This month from the archives we have a true story by Tom Bentzen about an encounter he had at Upper Falls Lake in July 2010. It’s a scenario that every Hi-Laker has thought about, but I’ll bet you never imagined it playing out like this. — Tony Curless, HL communications chair
With the possible closing of the Illabot Creek Road I wanted to bag the Falls Lakes. I knew there was a so-so fisherman’s trail into them so I parked my Jeep at Slide Lake and started the four-mile walk to the end of the road. I ran into the Jordan Lakes parking lot on the way. Many memories here. I’ve certainly seen it in better condition.
After a little break I headed on. The fisherman’s trail to the Falls is just before the end of the road. It wasn’t marked and I couldn’t find it so I started up the spine of the ridge until I ran into it. It is VERY thin and often difficult to see. On the way I got a glimpse of Marten lake, deep in a hole.
After topping the ridge the trail starts down the other side and takes a 90-degree turn left and dumps you into a small valley. From here you’re on your own. I stayed to my right as I descended to a talus field that took me up onto the saddle above Upper Falls. At this point I worked my way left and down to a point where I could see the lake.
The route down involved some veggie belays to the talus and then it shoots you out onto a lake I started calling Upper Falls Pot. It has its own inlet and it drains into Upper Falls so I think it deserves independence. Once to the lake it was easy to walk counter-clockwise to the outlet and the only real camp site.
After getting camp and everything set up I grabbed some stuff (mostly camera and trekking poles) and headed on down to Lower Falls Lake. The trip was 500 feet nearly vertical. It was hopping talus and occasionally finding a small path and more veggie belays when the talus was wet. What I found was beautiful. I stuck around long enough to swim and relax. Then it was back up to Upper Falls where I made dinner and hung out until bed time.
Just after midnight I heard a loud “sniff sniff sniff” inches from my ear. I froze. Then I heard a grunt. Looking through the open window of my Stephenson’s 2X tent I saw the largest black bear I’ve ever seen walk past in the moonlight. But it was what I saw next that really bothered me… the adult bear was followed by a small cub. I layed there motionless in my bag.
The mother parked the cub near a tree about twenty feet away from my tent. Then she climbed up the hillside and started destroying an old stump. She must have been looking for grubs or something. Meanwhile, junior was playing near the tree, climbing and running around it. I guess he got bored and decided I was interesting because he walked over to say hello. Uh oh.
I watched mom as the cub was approaching me. As soon as she noticed, she roared and charged down the hill at full speed toward my tent. I thought I was dead. She stopped with her face just inches from the mesh window. I don’t think she knew what to make of the tent. And because this area gets so few visitors it’s possible she never encountered a human before.
Eventually she ushered junior over to his tree and went back up the hill. Once again he got bored and wandered over to me. Mom charged my tent again, this time skidding to a stop and growling with its mouth pressed against the mesh window. This went on for more than four hours. I think she charged the tent eight times.
I had with me a Ruger .357 Magnum and almost fired twice. The thought of firing inside that tent in the dark was frightening. Of course now I can say I’m glad I didn’t fire. It’s easy to armchair quarterback this kind of thing, but try to imagine sitting there with a weapon, getting charged eight times, and not firing it. As I sat there frozen and shaking I can tell you I’ve never been more scared in my life.
Sometime around 5 AM mom and the cub wandered away. I stayed in the tent until around 7 before packing up and heading out, exhausted and still uneasy. The trip out was difficult but without conflict. When I got home I read about a man killed by a bear in his tent at Yellowstone just a couple nights earlier. It brought things back into perspective. I’m glad I didn’t have to shoot, but also glad I was prepared in case it was necessary.
— Tom Bentzen