Growl! Mmmm. Me Like Carpenter Ants… Bears along the PCT in Mt. Lassen National Park

Peggy was lucky to be on the scene when a large sow tore apart a log searching for carpenter ants in Mt. Lassen National Park. Claws firmly sunk into the rotting log, she used her weight to rip help open the dead tree. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

I began seeing a lot of bear sign as I hiked along the Pacific Crest Trail through Mt. Lassen National Park. There were the usual large piles of poop and trees had the tell-tale claw marks of bears chatting with other bears. The trees also provided bears with a great back rub. The effort helps remove winter coats and I’m pretty sure feels as good as it does to us when we get out back rubbed or scratched. It also provides the opportunity to leave a scent mark behind, a sort of personal wilderness want ad. “Large male seeks one night stand with attractive female. Don’t expect me to stick around and help raise the kids. In fact, I might eat them.” Doesn’t seem like the ideal qualities you would want in a mate, but it seems to work.

I also found a number of rotting logs torn apart along the trail. Black bears have a real taste for carpenter ants. “Sweet meat,” like my students of long ago in West Africa used to say about termites. And maybe carpenter ants are sweet. While they are known for tunneling through wood with all the enthusiasm of a chainsaw, they don’t actually eat the wood. They are dairy farmers. They raise and milk aphids for the sugary honey-dew they secrete by stroking them with their antennae.  “Come on sweetie, give it up.” Naturally they eat other things, like dead insects. They will surround the bug, suck out its juices and then return to their nest with full tummies to share. I read that they sometimes carry the head with them. (I can see them marching in and placing it at the feet of the queen. I wonder if they have a trophy room.) Like other ants, they inevitably find the shortest path back to their nest and mark the path with pheromones which other ants can follow. Big bugs can attract lots of ants, which means more pheromones, which means more ants. It can become quite the mob scene.

Carpenter ants build amazing labyrinths in dead trees. (Or possibly your house.) If I had to build a maze, I think I would hire these guys to plan it out.
They don’t eat the wood, however. They carefully dump it outside as the ant on the right is doing. More ants can be seen in the crevice to the left and right of the ant. (My nephew Jay Dallen took this photo on his iPhone when we were hiking from Etna Summit to Castle Crags.)
I found this log torn apart by a bear as I hiked down the PCT through Mt. Lassen National Park. Off to the right you can see a pile of sawdust that the ants have deposited. Normally a pile of sawdust like this would suggest that somebody has been working with a saw. 
Here’s another log I found along the trail that had been opened up by a bear. These guys go after a log like a six-year-old goes after a Christmas present.

But back to the bears. I dearly wanted to see a bear tearing into a carpenter ant nest.  I didn’t even see a bear. Peggy who was driving around the park and checking out hiking trails while I was making my way along the PCT, had much more luck. She not only saw a mom and her cubs, she saw them ripping into a carpenter ant nest and took photos. When the bear and her cubs finished their meal, and started walking toward her, she made a rapid retreat to our small RV! Smart woman.

When mom had finished tearing open the log, she was joined by her two cubs. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
One of the cubs snacked on a few ants while mom patiently watched. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
They then let mom have her fill. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
It even appeared that they were standing guard. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
They finished their feast and then started walking toward where Peggy was taking photographs. She decided it was time to get back in the van! (Quick photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

When it comes to food, a black bear is an Omnivore’s omnivore, an opportunistic eater that consumes everything from insects to plants to carrion to any fresh meat it catches— although the latter rarely includes humans. As one of my trekking friends used to say, “If bears wanted to eat people, they’d move into towns where there are lots of people to eat.”  Bears, like other members of the animal kingdom, have learned that puny humans are nasty animals with a penchant for killing; they are best to be avoided. They have developed a taste for human food, however. Trash cans are a frequent target. We know. Our property in Southern Oregon backs up to a million acres of national forest. There are lots bears. Once, one attacked my heavy Weber grill that lives on our back porch and turned it over.  As it came crashing down, my daughter, who was sleeping in the bedroom next to the porch, screamed, “Curtis!” It’s an appeal for help I’d heard before. Bears are also fond of backpacker’s food.

They would occasionally drop by our camp for a bite when I was leading hundred-mile backpack trips up and down the Sierra’s in the 70s, 80s and 90s, especially when I was anywhere in the vicinity of Yosemite. It wasn’t unusual for a trekker to yell my name on his or her first sighting of a bear up close. I spent a lot of time teaching people how to chase bears out of camp and hang their food in trees so the bears wouldn’t get it. We weren’t always successful.  The food bag is supposed to be at least 12 feet up in the air and 9 feet out from the tree hanging from a limb that is just large enough to hold your food. Otherwise, Mom might send her kids up to crawl out the limb and chew through the rope. One food bag is counterbalanced with another food bag and no ropes are left dangling. Bears are smart and I am convinced that they have a university near Yosemite where they teach their cubs how to outsmart backpackers.

Today, there are bear canisters that are made of heavy duty plastic or carbon that are theoretically bear proof. They are tested by filling them with strong smelling goodies and tossing them into the cage of a hungry bear that has developed a taste for backpacking food. If the canister survives for an hour, it is given the seal of approval. Now days, when you backpack through Yosemite National Park or down the John Muir Trail, you are required to carry one. Just recently, the same policy was adopted for Mt. Lassen National Park. So, I was carrying one.

The good news about canisters is that they work. Bears are broken of the habit of eating backpackers’ food and go back to eating much healthier food, like maggots and ants. Backpackers are given the peace of mind of knowing that they will be able to make breakfast, lunch and dinner the next day. The bad news is that the canisters are heavy and awkward. They add two to four pounds of weight and are hard to fit into a pack along with other essential equipment. While the folks in charge of protecting our wildlands and their inhabitants would like to see backpackers use canisters all the time, it won’t happen until these problems are addressed.

NEXT POST on hiking the Pacific Crest Trail through Mt. Lassen National Park: When the mountain blew its top, there is more to manzanita than scary roots, and a gorgeous lake struts its stuff.