SARANAC LAKE — The iconic call of the loon. The gentle lapping of water on shore. The rustling of a cooler as it’s raided for food in the middle of the night.
All these sounds have been common for campers at the Saranac Lake Islands Campground this summer, as bears have been raiding campsites looking for easy meals.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation — which operates the boat-access-only campground on Middle and Lower Saranac lakes, as well as Weller Pond — said Wednesday that so far this year, it has received about 50 complaints of bear activity within the campground, “with more coming in almost daily.”
Bears have not been a problem at the Saranac Lake Islands Campground in the past, the department said. While many backpackers and car campers are used to protecting their campsites from bears, boat campers often are unprepared for bruin raids.
“Due to the dry weather in late spring and early summer, there has been a shortage of natural food for black bears across the Adirondacks,” DEC spokesman David Winchell wrote in an email. “This has resulted in high nuisance bear activity as bears seek to obtain food from human sources in the backcountry, at residences, campgrounds, summer camps.”
Bear issues aren’t limited to the islands campground. The DEC said about 330 nuisance bear complaints have been received this year within its Region 5, which covers northeastern New York. That’s significantly higher than normal. Most of those came from within the Adirondack Park, although some have been on the periphery of the Blue Line.
The DEC said there have been nuisance bears at Limekiln, Moffit Beach, Golden Beach and Tioga Point campgrounds as well.
The department also noted in last week’s Backcountry Conditions report that bears had also been active in the High Peaks Wilderness Area.
“A nuisance bear with an ear tag has been active in the Eastern High Peaks recently,” the bulletin said. “The bear is approaching hikers and campers in an attempt to obtain food.
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“Bear canisters are currently required in the High Peaks Wilderness and strongly recommended throughout the rest of the park.”
The DEC said that so far, efforts to trap, haze or tag bears have been unsuccessful, and the department is relying on camper and public education efforts to limit bear incidents.
“DEC staff have mainly focused on educating campers on how to avoid attracting bears into their campsite,” the DEC said. “Prior to their arrival, all campers with reservations at the campground are sent emails notifying them of the high nuisance bear activity and the steps they can take to avoid attracting bears. In addition, campers receive verbal instructions and handouts on this topic when they register. Signs have also been posted at campsites and DEC staff have increased patrols to provide additional instructions to campers.
“Bear canisters and bear coolers are available to lend to campers who desire them.”
While the DEC said there’s always some inherent danger while camping in bear country, there have been no reported injuries despite the increased number of encounters.
The weather this year has likely led to the uptick in bear activity, with the Adirondacks being well below normal in precipitation. One weather station in the High Peaks currently registers more than 7 inches below normal.
“Dry weather this spring limited the quality and availability of natural foods,” the DEC said. “When natural foods are not available, bears that are normally shy and avoid people take bigger risks to acquire food. If they get a regular food reward by coming close to people, the behavior generally continues.”
The DEC said keeping the campsite clean and properly storing food are the best ways to limit bear encounters, adding that “If approached, make noise and back away slowly; never run. Bear spray is an option for close encounters; keep it on your person and accessible at all times.”
Winchell said people should report any bear encounters to either campground staff or to the Region 5 DEC Wildlife office at 518-897-1291.