As a ten-year-old from Manhattan with no previous camping experience, I didn’t know what to expect from my first overnight camping trip, except one thing: a bear attack. I think I got this idea from The Great Outdoors, in which John Candy is chased through the woods by a ravenous bear. In any case, bears were the main subject of conversation in the van ride from Winnebago to Saddleback Mountain: how many we would see, how to avoid their wrath, and how to fend them off when they tried to eat our faces.
Our counselors—Steve Pishko, a Vietnam vet who taught riflery, and Arnie, a Czechoslovakian who spoke little English—did not try to soothe our anxieties. Uncle Arnie, to be fair, didn’t contribute much to the conversation at all, but Uncle Steve gave us plenty of advice about how to react should a bear attack. He implored us not to act afraid, but if that failed, we should roll into fetal positions and pray. My tent mates and I were terrified enough that we set up camp far from the fire pit. We figured that the bears would be attracted to the scent of our dinner, and that by pitching our tent deep in the woods, we would outsmart not only the bears but our fellow campers. They had all huddled their tents within feet of the fire and each other. They’d be easy bear food.
As we were falling asleep that night—my first night camping!—the tent shook violently. Then the tent zipped open. A flashlight was pointed in our eyes.
“Bear!” screamed Arnie. His English vocabulary was small but it included that word. It was clear from the tone of his voice that he was as terrified as us, which made us even more terrified. “Bear!”
“Outside! We must run to van!”
The van was on the opposite side of the campground, which seemed approximately three football fields away.
Within seconds we were out of our sleeping bags and standing barefoot on the forest floor. There were no stars; the darkness was total. Arnie started running. We followed, our arms flailing. All we knew was that somewhere in the woods, between us and the van, there stood a bear. It was undoubtedly a large one, standing on its hind legs, paws raised, mouth open. I had a vivid mental image of running smack into its chest.
After sprinting some distance in this blind delirium, I heard a loud noise like a sharpening knife—the van door, sliding open. We leapt in, joining our fellow campers, several of whom were lying on the floor underneath the seats, panting. The door slammed shut; we were safe. Uncle Steve turned on the engine.
The headlights beamed on a female black bear, standing not twenty feet away. It had knocked the lid off the trash can and was pawing through our scraps. Though startled by the headlights’ sudden glare, it didn’t run away. It couldn’t, we soon realized—it was lame. One of its legs was wounded. Eating our garbage was the only way it could survive.
The whole group, ten campers and two counselors, slept in the van that night. The next night, after hiking Saddleback, we returned to the security of the locked van and stayed up late waiting for the bear. It never returned. We figured it was probably too afraid.