Tomorrow we leave for the Apostle Island National Lakeshore for our usual 4th of July paddle trip. We will have most of the usual suspects but will not be going to the usual place. We normally spend one night on Manitou Island because its a lovely, isolated site with a perfect sunset view and a fine hiking trail down to the historic fish camp. I got a call Sunday from a nice woman with the National Park Service asking me if I would be interested in changing my permit to a camp other than Manitou. I asked her why but new the answer before she even opened her mouth. Bear trouble.
Readers of this blog will recall the bear experiences of last 4th of July and this May on Manitou. It would appear that the bear have a regular route down the hill to the beach and then down toward the fish camp. According to a couple folks I talked to at NPS HQ in Bayfield, some Girl Scouts had a bear (some said two bears) that was reluctant to leave the area and then the next day a volunteer at the fish camp was trapped in the outhouse for a time. I offered to switch to York if some flexibility could be granted regarding number of people/tents in a site and that was acceptable. Given the makeup of the merged groups (me, VOR, BemidjiIntelOfficer, ManFromSnowyLegs, BessemerConvivialist, RonO, KingOfIronwoodIsland, GurneyGranny, and PodMan) it seems fairly certain that a pre 4th of July party could erupt.
It may be faulty memory on my part, but it seems that 10 years ago when I began lurking around these islands on a regular basis there was never an island closing, especially the entire island. When the mainland trail and the campsite at the end of it were closed earlier this year it was remarkable enough to make the Chicago Tribune. The trail as I understand it, is open now but Hermit Island is still closed to backcountry permits and has been for a year. In 2003 seven bears were trapped on Oak Island and relocated on the mainland and the island (Oak is a BIG island), was closed for a month to visitors. Basswood was also closed in 2006; we camped there the last day it was open.
I'm not sure why the rash of island closings in the last few years has occurred. More aggressive bears, more conservative park policies, dumber backcountry campers, fear of the plaintiffs bar, or a combination of all of those could be contributing factors. A few years back our hunting camp in western Bayfield County was the site of bear relocation due to its remote venue. We suddenly had a rash of 'juvenile delinquent' bears that were more aggressive, did the 'false charge' thing in an attempt to intimidate us, and exhibited other behavior unusual for 'wild' bears. aMaybe these Oak Island troublemakers were part of the group. When the PodMan had a bear do the false charge while cutting wood near the camp he calmly reported the incident, although admitted that adrenaline did peak. If some newbie had the same thing happen I can imagine the breathless report of being attacked and forced to flee by a gigantic bruin with gleaming claws and dripping jaws, barely escaping with their lives. I always get a kick out of the manly bear hunter who shoots some poor bear from a tree while its eating Twinkies from his bait pile 25 yards away. He then has it mounted on its hind legs with claws extended and teeth bared. I'll spare you my opinion on that sort of thing. All I would ask is that these situations and incidents be investigated and evaluated by professionals before closing islands. I don't think that exaggerated tales from spooked campers is enough to warrant closing an island for an entire summer. The other responsibility is for the kayakers and hikers themselves. Keep your food secure, know what to do when the bear shows up, and use your common sense. The advice in the NPS publication on Oak Island, linked above, is excellent. I've heard of idiots that tried to make the bear go away by throwing food at it. These guys should be covered with honey and tied to a tree. If we as backcountry campers use our heads, the park service digs a bit deeper on bear reports, and the additional bear boxes are installed to help reduce temptation, I would hope we could get through a season with no island closings. I'd include reasonable behavior on the part of plaintiffs attorneys in the possible solutions but I quit believing in Santa and the Easter Bunny decades ago.
Any Apostle Islands bear stories from blog readers would be appreciated. Meanwhile, camp smart, secure your food, and have a wonderful 4th of July celebration.