Black bear at Raystown Lake Visitor Center

The black bear is one of two species of bear found in sub-Arctic North American. The brown bear, or grizzly, is native to western Canada and a few pockets in the northwestern US. The black bear is much more common and its geographic range much broader, encompassing most of the United States and Canada.

Despite the fearsome fangs in the above photo, the black bear is usually docile. There has only been a single death by a black hear in Pennsylvania in the past 100 years. In that case a woman was silly enough to keep one as a pet. One day she went out to feed it and wound up as the meal. There have been attacks, but in most cases the bear was frightened or a sow defending its cubs. Or it was drawn to the prospect of easy to obtain food.

An example is my favorite bear ‘attack’ story, the case of a Boy Scout who had candy bars in his tent. Never a good idea in bear country, and especially at Hickory Run State Park, home of ‘problem bears.’ That evening a bear came into the camp, smelled the chocolate, poked his head in the boy’s tent, and when the boy started to defend himself the bear became agitated and bit him on the buttocks. Was a Snickers bar worth the cost and pain of treatment, as well as the awkward conversations in gym class and with girlfriends?

I’ve had a love-fear relationship with bears for years. I first saw one in 2009 in King’s Gap State Park, followed by other sightings in Hyner View and the Pine Creek Gorge area. They are majestic creatures, but their ability to smell food miles away, and their ingenuity in reading it, scares me. Before my 2010 car camping trip through western Pennsylvania someone directed me to this YouTube video  of a bear breaking into a car at Clingman’s Dome in Tennessee. That was a comforting thought as I was planning on living out of my car that trip. My then car had a trunk, and I stored my food in the trunk to reduce the risk.

Four year later I’m once again in Westsylvania car camping. this time in a hatchback. On Day 12 of my trip, I registered for a campsite in the Quaker Run section of New York’s Allegheny State Park. I asked about bears at the registration desk, and I was told the standard advice: don’t feed them, don’t leave food around, don’t keep food or dishes or personal items like toothpaste or deodorant in your tent. I don’t do that, so I felt comfortable camping there. I just needed to dispose of my refuse before heading to the campsite.

Allegheny State Park has designated refuse stations. I arrived at one just before it closed for the day, and as I got rid of my garbage I spoke with the attendant. “You have a lot of bears here?”

“Yeah, we do. People leave food out and they come for it. Sometimes they’ll even break into a car for it.”

My jaw dropped. “You’ve had bears break into cars?!”

“Yeah. None this season yet. But they’ve done it.”

I thanked him for helping me and letting me dispose of my trash, and went back to the car. The car I’ve eaten hoagies, bacon, snacks, and many other items while sitting in. The car I stored my food, wet tent, dirty laundry, muddy boots…. and all in the summer’s heat. To a bear, my Kia would be like an unattended, overripe burrito. In a plastic and glass wrapping, true, but we’ve seen how bears feel about glass.

I drove to my campsite, and was so nervous I missed a turn on the driveway and went partway into a ditch. As I slowly backed the car out I realized if I camped here I’d never get any sleep, even if the car or tent remained unmauled. I turned around and followed the road out of Quaker Run the 25 miles south to Pennsylvania and Willow Bay. “They don’t have problem bears there” I told myself.

I arrived at Willow Bay at ten minutes to nine, just before the check in office closed. I secured my old campsite for another night. As it was late and a thunderstorm was starting, I decided I wasn’t going to set up the tent tonight. Normally I sleep in the back of the KIA, but I was loaded down with gear, so I pushed back the driver’s seat as far as it would go and settled in for an uncomfortable night. When I was awake and it wasn’t raining I’d lower the windows a crack or open the driver’s door to allow some fresh air into the vehicle. I dozed off and on through the night.

At 3:30 something woke me from my half-sleep. I turned my head towards the passenger side and saw a black bear with its paws and snout on the glass looking in at me. I screamed. The key was in the ignition and I turned it. The bear ran away towards the lake. I backed out of my campsite and drove back to the check in area. They had a weak WiFi signal and since I wasn’t going to sleep any more that night, I might as well be online. Also, if I was going to be eaten by a bear, I wanted the Internet to know about it.

By dawn I’d calmed down. I drove back to my campsite. “Bears are nocturnal”, I thought. “I’m safe.” I set up the tent and crawled in, and managed a couple of hours of sleep.

I was up by nine AM, and packed up the tent. The campground manager drove by on his golf cart and I explained to him what happened. It seems the campground, and the Allegheny National Forest in general, DO have problem bears. At Willow Bay people are always leaving food around, coolers unattended…. Just that morning there was a report of bear damage to someone’s RV – the bear had allegedly knocked over an exterior light, although the thunderstorm might have caused it too. We both checked my car, and we found no damage. The only possible evidence of a bear visit was a pawprint on the side of the car, and even that could have been dirt from sometime else.

The campground manager thanked me for the news of the bear encounter, and he left to check out the rest of the camping areas. I headed to the showerhouse. Halfway there, fifteen feet in front of me, a bear charged across my path. “So much for nocturnal” I thought. I had to stop a woman coming down from the showerhouse from heading into a wooded area so she could get a photo of the bear. It wasn’t just for her safety; the mental image of a middle aged woman wearing fuzzy slippers chasing a bear was too ridiculous for me to handle. I showered, and drove from Willow Bay as fast as I could.

While this is a funny story, it could have turned out very differently. In particular the bear could have broken my window. In addition to reminders of the standard rules about behaving around bears I learned several lessons from this encounter.

– when in bear country, do NOT leave food unattended in your car. Put it in the trunk, or of you don’t have a trunk store it in a plastic storage bin. Ditto with toothpaste and other personal items.

– do NOT eat in your car.

– do NOT store food refuse in your car. I carried trash too often between campgrounds. While it didn’t bother me, it will draw a bear.

– do NOT leave your windows open even a crack. Ditto a door.

– do NOT assume that because Disney and Hanna-Barbera animated bears, they are cute animals. Treat them with respect. Don’t chase them like the people in the Clingman’s Dome video and the woman at the showerhouse.

And finally,

– DO NOT FEAR bears. Yes, respect them, but view them as the wonderful creatures they are.

Do you have advice about bears? Any stories to share? Put them in the comments below.