Hanging loose in Wyoming’s bear country

  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 duck.

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 end.

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 toothpaste.

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.

For 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.

John Clayton is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a syndication service of High Country News. He freelances from Red Lodge, Montana.