This was back in the early 1970s when the Park still had chain link across the fronts of the trail shelters to protect overnight backpackers from bears. Because in those days most such folk did not practice safe bear-country habits and bears were attracted to the shelters because of the smell of food and actual food items left out where the bears could take them. Back then it was nice to be able to close and secure that chain link door and go to sleep knowing that a bear couldn’t get in.
A couple of nights after that we were staying at another shelter called Peck’s Corner. It got kind of crowded as this shelter was at the Appalachian Trail and lots of hikers use it. Fortunately, as things turned out, it also had the chain link barrier. Why ‘fortunately’? Because one of the backpackers had brought along a can of tuna fish. For lunch he opened the can, walked out in front of the shelter, and drained all of that oil and fish juice on a large flat boulder a few feet from the chain link door. Then he came back in and prepared his meal.
In a few minutes a mother bear and three tiny cubs showed up. I suspect they smelled the tuna fish. But before the mama bear could get to the shelter she pointed her nose to the sky and seemed to be sensing something the rest of us could not. Then she rushed back to the tree where she’d stashed her tiny babies, called them down, and retreated to the deep forest.
Why? We found out.
In short order a very large, very scarred male bear appeared. A few people who’d been outside the shelter rushed in and the chain link door was closed and secured just in time, for he then came right up to it and peered in at all of us humans ‘safely’ inside.
Then he went to the big boulder where the idiot had drained his can of tuna fish. This boulder had about the same surface size on top as a big dining room table. Let’s say four by six feet. But it was also about two feet thick. We’re talking a mass amount of stone. Immovable, you might say. Here’s what happened.
That big, scarred up bear began to lick the oil from the boulder. He licked it all off the top where the idiot had drained it, and then followed the streamlets of oil down the side of the boulder. Some of the oil had followed the contour of the rock and were now under the weight of it. So the bear stood to the side, hooked his claws under the lip, and lifted that mass so that he could lick the tuna fish oil from underneath the boulder. He hefted it up like it was nothing. They way you might move a dining room chair out of your way.
I kid you, not. (Keep in mind he did this with one arm while standing three-legged to do it.)
When he had gotten all of that smelly, delicious, yummy fish oil he released the boulder and it fell back into place with a thump that I felt through the soles of my boots.
At that point he turned his attention back to the shelter. He walked up to the chain link that was protecting us and he peered inside with those beady, dark, black-bear eyes. There was no humor in those eyes. There was no pity hiding in the depths. He was trying to figure out how to get to the food that he knew was in there with us. His nose was going snuff-snuff.
It was at that moment that he stood up on his back legs. I’d already realized that he was an enormous bruiser, but when you see one stand up like that you realize how big they are. The bear placed his paws on the chain link and he began to push. Yeah. He was trying to use his sheer bulk, and the power of the same muscles that had hefted that massive boulder to shove that damned chain link fence right the heck in. With every push he would give out with this little grunt.
Push! Oof! Push! Unh! Push! Grar!
After a few such efforts he seemed to realize that the steel was stronger than he was and he settled back where he sat and stared at us for a little while, those dark, black eyes smoldering with the frustration of a missed opportunity. If only he’d arrived a second or two sooner, before the door had closed in his face.
A few minutes later he was gone. Poof. Vanished back into the forest. Everyone came out of the shelter. He did not return.
I was reminded of this memory because I heard the story of a guy who backpacked into a remote part of Yellowstone National Park a couple of years ago. On the second day of his journey into the wilderness, thick with Grizzly bears who are far larger and far more aggressive than black bears, this shit-for-brains opened up his backpack to discover that the tuna fish he had brought along with him had leaked out and the liquid inside had permeated his pack and his clothing and everything in it and on it with the pungent scent of tuna fish.
To make a longer story very short, nothing happened to this idiot. No grizzly bear appeared to eat the now tuna-flavored moron. But I was reminded of the incident with the black bear. And it was all part of the lesson that I learned that day at Peck’s Corner. And that lesson was never to bring any food item that is so pungent that even humans can smell it from a distance. Especially something like a can or packet of tuna fish that can leak out and turn you into a predator’s target.
I mean…don’t. Just don’t.