Learning from Bears

821 days ago by in Uncategorized

This is the story of my first encounters with the bears of Yosemite and how it changed my life for the better. I was 40 years old when I took a backpack and ventured into the wilderness. I had waited all my life for someone to say, “Hey, let’s go backpacking!” but it never happened and then one day I realized that if I didn’t do it soon, I’d be too old.

So, after reading a few books and getting a map I announced to my friends that I intended to go on a solo backpacking trip into the Yosemite wilderness.

I listened to all the warnings about the bears and the dangers of hiking alone and decided to do it anyway.

I chose the NW area of the Park, above the Hetch Hetchy Valley. A place that sees only a fraction of tourists and is lower in elevation than many of the more popular places.

I was really anxious to begin my summer of backpacking adventures. After all, I had spent most of the Winter months making lists and scrounging equipment. So, on the morning of June 5th I set out, new Gortex boots and all. All 53 plus pounds of “important stuff!”

My destination this first day was a small lake called Gravel Pit that I had day hiked to the previous Summer. I began my hike at a trailhead near Cherry Lake Dam. The morning was clear and crisp, the sky, a rich blue and not a cloud in sight. The day was spectacular and I thanked the Universe aloud for this opportunity. What a lucky soul I am to have Yosemite as my backyard playground!

The first mile of this journey into the wilderness on the Lake Eleanor trail was exciting and encouraging. I found fresh bear tracks, one front, one rear, perfect tracks! The purple Lupine and yellow Madia painted the ground with color as I hiked through the mixed Oak and Ponderosa pine forest. I traveled across the Lake Eleanor dam and encountered a friendly Park Ranger. We laughed about the size of my pack and he asked if perhaps I was carrying a boat. He checked my wilderness permit and cautioned me about aggressive bears in the Laurel Lake area. I told him I was really looking forward to my first bear encounter and he assured me I’d have it by noon! It was 8 am.

The scenery around this rather large lake was awesome. The navy blue colored water was calm and several small gray granite islands stood out boldly against the dark colored water. Everything seemed to have a richness about it, a clarity. The sky was an intense shade of blue and the dark green foliage created the perfect color contrast. The giant granite mountains to the North appeared to be rising up from the lake, engulfing the sky with their presence and contrasting sharply with the blue sky. Waterfalls, several of them across the lake, with white thundering water, broke the silence of the day. The lush green vegetation with the cascading white water set against the lake water so blue!! Nature in all her glory, a truly magnificent sight!

The smell of wild lilac and bear clover was everywhere. The bear clover, also known as mountain misery, carpets the forest floor displaying small white flowers. The purple lupine blooms in clumps amongst it. The white and light yellow wild lilac flowers lined the trail as I traveled up the mountainside towards Miguel Meadow.

There is a lupine in this area called Harlequin Lupine and it is a striking combination of colors. This plant seems to prefer the dry, trampled, exposed parts of the trails and is nothing short of stunning in appearance. Harlequin lupine is a low growing plant that has two different colored petals. An outer ring of bright pink to slightly purple and an inner ring of bright yellow to white.

A rather large number of orange colored California newts lounged in the damp sections of trail and I had to pay close attention to keep from stepping on them. They ranged in size from 2” to 5” and stood out boldly against the dark colored earth.

The wildflowers at Miguel Meadow were spectacular. A carpet of purple lupine dotted with spring green grasses and outlined with the flaming red orange of the Indian paintbrush.

The Universe led me to a great little secluded campsite at the far end of Gravel Pit lake. Grasses, cattails and willows lined the banks of this tiny lake. Much of the waters surface was covered with a mosaic of water lily leaves and pine needles, a beautiful combination of earth tones.

I took off my pack and checked out my new home site. A small fire pit, a flat, clear area about 30′ in diameter under a canopy of pines and not far from the water’s edge. I decided it was perfect, unloaded a few items and sat my tired body down on my new bear proof food canister.

I had only been there a few minutes when I noticed movement off to my right near the brush line. A small bear emerged from the bushes and entered the clearing I had just declared “home.” The animal was apparently making its way around the edge of the lake and my campsite was part of its trail. It actually took me a second or two to identify it as a bear. It was only about 30 inches tall at the shoulder and less than a hundred pounds. It was a scruffy looking thing with a dull gray-brown coat that was long and matted. It looked like an overweight dog in need of grooming. Its nose was to the ground, apparently searching for food. The animals head moved from side to side in a relaxed, free-flowing sort of motion. It was completely oblivious to my presence!

I sat there and watched in amazement, fascinated by its coat, its movements, and its presence in general. The small bear walked or rather waddled with such grace and silence I was awed. I heard nothing as it advanced towards me. But, when it still had not noticed me from about 15 feet out, I became concerned that it was getting much too close! My heart rate soared! Given the bear’s current direction and speed, this animal was going to walk right into my lap in just a few short seconds! I had to do something now! So, I stood up and said “Good morning.”

The poor little bear leaped up in the air, I had obviously scared it half to death! It spun around and ran off with nearly no noise at all until I heard a huge splash not far off. I then remembered the puddle I’d walked around just prior to reaching my campsite. I laughed and smiled, that was great I thought. My first bear encounter and it wasn’t bad at all. In fact , I thought it went quite well. Best part though was that the Park Ranger was right, it was just about noon.

The bear stopped about 15 – 20 yards away just past the brush line and looked back at me. I waved and it walked off lazily following the perimeter of my camp before disappearing amongst the 3′ tall bracken ferns. What a great day!

You see, everything I’d read and heard about Yosemite’s black bear population had led me to believe that they would come in the night and try to steal my food. I figured the first confrontation with one of these wild beasts would be the worst. But hell, this daylight encounter was rather entertaining!

My world was a pleasant 60+ degrees and a rather strong breeze blew most of the day. I busied myself setting up camp, staking my claim in the wilderness, exploring the immediate area and preparing for nightfall. Most of my equipment was ancient by today’s “light” standards, hence the weight of my pack. I also brought too much of everything including food so I was forced to use multiple caching methods. But, I was quite happy in my little piece of heaven, listening to the red-winged blackbirds and an assortment of unidentified feathered friends serenade the silence.

News of my arrival must have spread fast in the animal kingdom for I saw no other mammals since the bear. I truly hope that the forest creatures were entertained by my antics with the ‘bear bags.’ I’d hate to have something so funny, lost, for lack of an audience. It simply amazes me that this particular aspect of setting up camp can actually take longer than all the other stuff combined! Worst of all, you’d think I’d get better at it with practice but I don’t.

The idea of bear bags is simple, tie two bags of equal weight together with a rope and hang it from a branch out of the bears reach. Sounds simple huh? Wrong! It actually begins with branch selection and this part, in and of itself, requires careful planning. The branch can’t be to far from camp as the bags are reported to be “only a stall tactic.” (I remember reading that “the backpacker should be prepared to defend his or her food.”)

The branch can’t be to close to camp either as hungry bears focused on bear bags could easily step on tents containing sleeping people. The bags must be ten feet away from the trunk of the tree, twelve feet off the ground and the limb can be no larger than one inch in diameter at the point the bags hang. (Got all that?)
What this means is that the perfect branch is about twenty feet in the air.

Once the perfect branch is located the fun begins, getting the rope over the limb. In my case, the rope was a 50 foot length of clothesline so it was rather heavy. Anyway, a good baseball size rock works well but remember, whatever it is, it must be heavy enough to bring the weight of the rope back down to you.

I made the mistake of using my pocketknife as a weight on my first attempt at snagging the limb. It took several tries but I finally gave it the old ‘heave-ho’ and my knife and the rope sailed over the perfect branch. The only problem was that the knife was too light. It continued to spin around the limb several times creating a tightly tangled mess 20 feet in the air.

I stood under the tree laughing aloud, great, I thought. Now the rope and the knife I need to cut it with are both in the tree. I tugged at the rope which only seemed to make it tighter. Pondered the situation a little and decided this is why there aren’t very many good branches around campsites.

Finally, I stretched the rope straight out from the limb and found a large enough tree to protect me from flying objects. (Good thing I had a 50′ length of rope!) I squatted down behind the tree and pulled straight out and down on the rope. Eventually, the rope let loose from the branch and the pocketknife landed with a thud on the ground. Well, success at last! I made a mental note never to use the pocketknife technique again.

Eventually, after locating a ‘good rock’, re-tying and throwing at least a few more times, I got it! Although I’ve never watched anyone else hang bear bags, surely, there must be a better way! I can just imagine Bambi, Thumper and the Disney forest friends laughing hysterically at the crazy human’s behavior. It certainly gives me a true appreciation for the recently invented bear canister.

June 6th

I awoke the next morning to thick dew on my tent and mist on the water. As I climbed out of my warm cocoon I watched a great blue heron glide effortlessly to a landing site in the shallows at the far end of the lake. The green and yellow end of the visual spectrum was intensified by the moisture giving everything a rather psychedelic appearance and the air was chilly in the pale morning light.

The morning sun was a welcome sight. Warmth. I thanked the Universe for a safe and uneventful night and began preparing for the next leg of my journey. I was tending a small campfire and eating some granola when I caught sight of a large brown colored bear about 20 yards away. It was following the brush line around my camp.

This bear was much larger than the first, maybe 200 pounds. It saw me notice him and paused briefly to exchange eye contact with me. It seemed to me that 20 yards was a little too close and at the same time I felt honored that the bear appeared comfortable with my presence.
It’s just a little unnerving to know that an animal of this size can get so close without making a sound. I watched the bear walk casually around the perimeter of my camp and disappear into the forest.

I finished packing my gear and tending to the chores of camping and set off on the trail. I was now acutely aware of my surroundings and scanned the forest diligently as I hiked. Nothing like an up close bear sighting first thing in the morning to get your adrenaline going!

I was less than a quarter of a mile from the Laurel Lake trail intersection when I spied movement approximately 40 yard ahead. Sure enough, another bear and even from this distance it was big! This bear was darker in color and had to be over 200 pounds. It wandered amongst the waist high ferns and I marveled at its enormous size but eventually I lost sight of the animal in the lush vegetation.

Unsure of the bear’s exact location and unwilling to approach the beast blindly I stomped hard on a dead stick. It broke with a loud snap that shook the silence and the bear ran off without looking back. Cool, I thought, bears aren’t so bad. What’s all the hubbub about?

I made the turn onto the Laurel Lake trail and was welcomed by an open rolling hillside of miniature wildflowers. Millions of multicolored sunlit flowers intermixed with Spring green grasses and displayed against gray granite rocks! I hiked along this rather flat and incredibly beautiful trail for probably a mile before it started to climb. A visually stimulating experience to say the least.

About two miles into the uphill part of this adventure I decided to take a short break in a small green meadow. The area wasn’t very flat but it met the number one criteria, it had a good ‘butt rock’ next to the trail to sit on while removing the giant backpack.

Even if you’ve never had a backpack on you can well imagine that balance might be an issue. Taking the pack off and putting it back on can be challenging if it’s fully loaded or overloaded as the case may be. Getting oneself from ground level to a standing position can be downright dangerous with a heavy pack. Hence, the ‘butt rock.’ I found that if I could locate a rock about butt height I could just back up it and remove the pack without actually lifting it.

I once tried to get into a backpacking harness while sitting on a fallen tree trunk. I got the straps almost tight and lost my balance. Backwards of course, due to the weight of the pack. For a few long seconds, until I got myself disconnected, I was like a turtle up side down in its shell. Completely helpless and quite embarrassed!

On this beautiful morning I removed the heavy pack with ease and let it lie on the butt rock while I drank some water and admired the scenery. I had been hanging out for only a few minutes when I caught sight of something moving behind a manzanita bush about twenty yards up the hill. It was yet another bear! I could just make out its head and shoulders through the brush. It was moving from left to right almost directly above me. “Wow” I thought, the fourth bear in less than twenty four hours!

It only took a few seconds for me to realize that this animal was actually coming down the same trail that I was hiking! The bear was nearing a switchback in the trail that would have directed him straight towards me. At this point the bear didn’t seem to know I was there. So, I decided to be assertive and get the animals attention before it made the turn. (Seemed like a good plan at the time.)

Feeling quite confident about my ability to scare off the bears I advanced up the hillside a few yards and yelled “Hey!” The bear stopped instantly. I could see its huge body quite clearly silhouetted against the sky. He was a beautiful cinnamon color and massive in size! The morning sun shimmered off the tips of his fur and from my perspective he looked to be at least 300 pounds!

Unfortunately, the bear had stopped next to a bush so his head was hidden from view. The animal could not see me. I advanced a few more feet raising my arms overhead and yelled again. At that moment the bear appeared to leap forward and around the bush and was now facing me directly.

“Oh Shit!” I thought, this is what I was trying to avoid! The bear was now looking down on me from a vantage point about fifteen yards away and several feet above my head. I waved my arms above my head and yelled things like “Yah! Git! Yo! And got no reaction at all from the bear. He just stood there, his massive body consuming the entire trail, and stared down at me.

My heart began to race. I yelled louder and waved my arms wildly and still got no response from the bear. I was really starting to feel rather foolish. After all, he wasn’t actually threatening me and here I was carrying on like a wild man. But this was obviously not working. It had never occurred to me that the bear wouldn’t run away.

All right, plan B, throw rocks! I scanned the ground frantically for a rock to throw and found only small dead sticks. “I can’t believe this, I’m in the middle of a forest and I can’t find a rock.” The largest thing I could get my hands on was a dead stick about 12 inches long. I heaved it towards the animal with all my strength but the stick was light and it landed a few yards in front of him. But, at last, the bear responded, he advanced towards the stick!

My adrenalin soared! The huge bear was now much closer than I wanted and I was amazed at how quickly he could move. This bear was now in a position to hurt me if he chose to, I didn’t stand a chance. My mind replayed every video I’d ever seen on bear behavior in those few minutes but I couldn’t come up with anything that covered this situation. The backpack was behind me and I was the only obstacle.

I remembered something about making yourself look bigger and looked around for something large to hold over my head. I caught sight of an 8′ long dead branch on the ground just behind my right shoulder. I turned and reached for it but in doing so I exposed my back to the bear for an instant.

In that second, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him move towards me again! I turned towards him with lightening speed, the stick held high above my head! I was instinctively in fight response and ready for a confrontation.

“You idiot! I thought to myself. Universal Bear Rule: NEVER TURN YOUR BACK ON A BEAR!”

I was now feeling extremely threatened and running out of ideas. Holding the dead limb out in front of me seemed ridiculous given the size of this animal. I knew I couldn’t stop the animal but it made me feel just a little bit braver to be holding something resembling a weapon. I lifted the branch high above my head and yelled again. The bear didn’t move.

This bear was not the least bit intimidated by me, and why should he be I thought. He’s uphill from me and probably out weighs me by 200lbs! Still, my ego was somewhat insulted. In all the videos, the bear runs away!

All the information I had accumulated on bears led me to believe that I would know what the bear was thinking by the noises it made. Well,what if the bear makes no noise? He actually appeared quite relaxed and comfortable with the situation and simply stood there watching me jump around acting like a lunatic. I was beginning to feel really stupid and embarrassed with my own behavior and I wondered if he thought I was completely insane.

My heart was pounding so hard and fast I thought my chest would explode. I knew that if I backed up this bear would advance. So, I stood my ground and reached for another small dead stick to throw. Given the fact that he was now less than ten yards away I was able to hit close to his paw with my four inch stick and he took a small step backwards! Finally, I thought! I seized the opportunity and continued throwing my miniature weapons in rapid fire succession. Finally, the giant animal turned and walked off in the direction he had been heading before I disturbed him.

I breathed a sigh of relief and quickly shouldered my pack. My adrenaline level was off the charts as I continued my climb up the hill towards Laurel Lake. The weight of the backpack was barely noticeable even traveling uphill!

Up until now, bears had struck me as rather docile. Driven solely in search of food and not really interested in human contact. This encounter changed everything! It was obvious that this bear saw my backpack as a source of food!
Luckily, he didn’t bluff charge me, I’m not sure what I would have done. This could certainly be a problem I thought and suddenly, bears were something to be reckoned with!

Funny, I thought they would come in the night and try to steal my food while I was sleeping. It had never crossed my mind that an animal would not run away! Certainly, it was unnerving to realize and admit that I couldn’t scare the bear but not too surprising when you consider that I’m only five and a half feet tall and one hundred forty pounds without the backpack. Not exactly intimidating to a three hundred pound bear!

I hiked up the trail, my eyes and ears hyper alert to any movement or noise and I noticed just that. No noise! I had efficiently eliminated all objects that clanked or jingled so that I could see more wildlife. It worked!

Approximately a half mile further into the hike, just as I was beginning to relax about the bear encounter, I realized that I could hear water in the distance. The sound became louder as I continued my journey until it sounded like rolling thunder! It sounded like a waterfall! I smiled and thought “Too cool, a water feature!”

At this point I was approaching a large gorge and the roar of the water was extremely loud. I suddenly remembered seeing a place on the map where the trail crossed a creek. The blue line hadn’t provided me with any clues about the size of the water. I hadn’t paid much attention to it. (Oops!)

My trail now seemed to be paralleling the gorge but it was so deep I couldn’t see down to the water. (I was still hoping for a waterfall at this point.) Without warning the trail turned left and headed straight down into the canyon. The path was steep and I had to concentrate to keep myself from falling. Luckily, I had the use of a high tech ‘Leki’ walking stick to lean on.

I reached the bottom and saw my trail enter a raging torrent of whitewater! Approximately forty feet across, the trail emerged, and headed straight up the hillside. “You’ve got to be kidding!” I said aloud. I stared at the picture with my mouth open, puzzled by my new predicament and shocked by what I was seeing!

The creek looked more like a river to me! It crashed and thundered through the canyon swirling around boulders and heaving huge amounts of water over rocks and debris. The water was moving incredibly fast and there was no underestimating its power.

I looked upstream and saw no possible crossing, not anything resembling a bridge in sight. Then I noticed two sets of fresh boot prints in the sand, they were headed downstream. I followed the waters edge about twenty yards and the tracks led me to a huge dead tree that had fallen across the water. “A bridge! Excellent!”

Well, not exactly. As I stood there examining the potential bridge I immediately noticed two rather serious problems. First, the tree had fallen and wedged itself right next to another huge pine tree that was still standing. The real issue was that these two trees were situated about ten feet out from the shoreline. “How can I possibly get around the standing tree while balanced on the fallen tree and wearing a backpack?” I said to nobody in particular. In addition, the roots at the far end of the trunk were immersed in about three feet of whitewater. So, even if I made it across, I’d have to climb through the roots and still get wet.

So, I decided to remove the pack and study my options. I had a snack and got out the map for a different look at my current obstacle. I identified my raging river as Frog Creek and followed its course on paper down to Lake Eleanor. It suddenly ‘clicked’ and I remembered the huge waterfall I had seen across the lake on the hike in yesterday morning. That enormous whitewater was this very river before me.

It seemed to me that if these people in front of me could get across the log then I should be able to as well. Of course that’s not to say that they crossed successfully and without getting wet. I decided to try it first without the pack. I climbed up onto the huge downed tree and had my doubts about whether I could repeat that part with an additional fifty pounds of weight on my back. I straddled the log and scooted myself out over the water and said, “OK, this part is do-able.” Then I reached the standing tree. The water below looked to be about three foot deep with many rocks poking through the surface. The water was moving so fast it made me dizzy. I tried to stand but couldn’t balance myself. “There is no way I can do this with a pack on.” I admitted aloud and started backing off the bridge.

I was somewhat disappointed with myself, twice today I had to admit that I could not do something. This was a rude shock to my ego but I was not defeated, it never occurred to me to go back. I was on an adventure and I was going across this water one way or the other!

My only option was to chance drowning and go across on foot. I laughed, shook my head and said, “This is insane! If I go down I’ll probably die with the weight of the pack and the speed of the water.” But, I could see no other choice.

I studied the lay of the land and determined that following the trail through the water was the best possible route if there really was one. The trail led straight down into a waist deep pool about seven feet wide. The water was deep but the current was minor and I could see the bottom. It was a mass of football size algae covered rocks. I touched the water and cringed at the near freezing temperature and wondered how long it takes to get hypothermia.

I then recalled a line I had heard once in a movie, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”

So, I began rearranging my pack. I loaded all the exterior stuff onto the top to keep it dry but this created an extremely off balanced load perched above my head. I was wearing jeans and didn’t want to get them soaked so I changed into a pair of sweats I had brought along to sleep in. I just couldn’t persuade myself to ford the creek in my underwear!

I then asked the Universe aloud, “If it be in my greatest good, and the greatest good of all of life everywhere, give me the strength and agility to safely cross this water!”

I then stepped into the frigid water and my new Gortex boots were instantly swamped. (I don’t think this is what they had in mind when they said waterproof!) I was thankful for the walking stick and used it as a third leg as each foot frantically searched for a stable spot to step in the creekbed. The rocks were slick and the icy water took my breath away as I crept deeper into the pool. It was a slow process and my legs ached from the cold.

At about six feet out the depth decreased to mid thigh height as I began climbing out of the pool and entering the fast moving current. I faced upstream to maintain my balance as I focused on and ‘felt’ each step prior to applying weight. At about fifteen or twenty feet across the current was strongest, it pushed hard against my wobbly legs and I kept telling myself to concentrate, focus. The water swirling around my legs made me dizzy and the backpack tipped easily pulling me off balance. It was difficult to find stable footing so progress was very, very slow. I concentrated every thought and every ounce of energy into each movement as I inched through the water. I have no idea how long it took, but eventually, I made it to a small sand bar about thirty feet across this liquid obstacle.

Although it was a temporary sanctuary I realized that the remaining ten feet was not exactly a breeze. The water in this final section was above my knees but at least falling here meant getting wet not getting killed. I cautiously continued my journey, steadying myself with my third leg.

Finally, I reached the steep bank! “I did it!” I exclaimed and realized that talking aloud how now become the norm. I climbed up a short distance and stopped to look back at my accomplishment. I was horrified! I could hardly believe I had crossed the raging torrent without falling and I thanked the universe for this miracle.

Soaked, freezing and now carrying a lot of extra water weight I began climbing up the steep hillside searching for a level spot. My body hurt and I stumbled a lot with the top heavy backpack.

I finally found a semi-level place on the hillside to stop. I was exhausted! I disassembled the pack, changed into my dry jeans and repacked the heap. My legs were bright red and cold to the touch but I was sweating profusely. I knew Laurel Lake couldn’t be much further so I decided to get moving, anxious to make camp and rest.

The hike became easier as I neared Laurel Lake. Small meadows, green and full of wildflowers came into view as I continued through the lodgepole pine forest. The sky was a brilliant blue as I sloshed along in my wet boots. It was a beautiful afternoon and soon Laurel Lake came into view. I was elated to see the deep blue lake through the trees.

I reached a split in the trail where I had to choose which direction to proceed around the rather large lake. I decided to take the least populated, more remote route and locate a campsite ASAP. The trail led me down towards the water on the lakes West side where I found a few small overgrown campsites. Sighing, I trudged farther down the trail. The forest took on a rather ugly appearance as I continued. I kept thinking that I was sure to find a campsite soon, I’ll just see what’s around the next bend. But, the forest did not improve, dead and downed trees were everywhere. The trail had not been maintained in recent history and climbing over obstacles was getting old.

I had hiked at least half a mile when I finally came upon two campsites next to each other. I was relieved and yet something about this place didn’t feel right. I took off my backpack and sat down but I just wasn’t comfortable. Keeping a close eye on my pack, I got up and walked around surveying the area and decided I just didn’t like this site. It was too closed in and too easily stumbled upon by a bear. Funny, I had always preferred the nooks and crannies for camping. But then, I wasn’t camping with bears! Now, I wanted to see clearly around my space and I wanted the bears to know I was there!

I moved all my stuff over to the other, more open campsite and sat down on a rock. As I studied the area I noticed numerous shelf mushrooms on the downed timber, some whole, some smashed. A little voice in my head told me that this was bear food and my gut confirmed this. “Shit!” I said aloud, “This is perfect bear habitat!”

I argued with myself for a long time about staying here or returning to the trail intersection and taking the more civilized trail. My instincts told me to go back but my body wanted to stay put. I was having a hard time making a decision and indecisiveness has never been a problem for me. “This is weird.” I thought.

Finally, after shouldering the pack and then removing it a few times I reached the conclusion that I’d be a fool not to trust my instincts! I packed up my stuff once more and headed back the way I’d come.

The world seemed brighter as I started down the new trail. I entered a large meadow covered with wildflowers and scattered with lodgepole pine. The dark green lodgepole pines displayed beautifully against the rich blue sky. A sight for sore eyes indeed.

Unfortunately, the beautiful meadow view was quickly upstaged by a very large cinnamon colored bear about forty yards ahead. The bear was on top of a huge log and was digging in the trunk of another downed tree. I stopped and watched for several minutes but frankly, I was exhausted and had only one goal, finding a campsite!

I quickly noticed that the bear was enjoying his meal near the trail that I was walking. “Oh great!” I thought. “ Another bear encounter.” I yelled out and the bear stopped eating and looked over his shoulder at me as if to say, “Don’t interrupt me.” I waved my arms and he went back to eating. I advanced towards him and shouted, “Yo bear!” and the bear simply ignored me.

Well, I really don’t think my brain was functioning too well at this point because I kept moving closer to the bear. I guess I just expected the bear to move or just keep eating and simply let me pass. Wrong! I was talking to it as I approached, explaining myself to the animal when suddenly, the bear turned to face me. We were only about twenty five feet apart and his 300 pound body atop the log caused my adrenaline level to soar! The fur on his massive shoulders glimmered in the sunlight as he huffed and grunted. He was obviously ready to defend his dinner! (Universal Bear Rule: Never try to take food from a bear.)

“Oh No! You think I want your food!” I said aloud. “How could I be so stupid, you have no idea but I don’t eat termites and grubs!”

I faced the animal and sidestepped slowly down the trail talking softly. My voice was low and as calm as I could manage given the situation. The backpack gave me a larger appearance but I didn’t dare turn my back on this one. He watched me closely but did not move and I resisted the urge to return to normal walking until he was thoroughly engrossed in his meal again. I then resumed breathing and continued my trek.

At last I reached my destination! The trail led me directly to an established campsite complete with stacked wood and small piles of pebbles. For throwing at bears no doubt. It was a large site with a well used fire pit, good visibility and a metal sign that read, Laurel Lake, elevation 6650 feet. I had finally made it!

It was mid afternoon, the sun was shining and the temperature was perfect. I was quite pleased with my new home site. The lake was about 50 yards away down a gentle slope and clearly visible through the trees. The meadow I had hiked through actually ended behind the campsite so I had the best of both landscapes surrounding me.

I was thankful for the excess adrenaline energy my recent bear encounter had given me. I quickly set up camp and made a fire. I was puttering around camp when I saw the cinnamon bear strolling down through the meadow behind my campsite. It paused to look at me from about 20 yards out and then continued on its way.

This distance is still too close for comfort but it seems to be what the bears are comfortable with.

After fixing some food I set about my bear bag hanging ritual, taking extra care to get it right as I knew bears could be a problem here. Of course it took forever but I was pleased with the results.

Afterwards I set out to explore my immediate surroundings. I walked about 30 yards farther on the trail and came upon a creek about 12 foot wide. “Oh No! I said to myself, “Not another water crossing!”

I walked up and down the creek scouting for a spot to cross and found none. The water was only about 3 feet deep with minimal current but I’d have to get wet to cross it.

The idea of putting my body back into frigid water made me shiver. I had certainly forgotten to calculate these liquid obstacles into my great adventure plans.

As evening approached and the sun disappeared a golden glow replaced the blue sky. A pregnant doe entered my campsite. I sat quietly watching her as she nosed around in the pine needles. She watched me out of the corner of her eye as she licked the ground. Eventually, I was able to move about the campsite without disturbing her too much.

She was cautious about me but not afraid. At one point she was standing not 6 feet from where I sat watching me intently as I spoke softly to her. It made me feel good to know there is a place where wild creatures and humans can merge.
I thanked her for visiting me and watched her eventually disappear into the dusk.

I went to bed not long after dark but the night was restless, I woke up several times confused and disoriented.

June 7th

The morning sun was a welcome sight. It was crisp and the sky intently blue against the stark white clouds that were moving quickly in from the Southwest. Nothing around my camp appeared disturbed and I wrote my restless sleep off to bear paranoia.

I made a fire and some coffee and realized my hands were shaking. I was tired and achy from my travels thus far and decided perhaps I needed food. I made myself a large breakfast and ate but by the time I finished eating I was shivering uncontrollably! What is wrong with me I thought! The outside air temperature was probably mid 50′s but I was freezing from the inside out.

After stoking up the fire and putting on more layers I realized that even the idea of immersing my body in freezing water was causing stress and perhaps there was a message in all this.

I decided to have an in-camp day and let my body rest. This was certainly a beautiful spot and I had intentionally left my plans open to change. I needed to have my strength and personal power together out here. My mind and body functioning as one with the Universe.

It wasn’t long after that decision was made that my body started to warm and I knew this was the right thing to do.

I tried my luck at fishing with not so much as a nibble. It didn’t matter. Standing next to the crystal clear lake admiring the scenery was quite satisfying. It’s just a damn good thing I’m not dependent on my angling abilities or I’d starve to death.

By mid day I was feeling pretty good and decided to move my camp across the creek in the warmth of the day. I figured I’d set up on the other side and get an early start for Lake Vernon the next day. Thereby avoiding getting wet first thing in the morning! It seemed like a clever idea.

Since I was only moving about a hundred yards I decided to tackle this water crossing differently. My boots were just starting to feel normal again after yesterday’s drowning and I didn’t want to get them soaked again so, I took them off. And since I hadn’t seen a human soul since the Ranger, I stripped down to my underwear. This way I’d have dry clothes to put on after my waist deep moving adventure.

This was not one of my greatest plans. Moving the camp took several trips back and forth through the water so I was freezing for an extended period of time and somewhere in the process I managed to cut my foot on some unseen object. Of course, I didn’t realize it until my feet thawed out. It wasn’t a big deal but it hurt. I added this to my list of important lessons learned on this adventure and wondered how other backpackers deal with these challenges.

The clouds increased steadily throughout the day and it appeared rain was a good possibility. I vaguely recalled a front heading in this direction but the weather forecasters had said it wasn’t coming this far South. (Oop’s)

Just as a precaution I covered my firewood with bark. I hadn’t brought the portable stove with me because there were no fire restrictions in this area. I was dependent on a campfire for heat and cooking. (Big Mistake!)

Sometime in the night I was awakened by the sound of large raindrops hitting the tent. I went out into the darkness and retrieved my backpack and brought it inside the cramped little tent and went back to sleep. Later, I woke again to thunder. The rain was coming down hard and the lightening lit up the yellow rain fly on the tent. “Awesome!” I thought, “I finally got my first Sierra storm. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see a damn thing.”

June 8th

When I woke again I realized instantly that something was not right. The top of the tent looked odd but I couldn’t figure out why. I unzipped the tent and did a double take! I was shocked to see about 2 inches of snow covering everything in sight. “Wow!” I said aloud, “Too Cool!” “Snow!”

The snow was coming down hard and the lake was no longer visible through the thick fog like cloud that engulfed the area. The forest was incredibly beautiful with the snow and I thought how lucky I was to see this spectacle of nature.

Unfortunately, my appreciation for the white stuff didn’t last very long as I began to wake up a little more and reality started to set in. The temperature had obviously dropped in the night. It was cold. I huddled back down into my sleeping bag as I contemplated the situation and decided the snow probably wouldn’t last long.

I wasn’t really prepared for this kind of weather. I shook my head and was somewhat amused by the sequence of events on this adventure thus far. So much for prior planning!

I was actually thankful for the shaking episode yesterday. If I had continued on to Lake Vernon as planned, I would be camped at 7300 feet in this storm. Strange how things work out.

The weight of the snow on my little dome tent was increasing but it seemed to be staying dry inside. The down sleeping bag was keeping me warm and I wasn’t wet. This particular situation made carrying the extra weight of the tent all worth while! I promised myself never to complain about tent weight again. I was glad I hadn’t listened to all those people who told me, “Just sleep under the stars!

I waited as long as I could before venturing outside to take care of some morning business. The snow was still coming down hard and gave no indication of stopping anytime soon. I relieved the tent of its snow load and quickly hurried back to my warm sleeping bag. “Brrr” Freezing to death was another event I hadn’t planned for!

I really wanted some coffee but I knew that by the time I got the fire going and the water hot I’d be soaked. Not bringing the portable stove was a stupid decision. I added this to the list of hard learned lessons while eating trail mix and drinking water for breakfast.

As I sat inside the tiny tent wondering when the snow would end I quickly eliminated the notion of hiking on to Lake Vernon. Hell, hiking anywhere in the snow didn’t seem like a very good plan to me! But, I didn’t want to sit here all day either!

Knowing that the number one rule for survival in a situation like this is to stay dry, it seemed unwise to pack things up and try to head out of here. The only good choice was to wait it out and hope it didn’t last too long. Not bringing a watch on this expedition only added to the stress. But, patience has never been one of my attributes.

Eventually, after what seemed like hours, the snow changed to hard rain. In almost no time the accumulated snow was nearly gone and hiking was once again an option.

After studying the map I devised an alternate route back to Gravel Pit Lake via Hetch Hetchy. The hike was long, 7 or 8 miles, but it had a lot of downhill travel. If I could make it down to Gravel Pit I’d be lower in elevation and hopefully warmer. The only problem was the fact that my equipment and my body would get soaked in the process. There was one water crossing on this route and I would have to protect the sleeping bag at all cost. It was my only source of warmth.

While I sat in the tent craving caffeine and trying to make a decision I noticed the rain changing back to snow and thought, “It’s now or never.” But what actually got me moving was when I noticed the seams on the tent were beginning to leak!

Packing up the wet tent and all my gear was a real mess. My head and upper body were protected but not much else. I buried the sleeping bag in several layers of stuff bags and covered the pack with the yellow rain fly.

When I finally set out on the trail I knew it was late in the day. The ground fog was thick, the snow was falling again and the world was silent. I needed to make good time to get there before dark. Fortunately, the current weather conditions didn’t encourage dawdling and I set off at a good pace.
About a mile into the hike I arrived at the water crossing. It was about 20 feet to the far shore and running fast. A small log about 8 inches in diameter spanned about two thirds of the creek but it was wet and covered with snow. There was no doubt I had to get wet to get across. It was really a question of which body parts I was willing to freeze.

I didn’t have time to hesitate. I removed my boots and hung them around my neck with the laces. The log was less than 12 inches from the water so I straddled the cold, wet log and began scooting my butt across the slippery bridge trying to keep my knees up out of the icy water. The cold moisture seeped through my pants in nanoseconds. My bare feet froze almost instantly but I moved forward determined to ignore the pain.

About midway across the log, the current was incredibly strong, it was difficult to maintain my balance with the water pushing on my leg so I was forced to keep my right leg up out of the water or be tipped right off the log. I’m sure I looked completely ridiculous in this strange contorted position but it worked. And, my boots remained dry.

I hiked quickly through the forest. The snow turned to rain as I began to descend towards the Hetch Hetchy reservoir. I could see the snow at the cloud line above me and was thankful to be heading down.

The damp forest absorbed the sound of nearly every movement I made. It was almost impossible to make a non verbal noise, even when I tried! I resorted to talking out loud on occasion to keep the trail free of bears as I hiked. They responded by moving away from the trail as I approached. The fact that I looked more like a huge yellow and blue creature than a human may have had something to do with it. I wondered if perhaps bears respond better to brighter colors. The bright yellow material flapping in the breeze above my blue head must have looked odd, even to a bear.

The rain began to ease up as I hiked and as long as I kept moving I was warm. The trail began descending steeply as I approached the reservoir. For a few short moments, the clouds lifted a bit and revealed the massive, towering walls of the Hetch Hetchy Valley.

The view was absolutely awesome! The Valley and the water for San Francisco lay somewhere down in this massive hole! The sheer rock walls of the canyon appeared to rise up vertically out of the unseen valley floor. This was a truly incredible view, my first ever of this famous valley and a much appreciated gift from the Universe.

I hiked quickly through the forest and managed to avoid any direct encounters with the bears. Of the three I saw, two were small and scruffy looking. The other was large and dark brown in color. All three fled the trail swiftly when they saw me coming.

The hike seemed really long but I made it to Gravel Pit shortly before nightfall. The rain stopped long enough for me to set up camp and gather some semi dry twigs. I made a fire, ate, and at last, had my long awaited cup of coffee before it began to drizzle again. Thank goodness for emergency fire starters!

I changed into my sweats and snuggled into my sleeping bag, I was tired and sleep came almost instantly. What a day!

June 9th

The morning sun was a welcome sight. The sky was clear and intensely blue after the cleansing rain. It was chilly and dampness clung to everything. I used my last fire starter to get the campfire going and thoroughly enjoyed my morning coffee!

The red-winged blackbirds song filled the air and seemed to echo off the lake. A thin layer of mist hung over the water and the day was alive once again.
The fire was difficult to keep going with wet wood and I decided to pack it up and head home, I’d had enough challenges and excitement for one trip.

My experiences over the last few days seemed incredible, and I felt somehow changed. This adventure was more than I could ever have hoped for, and certainly more than I expected. Mother Nature had tested me and I had passed. I was alive, well, and somehow better than ever before. This trip was not only an incredible adventure, but also an awesome learning experience, and I felt truly blessed.

As I hiked back towards civilization, admiring the natural beauty surrounding me, I recounted the lessons I had learned over the past few days. They were many.

The sound of Frog Creek crashing into the smooth surface of Lake Eleanor made me smile. The river crossing and the giant cinnamon bear seemed so long ago and yet, I remembered each event with startling detail. It was only yesterday morning I woke up in a snowstorm!

Unbelievable! Definitely a great adventure. Thanks Universe!

Kris Corey
Groveland, CA


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One Response to “Learning from Bears”

Peggy Olson
July 27, 2013 Reply

Thank you for sharing your story. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the adventures you encountered along the way. My days of anything close to that have passed, but I loved living it through you. I was born and raised in the Bay Area and now live in Texas. Back in the 60′s our family spent many weekends in Yosemite. I have the most wonderful memories from those days and a love of nature that will be with me for life.

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