Five Boys and a Bear (and a Bag)

Who knew the wilderness could be so ... wild?
By Val Mallinson, March 2009, Updated February 2015

Illustration by Jennifer Taylor

Not long after the Great Mummy Bag Incident, I begin the search for a new sleeping bag. I want one that doesn’t taper. One that isn’t form-fitted like my mother’s Playtex 18-hour girdle. One in which I and my two Miniature Dachshunds, Cooper and Isis, can sleep without starring in an M.C. Escher puzzle.

There it is! Right there on page nine of REI’s Memorial Day Closeout Catalog, the “Bark”-o-lounger of bags, among a graveyard of retail goods no self-respecting outdoor enthusiast would be caught dead buying. It’s bright green, rectangular, and zips open to lie flat. It’s 29 bucks. I call ahead to reserve one for pickup in Seattle.

An impossibly fit kid greets me in Customer Service—his spiky hair looks like even it gets a regular workout. He hauls out a box the size of a dorm-room fridge, hefts it onto the counter and scowls at me from around it.

“Before I sell this to you,” he warns, “promise me you’re not going hiking with this … thing.” He’s doing mental exercises, imagining what it would take to haul this puppy up to base camp.


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“Don’t worry,” I assure him. “It’ll never go farther than 10 feet from the trunk of the car to the tent.”

He hesitates. He needs proof.

“Seriously,” I say, “do we look like heavy-duty hikers to you?”

He elevates an eyebrow as if to say, Are “we” speaking in the royal we? He hasn’t noticed the attractive red and blue loops around my wrist, the leashes leading to color-coordinated harnesses and sweaters below. I point. He leans. The Wee Beasties are sitting politely at my feet. Well, not exactly. Isis is begging for freeze-dried ice cream from passersby, and Cooper is semi-sitting (how low can you go?) but not touching his tender weenie hindquarters to the cold concrete.

Fit Kid believes me now and sells me my sofa-slipcover-sized bag.

One June day later, the bag and the pups and I are in Florence, Ore. The Wonder Wieners have spent themselves on the coast, sniffing flotsam and rolling in jetsam. They stink of jellyfish and seaweed. They’re blissed out, sleeping it off in the backseat in their My Buddy double-dog lookout.

Meanwhile, I’m on the lookout for a place where I can sleep tonight. I know two rules for Oregon campground occupation: One, dogs must be on leash. Two, campground reservations are required. The former is rarely enforced. The latter, always. Do we have reservations? No. We have, as they say in the vernacular, screwed the pooch.

I stop into the Siuslaw National Forest Ranger Station to assess my options. A friendly ranger informs me there is hope for us yet. “Well, there’s that old horse camp, up to the woods at Devil’s Elbow. Hardly nobody ever uses it anymore. Turn up Forest Service Road 52, go ’bout three miles, there’ll be a clearing. There’s a fire ring up there and a vault toilet [translation: hole in the ground].” Good enough for me. Camp is free.

The first mile looks promising. We wind up into the hills on a newly paved and painted road. I catch the first glimpses of sunset in the rearview mirror. The second mile gets dicey. The road ends, becoming a washboard dirt trail that rises steeply into the mountains. I begin to doubt.

About 2.4 miles in, we round the corner and there sits a black bear, contentedly munching away on a blackberry bush. I brake to a sudden stop.

Rudely awoken, Isis gazes bleary-eyed out the window. Seeing said bear, she goes into full point: paw up, tail rigid, ears cocked, nose twitching. She is so excited, she gasps, sounding like something between the last wail of a slain squeak toy and the noise you make when trying to talk while breathing in. Cooper is clueless. He wags, once. What?

Unperturbed, the bear finishes his berries, licks his paw and ambles off into the thick underbrush. Cooper finally gets it. He barks, once. Look!

My doubt deepens. Is it safe to camp within a half-mile radius of a bear’s den? Why didn’t I bring bear bells to tie to the tent’s guy lines? Will the Dachsie Twins act as an early warning system, or will we become bear steak with hush puppies tonight? I imagine lying low in the tent. I hear the shuffling, the snuffling. I feel hot blackberry breath on my neck … trapped in a big bag as claws rip through rip-stop nylon!!!

Isis whines from the backseat. I thought I saw a bear! It pulls me out of my mental hysterics. Get real. That bear isn’t going to bother us. Screw it, we’re going on.

We make it to the campsite to find it already occupied by a woman and five boys between the ages of eight and 13. They’ve taken over the place, and it looks like they’re here to stay. The youngest gathers branches, the oldest chops wood with an ax and another stacks it. Two of the kids run around a crummy trailer parked on cinder blocks. Doubt is replaced by dread.

The woman wanders over. I roll down the window. I stumble through small talk as I try to picture the three of us fitting anywhere into this melee. Almost as an afterthought, I say to her, “By the way, I saw a bear down the road a ways. Just thought you’d like to know.”


“I ain’t worried. My boys got their .22s,” she drawls. Dread, meet despair.

My first thought: A .22 will do little more than sting the bear, sending him into a royally pissed-off rampage through camp, where our little one-person/two-dog tent is a much softer target than their trailer. My second revelation: An eight-year-old with a rifle is as likely to shoot me in the dark as he is to shoot the bear. My final realization: Come bear or boy wonder, there is no way in hell we’re sleeping at Devil’s Elbow tonight.

Sure enough, on our way back down the road, there’s the bear, resuming his berry meal by twilight. Seeing us, he huffs in annoyance and again ambles off. Isis has found her voice. I did, I did see a bear! Cooper barks, twice. Isn’t that—??

The sun dips into the ocean as we wind our way back down the road. Our last hope gone, we pull onto the side of the road somewhere in the middle of nowhere. That night, as the stinky, suction-cup pups and I cram into the backseat of the Toyota Prius, the comforts of our cushy bag are completely lost to us.

It isn’t long, however, before we are able to revel in its roominess. A few weeks later, back in Washington, we finally get to spread out in the sleeping bag and drift off to dreamland, ten legs intertwined, in the tent, as intended. It is every bit as spacious and glorious as I’d hoped, and the only bears around are Ursa Major and Minor, sparkling in the night sky.


Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 43: Jul/Aug 2007

Illustration by Jennifer Taylor

Val Mallinson author of two "Dog Lover's Companion" books (Avalon Travel Publishing) lives in Seattle and travels frequently with her two Miniature Dachshunds.