We’ve talked for years about backpacking into the wilderness for a camping adventure. Before starting this trip, we bought all the gear we didn’t already have—a lightweight tent, bear spray for protection, waterproof matches, backpacking stove & cook set, etc. Well, we stalled long enough, but let me walk you through the whole endeavor. This may get kinda long-winded, but bear with me as you may learn something from our
We decided roughly a week ago that the first place we wanted to try backpacking was at Lassen Volcanic National Park. The park has enough wilderness areas that we could pack in a few miles and be completely separated from other people, yet still be in a well-enough-traveled area that we won’t risk being lost or too far for comfort. We’re first-timers after all.
So the smart thing to do is test your gear. Before Lassen we were camped near Mount Shasta in Northern California. At the campground we set up our tent, tried a meal on our camp stove, and practiced loading up our backpacks. Then we took a practice hike to make sure we were comfortable with the packs. We determined we would be comfortable with around a 4-mile hike to our camp.
Practice round complete. Time for research.
We spent 4 nights at Lassen in the campground just exploring the park. We took that time to study park maps, discuss with park rangers, and plan where and when to go backpacking. Wow, we are total nerds. During this time we learned that the entire park has an approximate black bear population of around 40-50, and that we should avoid the Twin Lakes area where one of those bears has learned how to steal food from unsuspecting backpackers. Avoid Twin Lakes: noted.
Research complete. Time to jump in.
Our fifth and final night in Lassen Park would be spent backpacking for the first time. Monday morning we packed up Homer and drove to the northwest side of the park, where we would embark on our quest.
Just as planned and practiced, we loaded up our packs and hiked into the Lassen wilderness. The hike in to Widow Lake was pretty decent—about 4 miles mostly flat until the steep finish—not bad. I wondered along the way if I (Marc) should be concerned about why it was named Widow Lake. I decided not to fret—many husbands have made the same trek and came out unscathed.
We arrived at the lake around 1:00 pm and found a nice, peaceful place to set up camp. I thought a better name for Widow Lake would be Mosquito Lake. You can probably guess why.
After dropping the packs and having a little bug spray bath, we dug out our pre-made PB & honey sandwiches and had a nice little lunch atop a large rock outcropping overlooking the lake.
The vista was serene and gorgeous. No traffic noise, no crowds of people, just us and nature.
After lunch we found the ideal placement of the tent and set it up, being mindful of the ranger’s suggestions about minimizing our impact on the environment.
Next we took another bug spray bath (seriously, Mosquito Lake is fitting) and headed out for a short stroll around our area just to explore a bit, then returned to camp to relax and enjoy just being present.
A little while later we started getting a little bored just being present, plus our stomachs were growling again, so we unpacked the camp stove and cooked up some Ramen & beef jerky for dinner. It was much better than it sounds!
After dinner we loaded up into our bear canister (designed to prevent a bear break-in) all of our food, trash, and everything else that has an odor, just as we had learned in all of our studying and preparation, and placed the canister about 200 feet from our campsite. We are diligent rule followers and we are bear aware!
We weren’t really sure what to do next (what do backpackers do after dinner?), plus the mosquitos were still being assholes, so we headed into the tent to play some cards. A couple hours later was heads on the pillow and lights out. We couldn’t have been ‘asleep’ any more than 30 minutes when the first noises started.
It was a familiar sound, like the same sound our bear canister made when we placed it against a couple rocks. The sound you might imagine being claws on a hard plastic surface—like a bear canister.
Sounds are very close from inside a tent with no windows. Oh yeah, the rain fly on our tent has no windows unless you unzip them—thereby creating more airflow. It was a chilly night, so we were zipped. Ergo, no line of sight to the exterior.
So, we of little wilderness experience and highly active imaginations were quick to determine the cause of said sounds. A bear had discovered our bear canister and was eagerly and hungrily attempting to pry it open in the darkness.
With symbolically crossed fingers and high heart rates, we wished quietly between ourselves that the bear would move on and forget about the canister. Well, after an hour or so it finally did. Or so we thought.
Throughout the night, perhaps every hour or so, the bear (or bears?) would return to the canister, batting it around on the rocks, making chomping, thumping, and rustling sounds all around us. We were certain the bear had managed to open the canister and was munching away on all of our jerky, sunblock, protein bars, toothpaste, and (gasp!) bug spray.
Naturally, with our pulses pounding and adrenaline coursing through our veins at the uncertainty and terror surrounding us, our hands clutching the bottles of bear spray, our minds were all over the place. “What if the bear comes near the tent?” “I can’t believe the bear got into the canister—we’re writing the manufacturer a letter…if we get out of this alive.” “Is this every backpacker’s first experience?” “This night is taking forever.”
We hadn’t slept a wink.
Around 3:00 am, the noises grew closer. There was a snort, not quite a grunt but more of an abrupt, sniffy exhale not 10 feet from the tent. That’s when adrenaline turned into self-preservation. We proceeded to clap and yell at the bear(s) from inside the tent. “Hey bears! Go away! There are people in here with bear spray and we will not hesitate to use it!” We were like overwrought wilderness peace officers.
The noises quieted and moved further away for a while, but only a short while.
Around 4:00 am, the noises were back and as close as ever. After more yelling and clapping we finally worked up enough courage to reach out and unzip the rain fly to get a visual of our all-night camp marauders.
Into the darkness from our unzipped rain fly, our headlamps exposed for the first time the creatures that had been harassing us all night long. Three small deer were wandering around the area gobbling up some grass and tree bark, their hooves clapping atop the large bare rocks protruding from the ground, a sound reminiscent of large, sharp claws on a plastic bear canister.
Our hearts and minds settled enough for perhaps another 30 minutes of edgy sleep before the sun came up, illuminating our camp site in sunlight and embarrassment. A quick check of the bear canister revealed nothing out of place—no claw marks, no protein bar wrappers, no jerky remnants.
We made some oatmeal for breakfast, packed up our gear, and trucked it out of the wild, always checking over our shoulders for the wild creatures that had threatened nothing but our sensibilities.
At least we know that our instincts will keep us vigilant on the next backpack outing, but that may have to wait until we are clear of bear country.