Camping at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore: Adventures with Bears

APOSTLE ISLANDS %2F%2F DAY 1

“What to do when bears are outside tent.”

This is what Sam Googled as we lay side by side in our tent on Wednesday night, listening to the sounds of heavy, raspy breathing and thick-padded footprints moving along the outside of our thinly walled tent. It was raining, but even over the pitter-patter droplets hitting the tent and muddy ground, sounds of deep breathing and sluggish feet were unmistakable. This animal was not a raccoon.

I wasn’t yet asleep when I first heard our visitor. The rain started shortly after dinner, as we were walking back to our site from the restrooms. Brushing out teeth under the open trunk roof of our car, we quickly rinsed, spit, and ran into the tent. Snuggling into our new sleeping bags and talking in the dim light of our nifty solar-powered lantern/water bottle (an impulse REI purchase, as many purchase are from REI), we reflected on the day’s activities.

We awoke that morning in Lakewood, Wisconsin, where we stayed with my uncle and aunt in their lake house. Sam slept in but I was up by 6, so I strolled around the woods before changing into my swimsuit. I spent 45 minutes in the water, swimming lazily in the warm inland lake, letting the minnows nibble at my toes. I also took a few minutes to practice yoga on the raft. We had a big adventures ahead of us—hiking, backpacking, our first big camping trip as a couple without anyone else—and I recognized that this might be the last bit of solace I’d have for a while. I tried clearing my mind and prepping my body for the journey ahead.

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Breakfast with the family was hearty: French toast and bacon, doused in puddles of fresh Wisconsin maple syrup. Sam took a swim in the lake before we packed up and hit the road, bracing ourselves for another four hours of driving before reaching the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

About an hour and a half outside of our destination of Bayfield, WI, we stopped for gas and lunch in a small down just west of the Michigan border. The gas pump attendant kindly inquired where we were going. We told him we were heading to Bayfield. He chuckled. An inquisitive looks passed over Sam’s face.

“You’ve got quite the detour ahead of you,” he said, smiling sadly and shaking his head. “C’mon inside.”

Pulling out a map, he showed us the official email sent out by the local police, which highlighted alternative driving routes all across northern Wisconsin. A major storm blew through the region late last week, causing serious flooding on many of the highways. Later in our trip, we learned that some routes might be cleared in a week, but it may take until January until Highway 2 and other vital arteries were passable again. We felt our excitement and anticipation for our vacation quickly slipping away as the gas station attendant rambled on about different routes and detour options. Dejected and overwhelmed, we thanked him and made our way to lunch.

I found a free map of Wisconsin at the deli we stopped at in town. Three or four locals helped us piece together our personalized detour. Harnessing their collective knowledge about the road closures, they traced what route to take on the map. Their hospitality and warmth diminished the blow of our bad news: what we hoped was only another one and half hours of driving just became another three, maybe four, hours.

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Once we were back on the road, I attempted a call to the Apostle Island National Lakeshore office through spotty cell signal areas. We gathered more information about road closures and suggested detours, plus some advice from the ranger about changing our plans for the evening. We reserved a single backcountry site six miles along the rocky shoreline, but with the change in our driving route, we became increasingly worrisome about hiking those miles and getting to our site before the sun set.

Disappointed by more bad news, we drove in silence. Every few minutes we’d contemplate our options aloud and triple-check the directions from our local friends. I took over driving, channeling the lead-foot driving style of my father and brother, and managed to make up a significant amount of time. Arriving in Bayfield shortly after 4 p.m., we opted to try the long hike to our campsite. We check in with the rangers, grabbed our gear for the kayak trip the next day, and drove to Meyers Beach to start our hike out along the sea cave ridge to our campsite. It turns out we were fighting not only the dusk, but also a possible thunderstorm.

Hastily stuffing our packs for the night, we donned our rain gear (so we didn’t have to change if it started raining) and started along the trail. We passed a few other people near the entrance of the trail, and when we were about a half mile into our trek, we came across a couple and their teenage daughter walking towards us.

“Oh, good!” the father cried out, “PEOPLE!”

Sam and I laughed nervously, unsure what this kind of greeting meant. Then we saw the sticks in their hands and the skittish quickness in their stride.

“We saw a black bear on the trail, maybe just a few hundred yards back from where you’re standing, just about 10 minutes ago,” the man explained, wiping sweat off his brow. “We came back this way for a bit, then decided to make our way towards the parking lot again.”

“Oh, wow,” Sam said. We both looked around. “Well…we didn’t see anything…”

Reassured by our trail report, the family hurried off towards the parking lot. Sam and I trekked along, talking loudly, scanning the woods as we hiked. Bears? I mean, we saw signs about the bears and everything, but we figured it was a way to keep tourists from doing dumb things. We didn’t realize that we might actually see a bear. Combined with the looming storm overhead, the evening took on an ominous glow.

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We hiked for almost another mile, both of us with fully-heightened sense as we searched the parking woods for the bear. I led the way while we clapped, spoke loudly about nonsensical things, and tried not to let the other see how badly we were freaking out.

I stopped suddenly and put my hand up, indicating that we should stop and listen. Amid the sounds of our chatting and the wind blowing through the trees, I heard something else. Something rumbling in a low pitch, somewhat quiet but not far-off-in-the-distance sounding. I tried convincing myself it was thunder overhead, but I heard it close to me left side, not from above. At first I thought it was the waves crashing against the rocky shore nearby, but we weren’t close to the shore. Even though the noise was rhythmic, as waves would sound, this noise was unmistakably gluttural. Pausing to focus my senses, I identified with noise with more certainty.

“Sam,” I whispered, gazing off into the trees, “do you hear…growling?”

He listening, turning his head this way and that, but not picking up the sound I heard. He shook his head, and I confessed it was probably my imagination. We took a few more steps before I heard Sam stop moving behind me. I turned around and could see from the look on his face that now he heard what I did.

We listened, trying to focus. Were we imagining it? Were we paranoid? The more we listening, the more I ruled out the thunder and waves as sources of this sound. I also had no idea if bears growled (making a mental note to Google that first thing when we had cell reception), but whatever this noise was, it was coming from an animal. And that animal did not appear to be too far away from us.

“Is this worth it?” I asked Sam.

“No.”

“Let’s go back. We’ll figure something out.”

“Yep. Let’s go.”

The mile and a half back to the parking lot felt like a long, long time. Clapping and calling out to our bear friends in the woods, we tried remaining calm while making as much noise as possible. Back at our car at last, we shrugged off our packs and fear. Despite the fact that no one was around, we felt incredibly relieved.

Not certain what to do, we drove back to town and found a campground on Lake Superior just north of Bayfield. There were plenty of open sites, since it was the middle of the week, and we found a nice spot tucked away by itself: quiet, plenty of tree coverage, and with a little path going down to Lake Superior’s rocky edge. After setting up camp and salvaging enough nearby firewood to cook our dinner in the fire, we were more mentally than physically exhausted by the day’s twists, turns, and unexpected surprises. The rain started coming down hard once we were snuggled in our sleeping bags. Turning off our solar lantern, we both settled in to sleep.

Lying on my stomach, I was thinking about all the strange events of the past 12 hours. The rain outside soothed and distracted me. Suddenly, though, I heard the sound of footsteps outside the tent mingling with the rainfall.

Just a raccoon, I told myself. No need to worry.

Then the footsteps were closer, louder, heavier. I heard something sniffing to my right, just outside the tent. Frozen in place, honing in on these sounds, suddenly I felt something nudging against my side—the side that was against the tent wall, so it wasn’t Sam. Trying not to panic, I lifted my head off my pillow, turned to face Sam, and poked him with my left hand (the one not wedged against the side of the tent.

“Sam,” I whispered as softly as possible, “there is something outside.”

He lifted his head, straining to hear. I pointed in front of me, slightly to the right, mouthing, “HE’S. RIGHT. THERE.” Even though I could hear this animal so clearly—and legitimately felt it bump against my right side—Sam couldn’t hear it over the rain. I tried telling myself that it was all in my head and that I was imagining this whole thing, too. But it was impossible to convince myself that I was making this up. I put my head back on my pillow and tried ignoring the sounds outside.

Two or three minutes later, I heard Sam rustling. Still too freaked out to sleep, I turned and looked at him. He was completely still, alert, and clutching his knife in one hand. Noticing me, he pointed practically with his left hand towards his left side. Whatever was wandering on my side of the tent a few minutes prior was now on his side.

The two of us lay there for a minute or two, both listening intently to the animal outside. We were mentally-primed to think it was a bear after the day’s events, but we were both trying desperately to convince ourselves that raccoons stomped around that loudly and breathed that heavily. But then we heard something that solidified the word “BEAR” firmly in our minds.

It was the sound of an animal taking the longest pee I’ve ever heard. And from the pitch, it felt from a height much taller than a raccoon could manage. We considered for a moment that it might be rain rolling off our tent after pooling there for sometime, but it didn’t sound right. For one, it wasn’t right outside the tent, but a little ways away. It also sounded distinctly like a stream of water, not a trickle. I’d never heard a bear pee before, but somehow I knew that this was exactly what I was hearing.

We had to think fast. (In truth, we didn’t have to think fast, but we didn’t know that at the time). Sam pulled his phone out from the side of the tent and Googled what we should do. After skimming a few articles online, it turns out that black bears are almost entirely harmless to humans. They’re scavengers, not predators, and the best way to get rid of them is to simply identify yourself as a human. Grizzlies are a different story—thank goodness they don’t live in northern Wisconsin—but with black bears, simply making noise is enough to frighten them off. The articles suggested talking out loud, clapping, or making any kind of noise so the bear knows you’re there.

“So…we’re just supposed to talk?” I asked Sam, still keeping my voice low.

“Yes,” he replied, clearing his throat and speaking louder, “we’re just supposed to talk.”

We spoke out loud for a few minutes, telling the bear to go away and that we weren’t scared of him (reverse psychology, right?), and after a while we didn’t hear anything except the wind and rain outside. Settling back in to sleep, I told Sam a thousand times over that I loved him and then tried relaxing again. Finally, after all we’d been through, I drifted off to sleep.

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