Q: Many years ago my backpack was sprayed by a skunk; the smell is only now starting to fade. Ever since, I have been sleeping with my backpack and food in my tent. Is the smell keeping you away? If so, I might try to find another skunk to get mad at my pack. —Heather Keys, via email
A: Wait, let me get this straight: You've been sleeping with a backpack that reeks of skunk stink for YEARS?? Unless you've had your nasal receptors removed, I think you might have bigger problems than bears.
That said, what you are doing is a terrible idea. While a direct blast from a skunk can sometimes deter large carnivores like bears, it's unlikely that the lingering smell will keep them away. The main threat a skunk offers is the irritation and intensity of a full-on blast from its anal glands. Some of my kin have been conditioned to avoid skunks, but that requires visual confirmation of a black-and-white tiny terror; otherwise, I have the potential to investigate smells, no matter how bad they might be to you. Rotting caribou carcasses? Festering garbage? Feces? It's all child's play to me.
And sometimes, a skunk blast doesn't keep me from launching an attack. How many times has a family dog returned reeking of mustelid, happily wagging its tail? If Fido can face down a skunk, so can I.
Which brings me to the worst news: All these years, you've been getting lucky. Depending on where you typically camp, it's possible to sleep with your food in a tent and never see a bear—but it's never smart to do so. Every time you do, you're risking the chance that I'll sniff it out and start associating humans with food.
That usually gets me killed. So I must implore you: If you care about me, your safety, or the continued sanctity of the wilderness for others to enjoy, start hanging a bear bag or using a canister. You'll be doing your part to keep me wild—a few moments that could mean the difference between life and death for my kind (and sometimes yours).
And for the love of Grizz, go buy yourself a new pack!
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