh yeah," he said. "We're supposed to be
smart about this."
Once the rope is hung, you attach the
food bags to one end, tie off the other and call it a night. Now,
conventional wisdom says that bears will even go after toothpaste
in your tent. So we always took care to brush our teeth right after
dinner each night, before hanging our toiletries. The first night
out, we then watched a meteor shower, and I crawled into the tent
tired and happy with the day. At which point I realized that the
medication I take before sleep every night was hung with the
A few mornings later, I was the first one
awake and thus needed to make coffee. I was pleased to see that
Charlie's thorough knot still held the rope to the throwing-stick.
I unwrapped that end, the weight of the bags pulled on the other
end, and the throwing-stick sailed upwards.
Then it caught
in a snag on the tree.
Hmmm. I looked up, puzzled. I
untied the food bags, as if that would somehow help. But I still
had just one end of the rope, with the other tied to the stick
still caught up in the tree. Well, I decided, I just needed to send
this free end back over the branch. So I tied it to another stick
and threw it (in a perfect arc, of course) back over -- where it
hooked around a different branch.
Maybe I should have
waited until the coffee engaged my brain. But now I figured I
should at least undo the damage. So I went over to the other side
and tossed the rope back. Where, of course, it caught on a third
snag. The damage was now undoable, even after caffeine, and I
regret to say that I violated wilderness principles by leaving
behind a trace -- to wit, $6 worth of tangled parachute rope, 15
feet off the ground, with sticks tied to either end.
those of us who love bears, part of the value of their presence in
the wild is the humility they force upon us. In bear country, we
are no longer in sole possession of the top of the food chain.
We're no longer the beneficiaries of millions of years of
engineering innovations. Alone, left to our own devices, we're no
longer in complete control of the environment. We can barely even
toss ropes in trees.