A Lesson at 2:30 AM!

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Things seem a little slow, so I thought I'd relate a funny story from last weekend. Many of us are experienced outdoorsmen (and outdoorswomen). So we take certain things for granted. But I volunteer leading urban youth on hiking and backpacking trips. They remind me that our experience is often built on silly mistakes.

Here's a link to what happened.

A Lesson at 2:30 AM!

I stir uneasily.

It’s two-thirty in the morning. I’m not quite asleep, nor am I totally awake. Powerful moonlight illuminates the inside of my one-person ultralight tent. I listen intently.


Yet something has disturbed my rest.

Backpack to the Beach
I’m in Coast Camp, a trail camp in Point Reyes National Seashore. Point Reyes is a beautiful national park roughly 30 miles northwest of San Francisco. I wrote about this area when I visited to build a tule boat. It has amazing beaches, forests, and grasslands that host a variety of plants and wildlife.

Alongside my tent are many others. I’m with three volunteers from the Sierra Club’sInspiring Connections Outdoors program. We’re leading nine high school students and their teacher on a weekend backpack.

I worried about rain. But the weather cooperated and we had a gorgeous day. Our group hiked along the beach 1.6 miles carrying overnight packs and gear. This was the students’ first backpack trip. And for some, it was their first night sleeping in a tent.

After our hike, we crossed a fast-moving stream that flows across the beach. We scrambled over rocks and went tidepooling near the water line. We found whale bones and discovered several harbor seals hauled-out on the beach. We played net-less volleyball for several hours, cooked dinner, and made S’mores over a roaring bonfire on the beach.

You might think all this activity would tire-out the students. But teenagers have batteries Elon Musk would envy. They chattered like finches inside their tents until after midnight. I had seen other guides try to hike the students until they drop, hoping they’ll go to sleep at a reasonable hour. I have no such illusions. Teenage energy is like the endless line of waves crashing on the beach.

Creature in the Night
At one thirty in the morning, I hear movement outside my tent. The rustling sounds like some of the students are moving about. I unzip my tent and rainfly to stick my head out. All is quiet. I see nothing. Faint snoring comes from the closest tent, where four boys sleep.

When you’re in the wilderness, you are never alone. You camp in a neighborhood with non-human residents. Before we left park headquarters, I learned that a striped skunk regularly visits this campsite. And I saw deer sneak silently through our camp a few hours earlier. So the sound I heard likely belonged to some curious rodent looking for an easy meal.

Not that they were likely to find one! We warned the students: snacks, sugary drinks, deodorant, toothpaste, cosmetics. Anything with an odor goes into the bear box with our food. Most state and federal campgrounds in California have these metal boxes. And it’s a no-brainer to use them.

This brings us back to two-thirty in the morning. I definitely hear an animal moving about outside. I’m prepared to ignore it, except I need to pee.

Fine! I’ll take care of my business and see what’s going on. Then maybe I can get some sleep.

I don my fleece pullover, still smoky from the campfire. I slip-on my glasses, grab my knife (old habit), and unzip the tent. As I back out of my tent, I zip the rainfly without closing the tent door. I’m being lazy and I know I shouldn’t leave the door open. But it’s not like there’s a large animal trying to get into my tent…

I turn around and I’m face-to-face with a large animal! I expect a vole or a mouse. Instead there’s something larger, with big glowing eyes.

In the red glow of my headlamp is an enormous raccoon. It’s healthy, plump, with a bushy winter coat. And from its mouth hangs a Ziplock bag.

Obviously, the raccoon found something it liked. And as I advance, it scurries into the bushes with its treasure. It must have sensed my displeasure.

I use the pit toilet on the outskirts of camp and make my way back to our tents. I try to move silently, partly out of courtesy for the sleeping campers, but mostly out of habit.

I head for my tent, passing the door of the students’ tent closest to my own. Suddenly, a daypack in front of the door moves!

I spin around as the raccoon emerges from inside the daypack. In its mouth hangs a bag of Doritos. Is that a look of guilt that passes briefly across the raccoon’s face? Not likely!

I slow my heart-rate and fright turns to irritation. The raccoon had unzipped the main compartment of the daypack! At this early hour, I’m in an ill humor to tolerate such brazen larceny.

I draw my knife threateningly and step toward the animal. The challenge is unmistakable and the raccoon scampers away with its prize. I seize the daypack and throw it in the bear box.

The Morning After
Morning tells the story. Surrounding the tent are empty bags of chips, Hostess cupcake wrappers, and empty candy bags. This raccoon is not on the Atkins diet.

The culprit (the student not the animal) fesses up. He had placed his school daypack, loaded with snacks into his overnight backpack (!). When the students turned-in for the evening, he remembered his bag of snacks. But instead of putting it in the bear box, he placed it outside the door of his tent.

I’m annoyed, and more than a little embarrassed. Our trip fed Hostess cupcakes to an enterprising raccoon. But I refrain from expressing the full weight of my displeasure. The students are inexperienced with the outdoors. And teenagers are world-renowned for not thinking through the consequences of their actions. The student lost his snacks. And I made him pick up every last wrapper. Hopefully, there won’t be a next time.

I Learn a Lesson
Raccoons don’t have opposable thumbs, like we do. But their keen brains lead them to use their dexterous hands to great effect. When I express my amazement that the raccoon unzipped the daypack, one of the leaders chimes in, “That’s why you zip-up your tent to the top. Raccoons can’t reach the zippers.”

That’s why you zip-up your tent to the top. Raccoons can’t reach the zippers.

I start in surprise. I’ve always left both my tent’s zippers at the bottom. This way, I only need to unzip one to open the door. It never occurs to me that there’s an advantage to zipping both zippers to the top.

The student isn’t the only one to learn a lesson from a raccoon!

Do you want to share one of your own silly mistakes?

- Woodsorrel
Last edited:

Woody girl

Full Member
Mar 31, 2018
Many lessons learned over the years. But one I remember.
Super excited to be visiting the lake district for the first time, we arrive and set up camp next to the lake in a small cosy dip with a high bank at back of us. Fantastic views and felt protected from any weather.
It rained very heavily that night and we woke up in our own personal lake!
Moral of the story ...which I should have known... check the weather before you go and...NEVER camp in a dip!
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