Evening chapel at camp. Log building with concrete floor. Screeching folding chairs and battered chorus books. Sunburned families fill the room with scuffling, singing, and the aroma of mosquito spray. Hand-clapping songs engage little ones. Older ones guess at solutions to picture puzzles on the wall and are rewarded with a rain of Hershey’s kisses.
In the middle of it all, my 3 year old goes heavy on my lap and dozes off. To avoid the noisy rush of children out the door at the end of chapel, I whisper to my husband that I’m going to take her out and lay her down in the trailer now. He nods. I shift her up onto my shoulder and carry her outside to our travel trailer that is parked across the gravel lot about 100 feet away.
In the trailer I lay her on the bed and peel her shoes off, wondering if I should wake her to brush her teeth. Then there’s a knock at the door. It is our youth leader’s wife, a tall woman with a typically calm and understated air. At this moment she looks uncharacteristically wide-eyed.
“There’s a bear in the camp. You might want to do something with your dog– sometimes dogs draw bears.”
I don’t remember what I said to her, but I do remember looking at our dog, who was chained to a tree outside the trailer. She was sniffing the air tensely and straining in the direction of the center of camp.
“Come in the trailer!” I invited the youth leader’s wife quickly, feeling anxious to realize that she was outside because of me.
“No, I’ll be OK up on the balcony of the A-frame next door.” Apparently there were a couple other people there with her at that cabin. She told me that someone had gone to keep everyone else in the chapel, which relieved me. Then she left.
I looked at the dog and considered sticking her in the kennel in the van 20 feet away. But I hadn’t got a visual on the bear yet. I suspected that the van was locked, and that 20 feet of distance looked very far. I unchained the dog and hurriedly dragged her toward the trailer with me. She put up a brief struggle, anxious –I was usually the one to chase her OUT of the trailer. I could feel the tension in her body, but once she realized I was serious about letting her into the trailer, she hopped in and paced around restlessly.
I shut the door tight and opened a shade. And instantly spotted the bear.
There. Maybe 60 feet away, rambling and sniffing around the outside of the dining hall. As I watched, it loped past the church where the rest of my family sat and went across the play area, the very place where my children had been playing an hour before. It sniffed near the jungle gym and the swings and turned its head towards the girls cabins, before turning the other directon and walking the perimeter of the campground. The boys’ cabins. The boys bathroom. The A-frame cabin where my brother and his wife would soon sleep. The cabin where my sister and her kids had napped that afternoon.
Up on the balcony of the A-frame nearest to me stood a couple of my cousins and their kids, watching the bear work its way across the other side of the camp. Down below the balcony a dad had his camcorder out, documenting the progress of the bear. He was only two feet from a door, and the bear was by now hundreds of feet away, but he still seemed exposed to me.
The bear sniffed its way past door after door. When it reached the end of the row it looped back and sniffed some more, finally heading up the hill towards one of the furthest buildings in camp, the boy’s bathroom. Past that point I lost sight of him. But still I stood watchful at the window, conscious of the breathing of my 3 year old, wondering if a bear could tear through the aluminum of a travel trailer wall, and hoping that my family would stay in the chapel where the walls were log and they were safe.
There was a dad standing guard outside the door of the chapel by now. And five minutes or so after the last sighting of the bear everyone trailed out of church, perhaps a little more hushed than normal, but eager to spread out and take over the camp again. People quickly mobbed the dad who’d done the camcordering, huddlng close to peer at the tiny screen. Everyone wanted to see the bear for themselves.
I wished I hadn’t.
Every year at camp they warn us to be safe. Don’t leave food out. Shut the trash cans. Never go to the bathroom alone in the night. There are bears up here, after all. Wolves too, they say.
But hearing the words is different than seeing the animal for yourself. Different than seeing him prowling the place where your child played an hour before, maybe even smelling your own child’s scent.
I herded my younger ones into the lodge, placating them with cocoa and cookies and promises of games with friends. I gave my older ones (camp counselors that they were) a barrage of cautions. Watch younger ones strictly. Go to the bathroom in groups of 3 or more at night. Use flashlights. Hurry from building to building while it is dark. No lollygagging.
A night or two later when someone took off with a mob of kids and headed up the mountain — at dusk– in the very same direction that I’d last seen the bear — I called my kids back sharply, and didn’t let them join the hike. Staying around the campfire was no guarantee of safety, I knew. But I could not shake the image of that lumbering sniffing hulk, patrolling the boundaries of our camp.
He’d doubtless been there before we arrived. He would be there after we left.
We were the visitors.