The black bear suddenly appeared as if it were an apparition. It was tugging on a rope that suspended our duffle bag full of food high in a tree, a good distance from our lean-to. All at once the line snapped and the sack dropped to the ground. The bear grabbed it in its mouth and bolted into the dense Adirondack forest.
The year was 1980 or 1981, if I remember correctly. We were a group of “high-adventure” Boy Scouts with Troop 79, out of Yaphank, in Suffolk County, camping in Adirondack Park. I was 13 or 14. There were a dozen of us, including our four adult leaders — Mr. Nicolellis, Mr. Brady, Mr. Carman and Mr. Baker.
It was early evening, as the sun was setting, and the forest was mostly in shadows, which made seeing the bear difficult, and made the creature appear ghostly as it hurried away.
Normally, that’s where this story might end. Normally, you’d stay put in camp, cowering in your sleeping bag. Not Mr. Baker, however. He was a hulk of a man who plunged into the woods, chasing the bear. I can’t recall how quickly he jumped into action, but it all seemed to happen in an instant.
In August, my thoughts often return to Adirondack Park, the 6 million-acre wilderness in northern New York that encompasses one-third of the state’s total area, according to the State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. In particular, I think of the High Peaks Region, where I had visited twice with the scouts, in 1980 and again in 1981, for one-week, 50-mile treks across rivers, lakes and mountains. They were strange, wondrous experiences, far removed from life on suburban Long Island.
For months I looked forward to those trips with giddy excitement. There was no sleeping the night before we left. All of us boys were chatterboxes on the nine-hour drive up to the Adirondacks.
Back to Mr. Baker.
He had actually run after the bear, everyone kept saying, with a certain nervous laugh. As scouts, we had always been taught never to challenge a bear. We had long prepared for the possibility of meeting one in the wild. Should you stand your ground, making a racket to scare it off? Should you run uphill? Downhill? Play dead?
In my teenage mind, with all those scenarios at play, I had lost track of which was correct. (I had to look up the answer for this column. Apparently, the right response is to walk back slowly in the direction you came from while watching the bear, and hope for the best.)
Mr. Baker clearly violated all the rules of human logic. His prefrontal cortex, governing reason, must not have kicked in as it should have. Rather, his amygdala, dictating emotion, took over. Fight or flight? He chose fight.
He nevertheless lived to tell the tale, as they say. He returned to camp a short time later, out of breath. You wouldn’t believe what he found, he huffed. The bear had carried the duffle bag to a clearing in the middle of the forest, torn it open and made off with the big packets of food inside, leaving only peanut butter, jelly and crackers in vacuum-sealed plastic bags. The clearing was littered with gear from which food had been rummaged, he said.
With the bear off somewhere chowing on our supplies, we tiptoed into the woods with Mr. Baker to check out this wasteland, and indeed, there were bags everywhere. I remember the clearing looking like a circle. Adrenaline coursed through my veins.
That night I hardly slept. Our adult leaders kept watch in shifts, with a roaring fire in front of our lean-to. I remember looking into the darkness beyond the fire and feeling not fear, but excitement. This was life on the edge in a primordial land.
I have many memories of the Adirondacks — of rappelling down a cliff face; swimming underwater through a cave and encountering a fish; canoeing on a really long lake that led to a stream with a beaver dam; hiking on a narrow, mud-covered path in a driving rain; sliding down granite rocks into a giant pool of water (again and again). Most of all, I remember climbing Mount Marcy, New York’s highest peak, which towers 5,344 feet, a little more than a mile, above the surrounding terrain.
Memories of the trek up are vague, but I remember the view. Near the top, the forest gave way to scrub brush and finally only rock and low-lying vegetation at the peak, marked by a rock pile. In all directions you saw green forest, with the occasional blotch of blue — a lake or pond. With nothing to obstruct our view of it, the sky seemed so large.
Looking back, I’m grateful for those memories, and more so for the four scout leaders who brought us boys into the wilderness. Adirondack Park is a place of uncompromised beauty and serenity. To have found it at such a young age was a gift.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.