It was a fine October night last year, and Dave and I and our dog were sound asleep in our tent in the Matthew's Arm campground in Shenandoah National Park when I was awakened by a noise.
Something was stomping around outside, something that wasn't afraid of announcing itself, and bizarre noises were coming from the direction of our car parked nearby.
Suddenly, I realized that there was a bear outside, and that he was pounding and scratching and jumping on our car, a Datsun 260Z, in an effort to get inside.
We've done a lot of backpacking, and normally we string our food up a tree at night so that it's out of a bear's reach. But since the car was parked near us this night, we just tossed everything inside and shut the doors.
But we'd made a mistake: We'd left a crack in one window, and that was enough to give the bear outside a whiff of the goodies inside.
It took him awhile to discover the crack, so first he tried to get in through the gas tank, mangling the cap in the process. Then he tried to get in by pulling the retractable antenna out of its socket. Then he stomped across the roof and hood trying to think up another way in.
Some bears have been known to punch windows out, but this one just put his claws into the crack and pulled. I lay there listening to the bear and whispering a new curse each time he pulled on the glass. But when it finally shattered, all I could do was tremble quietly as he proceeded to destroy the upholstery within his reach inside.
Even so, the bear was unable to reach the food in the back seat and he gave up. Unfortunately, he decided to nose around a bit more, so we listened with growing alarm as he shuffled through the leaves towards us--apparently still hopeful of finding some easy chow.
We held the dog between us to keep him quiet. Actually, he was the calmest of the three of us. Now, the bear was right outside the tent and we could hear him stand and sniff.
Fortunately, however, he couldn't smell anything inside: the "food" in the tent was all frozen with fear. So he rambled off into the night.
When we finally had the nerve to peek outside and verify that he was gone, we wasted no time in getting out of there. We had the tent down and everything packed in the shattered car in five minutes.
The ride home in the passenger seat was cold and awkward, and I had to lean forward to avoid the headrest, which was mangled in a way that would have made the Incredible Hulk proud. I also had to sit on little squares of glass and bits of seat stuffing, all of which was made more uncomfortable by the fact that I had to hunch over still more because the car roof curved down.
In the end, all it cost us was a night's sleep and $1,000 in repairs. But we did get the satisfaction of learning later that our bear was one of three that were shipped to the outskirts of the park last year because they were such campground nuisances.
We were less pleased to learn from the park rangers, however, that all we'd had to do to get rid of him was stand outside and bang on a pot and yell a little.
That, we were told, would have scared him off easily.