Outdoor Stories: The Bear That Wasn’t There

I was woken by an animal growling outside my tent. “A bear!” I thought, having seen bear scat and claw marks on trees all the way up the canyon.

March 1998 found me in Sedona, AZ, after working a conference in Phoenix. I had decided to take a few days to explore the red rock country around Sedona and, possibly, try my first solo backpacking trip.

Secret Canyon – not so secret

I write “possibly” because I was extremely nervous about the idea. I’d only backpacked five or six times, and I’d always find myself a bit keyed up at night in a tent (even car camping): the slightest noise became a bear in my neophyte mind. So when the very helpful Coconino National Forest ranger asked me if I wanted to be alone or around other people on my solo trip, I immediately replied, “Around other people.”

“Try Secret Canyon,” he said. “There’ll be lots of folks up there.” (Obviously Secret Canyon wasn’t that secret.)

Off I went down the forest road, arriving at a trailhead where five other cars were parked. I loaded up and headed off, enjoying the new (for me) feel of hiking in a canyon on what was a spectacular day with perfect temperatures. It had snowed a week earlier and so the creek down the canyon was flowing nicely and I began to glimpse patches of snow beneath the oaks and ponderosas.

I also began to meet the people to whom the cars belonged—and eventually realized that five groups of people had passed me, accounting for every car in the lot. I kept going until the canyon narrowed to the point where the sky overhead was framed between high canyon walls—and snow covered the trail. I set up my camp and waited for other people to appear.

No one did. I was up the canyon alone.

Which would have been fine EXCEPT that this particular canyon was FULL of bear sign: scat, claw marks on trees, etc. On top of that, I’d read somewhere that bears thrived in these canyons, requiring less space than they did in more open areas, and meaning that there could be as many as one bear per square mile. Not wanting to become a bear snack (actually given my size I’d have made a good bear meal—or two), I considered hiking out, but it was already late in the day and since it was March and I was far up the canyon, it was already getting dark. Walking into an animal in the dark would be worse, so I decided to stick it out.

My lonely little campsite

There was an existing fire pit so I started a fire, something I almost never do.

I talked to myself.

I sang to myself.

I hung my food a ridiculous distance away.

In short, I did everything I could to keep from curling into a tiny ball and wetting myself.

By 8:00 pm I figured it’d been “brave” enough and put myself to bed. After 15 minutes of reading by headlantern, I passed out.

I was woken by animal growling outside my tent. I sat up rapidly, heart pounding, listening acutely, but I could hear nothing: just the rush of water in the creek.

I slowly settled myself back down and fell back to sleep. Then the SAME DAMN THING HAPPENED!

This time I unzipped my inner door so I could see through the screen. I flashed my headlantern out both sides of the tent but could see nothing.

For a third time, I managed to settle back into sleep.

And this time, I realized what was happening: I was sleeping on my back and as I was drifting off the sleep, I was snoring. With my hyper alert imagination, my brain heard an animal growling. I was the bear!

With that realization, and a good maniacal chuckle (that would have scared anyone else up there clear back to the parking lot), I settled into a good night’s sleep.

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