By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Rohse: Pleasures of camping made hassles bear-able

As summer is a comin’, I’m reminded of how in yesteryear we would have by now been planning camping trips.

Ours was not a luxurious type of camping, but rather a low-brow kind. Our tent required stakes and was uncooperative in remaining in an upright position, especially in a strong wind. In the middle of the night, if it blew down, it was highly disruptive.

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We manually blew up our air mattresses — a lengthy task — and almost unfailingly, mine, in the middle of the night, developed a leak.

Nor were we expert in choosing a site for our sleeping bags, and ended up sleeping on rocky, uneven, branch-strewn surfaces.

It is true that quite occasionally when we returned home from a camping trip we admitted to each other that the best part about camping was getting home and having a long hot shower and sleeping in our own snug bed.

Camping was the economical way to go. We camped at Detroit Lake with friends from Portland and had lots of fun.

Then we planned a camping trip, with another couple, at Crater Lake, and discovered another camping bugaboo in addition to leaky air mattresses: big, live bears.

Lots of information at Crater Lake warned us of the prevalence of bears in the area. It wasn’t reassuring to read the statistics about injuries from bears. They were 1% whereas deaths or injuries from hikers injured in falls was significantly higher.

At Crater Lake neither couple had a tent and when darkness came we rolled our sleeping bags in a pretty little spot with considerable growth.

I didn’t much like the idea of sleeping with bears wandering about our sleeping quarters and I decided I’d better stay awake in case some showed up. I tried to decide what I would do if a bear did come. I wouldn’t want to crawl out of my sleeping bag in my flannel pajamas and try to shoo it away. So, I just lay there and tried to not even breathe so maybe it would think I was an inanimate object not worthy of investigating.

I hadn’t yet gone to sleep when I heard what had to be a big animal, lumbering through the underbrush, making considerable noise. I knew at once that it was a bear. It had to be a bear and I still had not planned my course of action. For a bit it seemed like it was headed directly toward the sleeping bags and it came closer and closer, but then I noticed those sounds were not as loud. It was going away. Our foursome was safe. I did not go back to sleep. I had to stay awake in case another bear came, although I still had no plan of attack.

In the morning I learned that I was the only one who stayed awake to keep the bears away.

Later that summer, we went to Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone indeed was beautiful and Old Faithful performed faithfully. That bear bugaboo? We found it was tourist season but there were more bears than tourists.

Everywhere were instructions and cautions as to how to get along with bears.

Under no conditions were we to feed bears. We were not to leave food in cars. All food was to be kept in the sturdy storage chests that were in every campsite. We found a nice camp spot and began spreading out our sleeping bags when a man in the next camping spot came over and began talking to Homer. They had a little tent and the previous night his wife was sleeping on a cot against the side of the tent. During the night she chanced to move and pushed against the tent. A bear chanced to be going by at that time and was curious when the tent moved. He hauled off and with his big paw delivered a huge whack against the tent at the site of the movement. It didn’t hurt his wife, but she was ready to leave Yellowstone.

And I had just made a decision: I was not going to sleep in a sleeping bag exposed to those bears. I was going to sleep in the car with the windows rolled up. But as we had a sedan, it could not sleep three. Homer and Mitch would be in their sleeping bags exposed to the bears, and I felt guilty about that, but if something happened someone had to let everyone at home know. Darkness descended.

I hated to see it come. The bears came out. I checked the car windows, making sure all were closed.

And then the bear concert began: all the bears pounding on the food chests topped with metal sheets. That pounding and banging could have been heard in the next county.

As instructed, we left no food in our car and put all of it in those sturdy chests near where Mitch and Homer were.

Despite being in the car and isolated from the bears, I did not sleep. I was beginning to think that sleep on a camping trip was not a given.

That thought was confirmed a few weeks later when we went to the San Juan Islands to camp. We had read of a new park and campground that had just opened on one of the Islands. It sounded delightful. We would have to ferry to that island, and we unwisely opted to go on a summer weekend. We could not get on the ferry that would have taken us to our island by mid-afternoon, so we could choose a good camping spot and be snugged in by dark.

All the ferry trips had been sold out and we did not get to our island until long after dark.

As we drove off the ferry, it seemed that every car was heading for the same place,

When we got to the campground it appeared that, indeed, it had been the destination of all those cars. In the darkness, we stumbled around and finally found a campsite that would have to do,  although it was pitch dark and we did not have a camp lantern.

We flopped sleeping bags on the ground.

I don’t know what the others did, but I crawled in with clothes on and gratefully started to lie down. But when I began settling down and stretching out, it suddenly felt as if innumerable demons were stabbing me. I left that bed in a hurry, wondering what it could be. Feeling around in the dark, I decided that apparently areas for the camp had been thickly covered with saplings about three feet tall. The workmen had not pulled them up, or cut them off at the roots, but using some sort of machete sliced off the sapling about eight or ten inches above the ground, leaving dagger-like points on the remaining sapling so that when you laid down on those sharp little daggers it felt as if you were being pierced with arrows.

I tried rearranging my sleeping bag but always it was like trying to sleep on a bed of upright needles.

After that and other similar experiences, we began to feel jinxed with camping. Something like that happened about every time we threw our sleeping bags in the car and headed down the road, and yet it was so much fun to find a secluded little bower and gather around a campfire and toast marshmallows and watch the stars come out and see how many constellations we could identify. I don’t remember which family member remarked after a particularly uncomfortable trip, “You know, we’ll look back on this a dozen or so years hence, and have a good laugh about it and think how much fun it really was.”

We all agreed, those camping trips — even the worst ones — added to the memories in our family portfolio.

Every family’s portfolio should be filled with such memories.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at


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