There was a mix-up on Saturday morning when I met Thompson and Curt at the portage to Splash Lake. I didn’t have the solo canoe I was supposed to have. Curt headed back down the Moose Chain with Cavan to get the canoe and Thompson and I headed to Splash’s sole campsite to do some “solitude monitoring” (recording how many people you see in a given amount of time). It was a pleasant, warm late morning sitting on the rocks and catching up.
Thompson tells me he’s been dreaming about bears.
As the three of us are paddling around the east end of Ensign that afternoon, checking campsites, permits and latrines, nearly every person we talk to has either had bears in camp in recent nights or heard of someone who has. We have secured a site on the north shore. The last site we visit before heading back to camp is our neighbors. They offer us fresh cornbread (which we resist) and tell us that, the night before, they heard the people that were camped at our site yelling and banging pots and pans every two hours, all night long.
In the quiet evening hour after dinner, as we digest and converse, I ask Curt, who’s been a wilderness ranger in the BWCAW for a few years, if he’s ever had a bear in camp before. He says “yes, just once.” I ask him where.
“This site, actually,” he says.
When the bear finally comes crashing through the brush a short while later, it strikes me as more funny than anything. We yell and throw rocks and otherwise make noise. I never see the bruin, it circles our camp for 20 minutes, obscured by the thick bushes, occasionally pausing and grunting and blowing and growling. It’s the growling that pisses Thompson off, making him unafraid by anger at this ursine affront. At one point he grabs the axe out of the tool bag. Before he manages to unsheathe it, Curt asks him what he’s doing and, without getting much of an answer, tells Thompson to put it away.
Eventually, the bear splashes into the water of our little bay, again obscured by brush, and swims to the next piece of land. That seems like a commitment that it will seek its dinner elsewhere and we relax again.
About dusk, when the mosquitoes are getting bad, we retire to our quarters. I climb into my hammock (which I’m convinced looks like a low-hanging food pack to any bear) and am still getting situated when we hear crashing from the brush again. Goddammit. Thompson and Curt are up and they yell and go through all that. It seems that the bear might just be passing by on its way back to wherever it came from, though at the time I’m sure we will be fending it off every two hours until morning. But, either it is quiet enough not to wake us or it doesn’t return.
I am woken once though, just at the tail end of a long wolf howl from across the lake, its song in my memory from the space between sleep and waking. The howl is followed by the yips and barks of the rest of the pack but it is not repeated.
The next day, we find a much better site on the other side of the lake and we move camp there. After getting camp set up, we are standing on the point, looking a half-mile across the lake toward the campsite we’re about to paddle over to and dig a new latrine. We’re talking about bears. We see a small, black dot run along the shoreline right in front of the destination campsite.
The last night of the trip, the rangers paddle away at dusk to check up on a group that was stretching the definition of “nine-person group size.” The three of us volunteers have just finished hanging the food pack high in a white pine when they return. It is almost dark. We are standing around talking when Andrea, the other ranger, calmly says, “there’s a bear.” I look up toward the area around the fire grate and see a big black shadow recede back into the night. It doesn’t seem to go far away and we again are left to hoot and holler and throw rocks into the bushes. After a few minutes, we no longer hear it and we relax. Twenty minutes later, we hear yelling and pots and pans banging from the next campsite over.