Musings and mishaps from bear country. 

The concept is simple: because bears can be attracted to the smell of your food, you don’t keep it in your tent. You hang it in a tree out of their reach, say 15 feet off the ground and eight feet from the trunk.

The first step is to find such a tree, and on a recent trip through the lodgepole-dominated forests of southwest Montana, that proved harder than you’d think. Most of the trees were tall and skinny, lacking branches that could extend eight feet from the trunk. Luckily for us, it’s black bears, not griz, that climb trees. We were more worried about griz.

The next step is to loop a rope over your selected branch. My friend Charlie would tie a stick or rock to his rope, throw it in the air, and watch it fall far from the tree. Each time he threw, it seemed he got farther from his target. Eventually, even people behind him were ducking.

With a summer of softball behind me, my tossing arm was far more accurate. My rock sailed in a perfect arc over the desired branch. Unfortunately, the rock detached from the rope, having fallen out of my attempted knot.

One night, this happened three throws in a row. Finally, on the fourth throw, the rock barely visible under all the rope I’d wrapped around it, I watched it sail perfectly, trailing the rest of the rope behind it. Every last bit of it sailed uselessly over the branch—I’d forgotten to hold onto the other end.

Charlie and I were able to laugh. We had plenty of time and nowhere else to go. Later that evening, our other buddy Fred was experiencing a little more stress as he tried to make his hang before complete darkness enveloped us. Fred preferred old dead branches, which are easier than rocks to knot. The problem with deadwood, however, is that it lacks weight. I found Fred staring up at his rope hanging over a tree branch, his stick bouncing uselessly 12 feet off the ground.

Once the rope is hung, you attach the food bags to one end and pull on the other. Early in the trip, this is a considerable weight, and so we tried to have one guy toss the food in the air while the other ran away with the rope. Usually, of course, the food bags flew up and back down before the rope-guy could get very far. But after some pulling (weeks later, my fingers are still blistered), you could tie off the rope and call it a night.

Conventional wisdom says that bears will even go after toothpaste in your tent. The first night out, we watched a meteor shower before crawling into the tent, tired and happy. At which point I realized that the medication I take before sleep every night was hung with the toothpaste.

A few mornings later, I was the first one awake and thus needed to make the coffee. I was pleased to see that Charlie had knotted the rope to the throwing-stick so thoroughly that it was still attached. I unwrapped that end, the weight of the bags pulled on the other end, and the deadwood sailed upwards. Then it caught a snag on the tree.

I looked up, puzzled. I untied the food bags, as if that would somehow help. But then I still had just one end of the rope, with the other tied to the stick still caught up in the tree. Well, I decided, I just needed to send this free end back over the branch. So I tied it to another stick and threw it (in a perfect arc, of course) back over, where it hooked around a different branch.

Maybe I should have waited until the coffee had engaged my brain, but now I figured I should at least undo the damage. I went over to the other side and tossed the rope back. Where it caught on a third snag, stymieing any potential solution. I must admit that I violated wilderness principles by leaving behind a trace: $6 worth of tangled rope, 15 feet off the ground, with sticks tied to either end.