The last thing you want to hear after midnight in a deserted campground is footsteps near your tent. Wait, I take that back: the last thing you want to hear is a grizzly bear growling or, worse yet, actually ripping apart your tent with its teeth. But footsteps are a close second or third.
I was camping at Emerald Lake State Park in Vermont last week with my wife and two little boys and, after a lovely weekend when the campground was full, the weather turned rainy and the place was deserted save for one other hearty family.
It was thirty minutes past midnight on Monday night and I was lying in our tent, trying to fall asleep, while my wife and boys were already slumbering next to me. It was poring rain outside, but we were nice and dry and the melodic sound of raindrops pelting our tent had me in a deeply relaxed, all-is-right-with-the-world frame of mind. That is, until I heard some rummaging, or was that footsteps near our tent?It was our fifth night of camping on this trip and the prior evenings had all been blissfully quiet but at this moment my mind raced back to what the ranger told us when we checked into the park two days before.
“Just keep all your food and trash secured because we’ve had some black bears rummaging around the dumpsters,” he said, ominously.
But surely bears don’t like to roam around looking for snacks this late at night in a downpour, do they? I sure as hell hoped not, but moments later, I heard more rummaging and footsteps, this time even closer to the tent. We had met the only other family still in our camping area and my wife had bumped into them in the bathroom brushing their teeth hours before. Why would they be out walking around in the poring rain at 12:30 a.m.?
I pretended like I didn’t know my wife was asleep and called out to her across my slumbering boys, “Jen, did you hear that?”
“Hear what?” she replied, more than a little annoyed. “I was sleeping!”
“Never mind,” I said, feeling guilty. “It was probably nothing.”
But then we both heard the noises again and a moment later a bright light pored in through our tent.
“What the hell is that?” I said, before unzipping the tent and discovering a blinding spotlight perhaps 100 feet away, streaming right into our tent. I couldn’t tell what it was because the light was too bright.
“It must be a park ranger out on patrol,” Jen ventured.
“You think they have park rangers out on patrol in the middle of the night, in a driving rain, just shining spotlights in people’s tents?” I asked, half sarcastic, half hoping she was right.
I pondered this prospect and, in my increasingly paranoid state concluded that the only reason why a park ranger would be out this late at night, in the rain, shining bright lights, would be if they’d had a bear sighting.
“Maybe they’re coming to warn us that a big storm is coming and we have to evacuate,” Jen speculated. “I think there’s a phone number on the sheet they gave us when we checked in, maybe one of us should go look for it in the car.”
I wasn’t stoked about venturing out into the rain, especially if there was a bear or an ax murderer on the loose, but when I saw my wife jump up and get out of the tent, I followed in solidarity.
She called the number on the map we’d been given but it was a recorded message. If a bear is eating you, press 1. If a friend or loved one just had their head chopped off by a homicidal maniac press 2, or something on these lines. There was no possibility to speak to a live person, and after she got off the phone, the spotlight came back into our tent.
“I’m going to get the padlocks,” I said, referring to two tiny little luggage size Master locks I had in my suitcase, which was in the trunk of our car.
After I came back to the tent, dripping wet with Master locks in hand, my very logical wife gave me a reality check.
“You think your going to keep a bear or any other intruder out with those little things?” she asked. “I’m not letting you lock us all in here, you’ll lose the key and then when we need to go the bathroom we’ll be trapped.”
I knew she was right and as the spotlight disappeared I ventured hopefully that we should just try to get back to sleep and hope for the best. But it’s hard to sleep when you’re in a paranoid frame of mind. There’s a good reason why there are so many horror movies involving campers – when you’re out in the woods, sleeping in a tent, you’re totally vulnerable.
I couldn’t help but think of all the stories I’d read over the years about people being eaten by bears, robbed or killed while camping or hiking. In my mind, I know that camping isn’t much riskier than staying in a hotel, but when you hear noises and lights late on a rainy night in an isolated place, it’s hard to be rational.
Eventually I fell asleep and when I woke up, I immediately unzipped the tent screen and saw a van parked about 100 feet away where the spotlight had been coming from.
“Good lord,” I said. “It must have just been these people in their van arriving.”
“Who checks into a campground after midnight in the rain?” my wife asked.
I was determined to find out, so I walked over to their van, unsure if I was going to say something or just have a look at the people who’d scared us half to death. As I approached the van, which was expensive looking and had New Jersey plates, I saw a woman, who appeared to be in her 40s but no tent.
“Morning,” I ventured, wondering if she’d have any explanation for me.
“Morning,” she said, and before I had to decide if I was going to ask about last night she immediately apologized. “I am so sorry about last night. We got caught in the storm and needed a place to sleep. I hope we didn’t scare you.”
I momentarily thought about playing the role of tough guy and saying, “Scared? Who us? Hell no,” but I couldn’t pull it off.
“Honestly, we were scared – we heard the noises and couldn’t imagine who or what it was, in the rain that late, and then with the lights shining into our tent, well …”
“I am really sorry about that,” she repeated, and I assured her it was no big deal, but I couldn’t help but wonder why they hadn’t just gone to one of the motels right near the campground.
She and her companion exited the campground 15 minutes before the ranger arrived at 9 a.m., thus avoiding paying the $16 fee, and we packed up our soggy gear and checked out a couple hours later. As we drove up to the ranger booth at the exit, I recounted part of our experience and asked what one is supposed to do in such a situation.
“In the bathroom, there’s a sign that says if there’s a disturbance past ten, call the ranger immediately, don’t wait till morning to report it, but no one answered,” I said.
“We need to change the signs,” he said. “You’re supposed to come down here to the ranger house and report it in person.”
“Do you allow people to check in overnight?” I asked.
“We strongly discourage it,” he said.
At the campground we had stayed in on Cape Cod the previous week, they actually had a gate that was locked down at 10 p.m., so it wasn’t just discouraged, it was impossible.
On a rainy night, when you’re lying in your tent in your underwear, the prospect of getting in the car and driving a couple miles to report a disturbance in person is not a very appetizing prospect. But then again, I guess it beats lying awake in your tent, dreaming about bears and Freddy Krueger.
[Photos by Tambako on Flickr, and Dave Seminara, video by Dave Seminara]