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When Backpacking, Leave Your Fragrances at Home

by Richard
01/25/2013 03:22:08 P.M.

Three days into the backcountry of Glacier National Park – a trip to celebrate our recent graduation from college – my four friends and I had our routine down pat: Joel, my Aussie friend, and I had just set up the tents (North Face Rock 22 and MSR Hubba Hubba, respectively). Chris and Zach, our Indiana born-and-raised compatriots, were hanging the bags on the designated “bear pole” in a tree – out of the way of the foraging animals. Kenan was about to go start cooking dinner, but wanted to come change his clothes first.

I turned, job completed, to walk to the bear pole to see how things were going, when Kenan called out.

“Hey, hold up,” he uttered, as he reached, straight-faced, into his pocket and pulled out a small object.

As it was flying towards me, I could see Kenan smiling in the background. I caught the projectile and opened my hand to a small packet of Winterfresh gum.

Our park ranger had explicitly told us: “You should never take anything fragrant near your tent.

In fact, I think she said this at least three times. Why? Animals – such as bear and moose – have excellent olfactory glands and can detect simple scents from miles away. They use this impeccable sense of smell to forage for food, and no food is as pungent as man-made items that hikers carry-in and stash at night. The animals typically avoid people and their noisiness during the day, but at night, when it’s quiet – all bets are off as they seek out strong scent of toothpaste, food, or whatever is abnormally potent – to devour them. The last thing you want is to wake up to a bear eating a midnight snack…of your leg.

That’s why park rangers place a considerable distance between the fire/cooking area, the tents, and the food storage area – at each campsite. They form a triangle. For your protection.

“Are you serious?… Are you trying to get us killed?” I asked, exasperated.

“Sorry, I forgot,” he said, still moderately amused. “Can you take it to the bear pole for me?”

“Yeah,” I responded, turning. I couldn’t help but think, ‘I hope he regrets this lackadaisical response as a Montanan grizzly bear is ripping through my flesh tonight.’

I found the other three friends at the bear pole, almost finished, the bag already suspended 15+ feet in the air. “I’ll put it up after dinner,” I told myself as the five of us converged on the pathway and we met at the fire to cook our dinners.

We ate the best that night: Backpacker’s Pantry pre-made meals. We’d bought only one each ’cause they were too expensive for us then. So, we took our time and brushed everything aside but the calmness of the evening and the warmth of the fire, and friendships.

But apparently, I brushed off too much. After dinner, I headed back to the tents to get ready for bed, and as night was coming on, I paused to take it all in.

Our campsite was nestled in a little alcove of trees amidst the beginning of a tightly packed section of the forest. The medium blue sky had begun creeping over the pine trees above us to expose stars that had been hidden during the day. 10 feet away from our tent rested an iconic rock beach, bordering glacial Cosley Lake amidst the Rocky Mountain backdrop. It was really quite grandiose. Majestic even.

As I began to disrobe, I reached in to clear the pockets of my pants, and my hand grasped the ballyhooed packet of gum resting there. My eyes tripled in size.

I immediately spun around to look in the direction of the bear pole. The sun was cruelly being stolen away – it clearly wouldn’t last for another thirty seconds. There was no time to go to the bag while it was light out. I spun back around.

I made for the rock beach, ran down forty yards and stashed the packet under some low lying foliage. I jogged back, content to leave it there for the night – and slipped into the tent, and conversation, without missing a beat.

About thirty minutes later, as my four counterparts and I were playing cards and downloading about the day, our conversation was interrupted by a noise so loud that it was initially indiscernible.

We sat up and froze - adrenaline spiked  - and immediately focused our energy on our trying to determine what the absurdly loud noise might be. I was convinced it was a helicopter. But as we got used to the noise, we realized it didn’t have the cadence of a machine. But what? An animal? Bear, maybe? It didn’t sound like it. The noise was incessant – relentless. But eventually, it began to slowly fade – at which point, I threw caution to the wind and decided to risk it. I slipped out of the tent and made for the beach. The glow from the horizon afforded me just enough view to see all I needed. Two massive antlers balanced over a large moose head – swimming – already 100 yards – away. 

I walked back to explain the situation to my friends.

“It was a moose,” I informed. “I think it was after that gum,” I said – and thus began to expose Kenan’s error, and my own.

“What gum?” they asked – and we unfolded the story for them.

The next morning, I found shreds of wrapper strewn across the beach. No gum.

I was shocked at how relevant the need to remove the gum was to our personal safety. That ranger was telling sheer truth about animals’ attraction to aromas. If I would not have removed the gum, we would have likely died, mauled by antlers. Not the dream way to go, though it would have been an adventure.

Thankfully, we made it, and someone else doesn’t have to tell this story: one that answers some questions about the olfactory capabilities of animals, the honesty of park rangers, and the forgetfulness of man.

And since I’m here still, I have time to ask at least one question of my own: who the h*#@ brings gum to the backcountry?