By Gretchen Wehmhoff
In Alaska, we have bear season. The bears wake up from a restful sleep and we change our routines. We remove bird feeders, lock up the trash and hike less quietly.
Bears normally don’t want to see us anymore than we want to run into them. Warning them we are near is the best strategy for avoiding an unscheduled lunch date. They have big teeth, big claws and can run faster than us. Definitely faster than I can. I might as well just hand them the ketchup.
So, if you hear a speaker blasting Metallica on the trail, it’s probably me.
Okay, so now you know my greatest fear, however tamed by my camp counselor’s assurances.
At Girl Scout camp we stayed in large wall tents on wooden platforms. Every morning my 9-year-old tent mates and I would roll the heavy sides of the tent up to let in air and light. At night, we unrolled the walls and lashed the corner grommets tightly just in case a bear or a moose or any other large critter came by. Mosquitos couldn’t fit through those tightly laced corners.
Sitting under a tarp on a rainy afternoon, working on crafts, we told our counselor our airtight routine. She smiled and told us that we should be fine, not to worry.
“Bears never come out in the rain,” she said.
Her words let me sleep soundly on rainy nights from that summer on. We continued to tie the walls of the tent corners and on rainy nights, the patter of raindrops on the tent flys helped us relax. Rain meant no bears.
Having a counselor is magical. They were our fearless leaders with unique names like “Sunshine,” “Frodo,” “Sarge” and “Evergreen.” They brought laughter with a touch of safety, modeled calmness, not fear. They read stories to us, took us on beautiful hikes and assisted us with cooking one meal a day over the fire. They reminded us of our kaper chart duties and kept our days busy with just enough quiet time.
They were tough. One of them even shot a rifle to scare a bear that had become too involved with the nearby garbage pit.
Calling for help from the camp was near impossible and self-reliance was important. We were far enough away (at the time) from civilization that there was no phone, no bathrooms (ah, we love the smell of Pinesol) and no electricity.
In any case, these camp counselors were amazing wilderness women and I wanted to be just like them. I spent two summers in counselor-in-training (CIT) programs and when I turned 18, just before leaving for college, I was hired.
Becoming a camp counselor gave me a new perspective. My magical view of the brave, wise leader was shredded quickly. There were bears. They didn’t mind the rain. Fearlessness is overrated.
I worked in the unit with the younger girls. A quarter of a mile up a hill were the older 12 and 13 year olds. Down by the lake was a unit for teens and further away, a good ten minute hike from the lodge, was Adventure, the home of the CITs.
During an evening when CITs were in camp, the counselors gathered in the main lodge after campers were in their tents for the night. CITs kept watch on the units.
It was a time to connect with each other. We drank sodas, ate snacks and laughed. It was a simple hour where we could let our guard down and enjoy each other’s company. I loved that night.
Until we had a visitor.
A breathless CIT burst into the room. A bear was in camp. She had braved the quarter mile run down the hill for help.
Our reactions ranged from “Oh s**t” to “where’s my camera” to “quick, get the van.”
We tried squeezing through the door all at once and headed in different directions. Unit leaders ran to their camps, the nurse grabbed her camera and the camp director brought the van around.
I ended up in the van looking for the bear.
The protocol for scaring bears away involved making noise with firecrackers or pots and pans. At one point the director stopped the van, handed me two highway flares and told me to get out of the vehicle and light the flares. I stepped out, flares in hand. The door slammed shut behind me.
I tried to read the tiny instructions on the dark red cylinders in the twilight. Strike the what? Where? Don’t I need matches? What end? Break it? Rub them together?
The pressure was real! I had absolutely no idea how to light flares. The thought that the bear could walk around the corner of the van with me reading the directions was unnerving. I finally admitted defeat and was let back in the van. The director determined that the sound of excited girls had moved the bear out of the area.
The camp had strong rules prohibiting food in tents. Even the campers’ toiletries were stored in the unit log cabins. Evidently, a camper had left sugar out for the squirrels.
The next morning, as a show of courage and lightheartedness, the counselors stood in front of the campers and used their hands to show how tall they thought the bear to be. Apparently, the bear was anywhere from three to eight feet tall. No one got a picture and the bear never came back that summer.
I never did see it. I was too busy trying to light the flares — and I’m thinking my fellow, older counselors had a good laugh over that.