LISTEN: The night a black bear pawed our tent

Emma Farnsworth and Cole Tamblyn on the Johnson Pass trail on the Kenai Peninsula in July, 2020 (Emma Farnsworth photo)

Emma Farnsworth went on a Fourth of July backpacking trip to Johnson Pass on the Kenai Peninsula last year with her boyfriend Cole Tamblyn.

Farnsworth said they got a late start hiking down the trail. And then after eating a little, putting their food in odor-resistant bags and stashing that inside their backpacks 50 or 60 feet away, they were in their tent sleeping by about midnight.

Here’s how Farnsworth describes what happened next:

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The following transcript was lightly edited for length and clarity.

Farnsworth: We were completely as sound asleep as possible. We both sleep really well when we’re camping. And then, we woke up instantly to this like tearing sound right by our heads.

I turned my head around to look behind my pillow. And seriously, the first thing I saw was an eye right there, and my boyfriend just sees fur.

And, at the time, we didn’t realize: We can’t see through our rain fly at all, so we didn’t realize what we were seeing because of the new holes in our tent.

We both sat up as fast as possible. And we knew right away, it was a bear. It was a black bear for sure. Maybe not entirely full-grown, but definitely not a cub, definitely at least a couple of years old. So Cole, in the deepest voice I’ve ever heard him put on, started going, ‘Hey, bear!’ And so then I started yelling ‘Hey, bear.’

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I was grabbing his arm and saying, ‘We can’t get out of the tent!’, convinced we should just live there for the rest of our lives. But he was immediately like, ‘Well, we have bags, and we need to go get our bags.’

I’m the one who remembered we have bear spray as well. We each had one and they were right next to us. So we put our shoes on and grabbed our bear sprays and unzipped the tent.

Sure enough, the bear was at our bags. It had taken Cole’s bag like maybe two or three feet further away into the woods. And so we were both waving our arms and trying to be as big as we could.

Cole walked a little bit toward it and deployed the bear spray.

I think he was still slightly too far for it to actually hit the bear at all. But it was a much bigger spray, then I thought. It’s like hairspray, but going double the distance and double the width and it was kind of loud. So I think that noise kind of startled the bear and it walked a few more feet away and sat down.

Tears in a nylon tent
Holes in Emma Farnsworth’s tent from a bear attack on July 4, 2020 (Emma Farnsworth photo)

And we were just like, ‘You’re just gonna go and sit down where can still see you and stare at you?’

Probably in another situation, we would have thought it was cute, but Cole stayed there and kept waving his arms kept holding the spray out. And meanwhile, I was taking down a tent the fastest I ever have in my life. So I was just shoving poles into the bags and trying to put our sleeping bags into my bag, which we could still get to.

The bear got up and walked a few feet closer again.

And Cole sprayed it again and then retreated probably 10 more feet and sat down again. And it probably went on for — I don’t know, your sense of time when something like that is happening isn’t very accurate — but maybe 10 minutes before it finally walked far enough away that we couldn’t see it. Cole darted forward, threw his bag on his shoulder and we started off down the trail again.

At this point, we were 9 miles in on a 21-mile trail. And the bear went the direction we’d come so even though that way was closer to our car, we’re like, ‘We’re gonna go the other way.’

After 3 or 4 miles, we stopped to make coffee and just kind of collect ourselves.

And the funny part there was: We always have these enamel coffee mugs and Cole had tied his to his backpack. And we made our little fancy pour-overs — our perfect coffee —to just calm down and take a breath.

And that was the point that Cole goes, ‘Oh, by the way, Happy Fourth of July.’ We had totally forgotten. And then he takes a sip of his coffee and the bear spray had hit it because it was on his bag. So we’re finally trying to relax and his lips are burning and he has to dump his coffee out. It was a bit of a mess still.

We decided we were obviously going to keep going further. But that night was the least restful sleep of my life because with these new holes in the tent, and it was windy and the wind kept flapping that rain fly against us and waking us up, screaming that there was a bear every hour or so, so we didn’t get much sleep.

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Casey Grove is the host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media with an emphasis on crime and courts. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org.