What a terrifying summer camp taught me about bear safety

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I learned the basics of bear trapping when I was 8 years old when I attended a week-long junior ranger camp. The experiment took place at a state park on the east coast and was led by Park Ranger Dan Danners, whose name has been changed, but whose alias resembles the original in both style and structure. Danners was an extremely enthusiastic but accident-prone ranger who, for reasons that remain a mystery to me, had been given the task of teaching a group of young children wilderness safety and survival skills. After a week of activities, in which we would tick off basic goals like hiking, water sports, and bear-safety skills, we would supposedly earn our Junior Ranger badges.

My godmother drove her son, Max, and me to the campground where the Ranger Danners showed up, shaking parents’ hands and greeting the would-be rangers. I remember him as round, grizzled and whiskey, but like almost everything in the week, my memory may be distorted by the fact that I was a very small child.

Campers and parents pitched our tents, grilled hot dogs and gathered around the fire. Then Ranger Danners settled into his canvas chair and told a ghost story so gruesome, disturbing and totally inappropriate that a parent had to step in and cut the festivities short. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard, I remember thinking, and quickly suppressed the whole story. But Max didn’t.

“It was the one about the sleeping bags consuming the kids,” he told me when I called him recently, as if he’d been waiting 21 years for me to ask that question. The thread ended with a pile of carcasses of children buried in sleeping bags in the depths of Appalachia, bones cleaned of meat. Even though I didn’t remember the story, I To do remember not being able to sleep. Not because we refused to crawl into our sleeping bags or because the ground was hard – although we did, and it was – but because half of us were sobbing and the other half listened to them sob.

young boy sitting alone in a tent
(Photo: Gary John Norman via Getty Images)

The next day, excited to officially start our Junior Ranger journey, we said goodbye to our parents and set off after Ranger Danners. We would start by learning hiking techniques.

“Good idea,” Danners said as one of the junior Rangers contenders kicked off his shoes. “I also like walking barefoot.”

We followed Danners through a meadow filled with elderberries, lemon balm and yarrow, past a clump of rhododendrons and tulip poplars, and over a sloppy footbridge. Then we heard a scream. The barefoot kid was sitting on the ground next to something sharp. A stone, a piece of glass, a rusty nail? I don’t remember, but there was blood dripping from his foot. Danners started rummaging through her backpack for her first aid kit. It wasn’t there. He patted his many pockets, but came out empty. “Okay, kids, plan B.” Looking at the child, who was growing increasingly pale, Danners asked us to look in the woods for comfrey, a medicinal plant of which he had no photo and which he was not able to describe very good.

We were late getting home. Danners carried our wounded comrade, his foot chaotically bandaged with leaves. “Just a little accident,” Danners said, placing the boy on the ground. Her mother rushed over. “Better luck tomorrow.”

The next morning, the Ranger Danners surfaced thirty minutes late, looking haggard. Today, he says, we are going to paddle the lake to learn about water safety. It was a beautiful day and I remember being optimistic – maybe things would start to look up.

As we approached the middle of the lake, three per canoe, thunderstorms appeared. “The weather report called for ‘severe thunderstorms’,” he admitted as patches of rain fell and the water became choppy. “But what do they know?” When the first flash flashed, we were well over halfway. “Too dangerous to turn back now,” said our somewhat too fearless leader.

Lightning lights up the sky above a stack of canoes
(Photo: Layne Kennedy via Getty Images)

By noon we were trapped on the other side of the lake, our canoes lined up along a nearly vertical embankment with no discernible mooring area, floating above a dam several dozen feet high, while a storm was raging. Ranger Danners pulled a piece of rope from his canoe, tied it to a fragile-looking root sticking out of the bank, and encouraged one child from each canoe to hold on to it. “So we’re not going over it,” he said, as if not going over the roadblock wasn’t the only thing we could think of.

That evening, after we finally managed to dock and the Park Service emergency van picked us up, I heard two of the parents whispering.

“Just one more day,” said one. “I hope everyone is doing well.”

It turned out that our last lesson would be the strangest yet. Ranger Danners was three hours late picking us up on the last day of Junior Ranger Camp. When he finally materialized, carrying a McDonald’s bag and looking like he’d crawled through a sandstorm, he said it would be a “very cold” final day. Just a little lesson in bear safety. The parents looked relieved, no doubt imagining a picnic-style lunch accompanied by a lecture on the merits of pepper spray.

Carrying our lunch boxes, we followed the Ranger Danners into the woods. We were in good spirits; bear safety was the last learning objective before we became Junior Rangers. So it would all have been worth it.

We entered a clearing and the Ranger Danners announced that today we were going to… capture a bear. The plan was to create a shallow pit, bait it, and cover it with leaves and twigs. Ideally, Danners said, the bear would go into the hole, twist its ankle, and, well, honestly, there wasn’t really a plan after that.

“Better dig,” he said as he pulled out his Big Mac and chased us away. “I hope it will be a mama bear with cubs.”

Looking back, I think it’s possible that Danners just wanted to keep us busy so he could eat his burger in peace. But I can’t say for sure; becoming an adult myself hasn’t brought me any closer to understanding this man’s thought process. All I know is that we put our lunches aside and got to work making a shallow pit. When we were done, Danners placed the rest of his Big Mac inside and covered it with foliage. “Course!” he said and we ran to the ringing hickory trees in the clearing, ducking behind them to wait.

bear approaching in the forest
(Photo: Ian Billenness via Getty Images)

I learned that people trap bears mainly for science and (human) safety reasons. What these trappers all have in common is that they are not unfortunate kids who signed up for the wrong summer camp or easygoing, overconfident park rangers, but trained professionals. I now understand that trapping a bear responsibly requires planning and a permit, as well as a combination of leg snares, cage traps, capture perches, live traps, and tranquilizers. I know too much about a cylindrical trap called Crit-R-Done®, and even more about a patented foot trap device called Select-A-Catch™1000. Trapping a bear is more of an art than a science. It can take weeks.

I am also aware that the responsibilities of park rangers vary, ranging from rescue to wildlife control to law enforcement. More importantly, rangers whose job it is to trap bears don’t assume the bear will walk into their makeshift hole, stub its toe, and have to take a minute to recover. Instead, they have a foolproof plan to restrain the bear, a plan aided by sedatives and thousands of pounds of steel. We, on the other hand, only had Ranger Dan Danners. And Danners had a plethora of pockets, a first aid kit he perpetually left at home, an arsenal of dodgy ghost stories, a bundle of rope that wasn’t very long, a half-eaten hamburger and, apparently a death wish.

Luckily we didn’t encounter any bears that day. We finally gave up waiting and headed back to camp. But Something visited our trap: When we came back later, the hole was empty, the Big Mac gone.

“Shit,” said Ranger Danner, apparently very upset that he sacrificed his meal in vain. Later that day, we received our Junior Ranger badges from the least qualified park ranger we had ever met, and our parents hurried us home.

Black bear and 3 cubs
(Photo: Mark Moore via Getty Images)

I was never very interested in going to summer camp after that – and if I had been, I can’t imagine my parents would have been encouraging – but I never lost my love of nature. A decade later, I was hiking alone, about a mile from a lake where my family was swimming, when I climbed a hill and came face to face with a black bear and her three cubs.

I had spent a miserable week learning wilderness skills and the last 18 years hiking, but at that point all I was told to do in such a situation felt like a bundle of contradictions: Step back slowly. Hold on tight and make some noise. Maintain eye contact. Look at the ground.

I tried to do all of the above, which unsurprisingly caused me to stand completely still. The mother bear, maybe twenty feet away, looked up. What would Ranger Danners do? I was wondering. What is the plan? It was the same thought I had had when I sprinkled the last leaves on Danner’s Big Mac and ran to hide.

And then, as the mama bear nudged her cubs behind her and took a step forward, I knew the Ranger Danners would improvise.

With the bears still watching, I backed off until I was a safe distance away. Then I turned from the path and sprinted madly through the woods towards the lake, only stopping when I spotted my mother waving from an inner tube.

When I recently asked Max if he learned anything from the Junior Rangers camp, he said, “Oh, sure,” and started talking about self-reliance and challenging authority figures. Which is logical. But the lesson I’ve learned is that to survive – in the wild or anywhere, really – requires constant creativity. I had no intention of going bear hunting that day and I never intend to do so again. But, unless someone like Ranger Danners is involved, most hikers rarely do.

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