Your baby or your life: wilderness edition

The family and I went camping and as we checked in heard the same dire warnings that we’d heard before: our local bear problems mean lock up every single thing that smells like food. Not in your car, because they’ll claw it apart. Not in your tent because that’s like gift wrap to a bear. If your kids spill, change their clothes and store them in the bear locker. If you have a chance, vacuum out the carseats before you enter the park.

On and on. Lip balm will draw them. A closed can of soda in a car will draw them. Referring to your unsightly waistline as a muffin top will draw them…okay, not that last one. But close.

So we always heed the warnings. Spouse and I watch the kids carefully and pick up every crumb they drop. We put dirty clothes and washcloths in the bear box. We store the bug spray and sunscreen and lip balm in the bear box. We even lock up the backpacks that might have at one time had a cracker in them.

And on night three it occurred to me: I’m still lactating.

I think Butter has weaned. He went from nursing before bed every night to several nights a week to a couple of times a week to forgetting for two weeks to forgetting again for…I think it’s been a month now. I’m a child-led weaning sort, and I don’t offer, don’t refuse. And he’s a toddler, so he’s busy and he forgets and…

What if a bear can smell that you make milk for months after weaning? I’m not kidding. Tiny babies can smell if mama is in the room. Bears are about seven billion times better at smelling.

When my first child was born we visited a wonderful friend. My four-months’ pregnant friend held my four-month-old baby, who took about two minutes before he opened wide and went right for her fully clothed breast. Made a hilarious (or mortifying, depending on whom you ask) wet circle on her shirt.

Because he could smell that her milk had just come in (at about 20 weeks).

If my four-month-old can smell milk through several layers of clothes and unused milk-delivery system, I’m guessing that a bear can smell me through the single-layer-mesh tent windows better than that closed soda in that closed car.

And riddle me this, readers: What week of the month do you think we happened to be camping? I was surprised to find (on day three of the trip) that it was the time during which an old myth holds that women are attacked by bears and mountain lions much more frequently. Blah blah blah pheromones…blah blah blah bleeding…blah blah blah unsubstantiated claims that mostly apply to polar bears.*

Whatever. These wee hour machinations did not inspire relaxed appreciation for the scenery: firmament, heavens, flora, nor fauna.

So now, wide awake at 3am, surrounded by the most beautiful bear country, after three glorious days with my boys and husband, who do you think felt more small and threatened than any woman should?

I lay there, reeking of honeydew ice cream on one end and of sloughed nutrients on the other, desperately hoping I’d live to plan the next camping trip a little better.

It’s rather unfair, I raged, after I spent an hour *terrified* and flinching at every sound. The two things that give me superpowers, the two things that make me the most vital I will ever be in my biological life…those things should not be a life-threatening liability.

I wouldn’t, even if I could, stuff my breasts and uterus into a bear box. I don’t care if the mountain lions and the bears and the wolverines all planned a hunting party with my photo on their usenet.

I can make a human and feed a human. And that means bears will come from miles around to feed on my superhero flesh?

Oh, hell no.

Except there was no “hell no.”

There was a small creature lying next to me who cried, in his sleep, “No! No! Carry!” And he reached his arms toward the sky lit with more enormous stars than I have ever seen in my life. I silently rolled him closer to me and curled around him. Knowing I couldn’t protect him. Knowing that, if anything, my very existence threatened his.

But he twined his fingers in my hair and settled into the warm, sweet baby sleep of a mammal with its mama.

I wanted to sink into our nest.

But his damned breath was so loud I couldn’t listen for bears. I had to choose whether to take this time to be his mama, in all its painful and scary challenges, or to roll away in the name of vigilance and preparedness.

I woke up exhausted and stiff with his fingers still in my hair, hoping the bear would at least wait until I had my patented campfire coffee and cocoa blend.

Sometimes weakness makes you strong. Sometimes strength makes you weak. And sometimes you gotta hope there’s a bumper crop of blueberries, honey, and salmon several miles away.

*Public service note: the myth about bear attacks on menstruating women is patently false. See this article and this study, to which I did not have access in the wilderness, because apparently a wilderness without cell access seems more attractive to nature snobs like me. Must rethink that position next time I’m awake at 3am.

24 thoughts on “Your baby or your life: wilderness edition

  1. Oh, lord, but how you kill me. This is precisely the kind of thing that would have ended up in several sleepless nights. Then again, I’ve never been camping (I hear that there are NO SHOWERS ALSO NOWHERE TO PLUG IN MY TRAVEL HAIR DRYER).

    You are a far better person than I, who just this morning hid in the bathroom for 10 minutes just to be out of smelling distance of He Who Must Nurse Every Freakin’ Five Seconds.

    • Kate, hiding from a newborn is just survival. They’re actually worse than bears, but popular lore hasn’t caught up to them.

      All state and federal parks have showers. Hot water. Outlets to plug things in. Of course, the hot showers are 50 cents for 5 minutes and there’s one outlet every bathroom, which you share with dozens of campers. But there’s no cell service or internet, and I’ve never heard a hair dryer, so you’d get that outlet all to yourself.

  2. You made me laugh. (I needed that today.) I’m also somewhat astonished… an entire arena of maternal terror I have thus far managed to avoid.

    Um. Next year, somewhere without wild animals?

    • Okay, even your name has me skittish today, Wolfie. Pack animals way harder to outrun than a bear.

      There’s something to a place that’s cheap, and where the kids will willingly do a 7 mile hike for no reason other than…it’s all there is to do.

      Glad I made you laugh. You made me relax. Win-win.

  3. As it seems my youngest will walk down the aisle tugging at my shirt for milk, its a good thing I don’t foresee having the energy to take my little ones camping any time soon during any phase of my cycle,- follicular, luteal, or the few days in between. Which, let’s be honest, might be the MOST dangerous.

  4. Thanks for the info but please don’t tell my husband. I used that excuse too many times to count in order to get out of camping trips. Your story, so well-told, reminds me of a t-shirt I still have: “I make milk for little humans. What’s YOUR superpower?”

    So glad you made it home in one piece, you Superwoman, you!

    (If you’d like your book, I need your address. Yes. You won!)

    • Never occurred to me to use that as a get-out-of-camping excuse. Spouse would never believe it, since I am always…ALWAYS…surprised by day 28. Always. It’s as though I never learned to tell time. Or have other things to worry about or something.

      I always wanted that shirt. Wish I had bought it.

    • Thank you.
      I wasn’t much of a camper as a teenager or young adult when I cared about things like showers and good food. But I love it now that my norm is disheveled and smelly. Especially with the kids. It’s a cheap vacation that forces fresh air and exercise. What could be better?

  5. Ever since the whole Lyme Disease thing, I avoid the woods like the plague. But now, on the off chance that the bears can smell that I breastfed five years ago, I’m never venturing past the treeline again!

  6. Huh. This would never occur to me. In my current state of covered in spit up and other assorted milk-related things, I have no doubt every bear in a fifty mile radius would be able to smell me. Possibly people can, too. I can certainly smell myself. Gross.

    I hate camping. And I know I will be doing a lot of it in the future, with my great outdoors husband and our two extraordinarily active sons. Well, the first one is active. We’ll see about the second.

  7. Heck, you’re already camping…winter without hot showers is worse than camping.

    Stand your ground on hating camping. Hubs can take both boys camping when little one weans. You stay home and wallow in the quiet.

  8. Wonderful post! This is only marginally related, but one of my favorite books I read last year was “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson, the memoir of a middle-aged city guy who gets it in his head to hike the Appalachian Trail. As he prepares to go, his reading includes cautionary information about bear encounters, and his mounting alarm is hilarious. Having been a Boy Scout for years, I can relate to middle-of-the-night, middle-of-nowhere mind spinouts.

    • I’m torn on whether to have the boys in Boy Scouts. I’m protesting them for obvious philosophical reasons, but there’s something to that experience…
      There are neighborhoods in big cities where I’ve had similar freakouts. But somehow gunfire or loud arguments or the startling creak of a doorframe dwarf in relation to wild animals, don’t you think? Even terrible humans are familiar, because we’ve seen so many behaviors from our bipedal set in our lifetime. Cougars and bears and moose are so puzzling. And hungry. We’re vulnerable to other humans, but we’re meat to animals.
      *shudder*

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