Sunday, April 3, 2011

Bears! and the PCT bagging method

My middle school Scouts want to go backpacking over Memorial Day weekend.  They were supposed to go a few weeks ago but we had an unfortunate limb-breakage that precluded us from saddling up (so-to-speak).  Consolation prize is a trip over the last long weekend in the school year.  But it's going to be hot.  They're thinkers though and have decided that we'll go somewhere with springs to cool off in.  Okay by me, but now we're looking at getting into bear country--since there are no places in South East or West Florida that satisfy their requirements for backpacking AND springs.  North/Central Florida does fit the bill.

I won't lie.  Bears make me nervous.  Nervous for myself, but mostly nervous for other people's children.  Maybe I'm irrational.  I've never even seen a bear in my life.  I do find that sort of surprising considering I spent lots of time traipsing through the woods as a kid, and there were probably plenty of bears out there.  There are firsts for everything--for instance, I was never stung by a bee until last summer.  I was sitting in my living room watching TV when one ambled right up and rudely jabbed me in my elbow.  I was just minding my own business, the NERVE.

That's just me though.  These kids are tough and are remarkably calm.  They've handled torrential downpours and freezing overnights (literally, in FLORIDA!), they've come face to face with a roving gator and didn't even pee their pants (though I nearly did).  

Mostly one just has to be a bit more vigilant while in bear country.  The Scouts already know how to hang food bags--they've spent tons of time in raccoon-land--but bear bags require a bit more thoughtfulness.   Some folks even take it to the next level by cooking dinner along the trail a mile or so before making camp and hanging anything that smells (which always includes toothpaste and other toiletries).  I'm not sure if that's totally necessary in the dense wilderness of Florida, but it couldn't hurt.

Fig 2. There are no bears on the beach
Fig. 1 Horses don't steal food

On my first East coast backpacking trip I made the critical mistake (no, not EVERY backpacking story features a critical mistake...just the interesting ones) of forgetting a rope.  I figured that we'd be okay without the rope--there's no bears on Cumberland Island anyway.  Just wild horses.  I've always been careful to hang my food because of bears, so for some reason I never considered the possibility that other animals may also eat food--like raccoons.  Of course, when we got out to the island the ranger reminded us to hang our food and I felt pretty dumb.  We had a couple extra straps and managed to rig up a really pathetic hanging system.  It lasted two nights, but on the third and final night the raccoons stopped feeling sorry for us and raided the stash.  Cumberland Island is a popular place and the campsite we were at was fairly crowded.  It was one of the most embarrassing things that's ever happened to me in the woods--or, rather one of the more embarrassing things that I'll ADMIT to having happened--stooping around picking up plastic and food wrappers sheepishly.  Luckily there was only breakfast in the bag--a couple cliff bars and left over oatmeal packets.  Lesson learned:  it's not just bears that eat food.

I found this really awesome video on the Youtube of the PCT Bear Bagging method which I'll make the Scouts practice before we head out.

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