Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Recalling encounters with bears...

Photo taken in Evolution Basin,along the John Muir Trail in the High Sierras, California

"Bear! There’s a bear behind you," Ben yelled.

"You’re kidding," I thought. We’d seen bears the night before. Our food was safely stored between trees, so they just sniffed around and moved on. It was now morning, about 7:30. Tending the stove, boiling water for oatmeal and tea, I heard something move behind me and turned. Sure enough, there was a bear looking over my shoulder as if he was checking the pot. Foregoing his nocturnal ways, this old guy found that if he waited for breakfast, he could have hikers serving him. I quickly jumped up and moved out of the way as the bear stepped into our makeshift kitchen, sniffing around the stove. I worried he might catch himself on fire or step on the stove, ruining it and doing his paw no good, but his movements were graceful. He went for the food, ripping into a bag of oatmeal and another of powder milk. He wasn’t impressed and walked down the trail to the next campsite where he ripped open a guy’s pack, pulling out his food. I was eighteen; it was the last morning of my first backpacking trip in the mountains. This close encounter with a bear was not to be my last.

Over the years I’ve seen many bears in the wilds. I expected everyone who has hiked the Appalachian Trail through the Smoky’s or the Shenandoahh’s have seen a bear. In the Smoky's, the shelters have heavy fences on the front in order to keep the bears out. You feel a little like an animal in the zoo, with the bears as sightseers, as if you’re trapped in a Far Side comic. I’ve heard stories of guys going out to relieve themselves in the middle of the night, forgetting to latch the door. When they return, they find those sharing their shelter to be extremely upset as they had to chase a bear, whose like a kid in a candy store, out of the shelter. Most bears are satisfied to grab a promising bag of food and flee. Luckily, I never had such experiences. I saw a few bears around campsites and shelters, but they were never a bother. I also get to see a few more while hiking early in the morning or late in the afternoon.

My best view of a bear along the Appalachian Trail was in New Hampshire. I was alone and heard something quickly scamper up a tree. I looked up thinking it might have been a raccoon, and was surprised to see a cub just above my head, peering down. It would have been a great photograph, but my camera was safely stored in my pack. I started to take the pack off, when it dawned on me to look around. I’m glad I did. Probably 25 feet away, in heavy brush, stood the mother, up on her hind feet. She was dead-eyeing me with a look that meant I better keep on trucking. For a while, I keep hearing things behind me that sounded like a twig breaking, but it was my mind playing tricks on me.

I’ve seen more bears in California than any other of the states and providence’s I’ve hiked or canoed. Onion Valley, a popular camping spot west of Kearsarge Pass and Independence, CA, seemed to be over populated with the beasts. As we came into the valley late in the day, we saw several bears running ahead of us along the trail. We made sure our food was safely stored, well away from where we camped. We got through dinner and after a hard day of climbing with heavy packs (we were out for 14 days), we crashed as soon as the sun went down.

I woke up about an hour before sunrise. I zipped the screen of my bivy tent open and, in the cool morning air, watched a faint pink haze on the eastern horizon replace the stars. Then I fell back asleep. A few minutes later (it couldn’t have been too long as it was still not yet light), I felt something against the back of my neck. Since there was no one sleeping in my bivy to cuddle up with me, I immediately sat up screaming. "Why am I yelling," I thought. "Was it a dream?" Then I looked around and saw a bear on all fours, slowly backing up. I look at her and shouted, "get out of here." She grunts, turns around and headed down the trail, a cub in tow. Although I don’t think I was in danger, as the bear was just sniffing around trying to find food, it’s still unnerving to be nuzzled out of bed by a beast that weighs three or four times more than me.

On another trip, in the backcountry of Yosemite National Park I head off one evening to watch the sun set from the top of a cliff a short hike from camp. Afterwards, I slowly make my way back to camp in the dark, without the aid of a flashlight. Just outside camp, I came face to face with a bear on the trail. Sensing me, the bear immediately stood up. He or she was as tall as me. I quickly moved off the trail in one direction, he took the other. As scared as I was, the bear must have been more frightened as he left one large pile of poop. For those of you who have seen the movie "Grizzly Man," let me be very clear here: I did not wax eloquently about the poop having just been inside the bear.

Also in the backcountry of Yosemite, while camping near Cathedral Lake, two bears came into our campsite about three in the morning. Our food was safely stored, way up in a tree, the bags counter-balanced in a way that it would take us ten minutes or so to retrieve them in the morning. One of the bears found where it was hanging and climbed the tree and began shaking the limb. I got up and threw a couple rocks at it, trying to chase it away when I saw the second bear looking at me. I decided that I’d go back to bed, as they didn’t appear too pleased with my interference. For fifteen minutes, Eric and I both stayed awake, our tents only 25 feet or so from the bears. We should have put the food further from camp. One bear one jumped on the branch, causing the food bags to swing back and forth. The other bear stood underneath, on hind legs, with his or her arms outreached as if in prayer, waiting for the food bags to drop. They finally gave up and left in a run. A few minutes later, we heard shooting and the banging of pots and pans from the other side of the lake.

All my bear experiences have been with black bears (even though the California bears are brown in color, they’re still black bears). I’ve hiked several times in Grizzly country, but have yet to see one in the wild. And to this day, the only time I’ve lost food to one of these beasts was on that first backpacking trip when Ben and I hosted a bear for breakfast.


  1. I think you're fortunate. I've hiked and camped all over the western U.S. and the ONLY bears I've ever seen were grizzlies in Montana.

    I think bears are interesting animals and find them fascinating (but would not want any of your close encounters).

  2. I've had lots of black bear encounters but never a grizzly though I have seen one of those from a distance. I've never lost any food to a bear except for a jar of peanut butter and the bear got a paddle broken across its back for that. If it had been a grizzly, I would have run the other way and let it take what it wanted.

    Once in the Winds of Wyoming, I had my bag of lunch stuff stolen by marmots. Somehow they dragged it about twenty feet to the shore of the lake and after eating a hole in the side, proceeded to eat every single Jolly Rancher I had leaving behind a neat pile of wrappers. That was before the Yellowstone problem bears got shipped there. Now I have to hang my food.

  3. Oh, I found that jar of peanut butter the next morning and it was licked completely clean and in perfect shape except for a few teeth marks. Black bears have very long tongues!

  4. I've seen bears while hiking in the Delaware Water Gap area in New Jersey and up in Maine while driving a rural road. All my bear sightings have been black bears. We even had a bear sighted going across my parent's farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania once.

  5. Great anecdotes of your bear encounters. I take it Black Bears aren't as hostile as Grizzly Bears? Or are you more aware of the bear's intentions and can sense or decifer when a bear may become hostile?

    Anyway, great tales from nature Sage-man.

  6. They are gorgeous animals but that doesn't mean I'm not scared of them :)

  7. Great story, Sage. Not only does reaffirm the fact that I probably don't want to do the hardcore hiking, it also makes me want to re-read my 'Little House on the Prairie' books. I think Pa or their dog Jack encountered a bear in one of the books.

  8. Make no mistake, black bears can be very hostile and dangererous if they are cornered or you are between the mother and cub. If they are habituated to camp life, they can also be dangerous. But the black bear that stumbles upon camp just looking for a bite to eat, they usually run rather than fight. I've seen perhaps four times as many black bear butts than I have black bear faces.

    For an excellent resource on what to do in a bear situation, even grizzly, read some of Doug Peacock's writings. He is like the Timothy Treadwell of grizzlies only sane and practical.

  9. Ed's right about Black Bears--they are not as territorial as a grizzly and don't normally kill to eat--but I wouldn't have wanted to tangle with a mother defending her cub.

    I haven't read Peacock's writings. What do you suggest? Bill Bryson's book, a Walk in the Woods, has a lot of humorous stuff about bears, but generally he's not letting the truth get in the way of his story.

    As far as being frightened around animals, there's been a moose encounter and some buffalo encounters that I've been for frightened--and one cougar enounter in which I was stalked but never saw the animal--that was very unnerving (I'll have to write about that one sometime).

  10. Doug Peacock's "Grizzly Years" is what I had in mind. It is about him coming home from Vietnam and trying to get his life in order and he ends up spending several seasons studying grizzly bears and their habits. I really enjoyed the book and the tips on how to survive a bear encounter like never look it in the eyes, keep looking down and never show your teeth.

  11. I tried posting this earlier but kept getting denied.

    Doug Peacock was a close friend of the late Edward Abbey. Abbey modeled the main character of two of his novels off of Peacock although Doug says that Hayduke was based more off of Abbey himself. After reading both of their writings, I tend to agree with Peacock on this issue. He has a newer book called, Walking It Off that is about his involvement with the war (Vietnam) and his relationship with Abbey. I haven't read it but it is on my list.

  12. I would be scared sh**less if I saw a bear up close like that. Good thing you never had a tangle with one.

  13. Ed, I thought Hayduke had a connection to the Earth First guy, is that also Peacock. I'll have to look up his books, they sound interesting--especially the linking Vietnam & Abbey

  14. Interesting factoid, Earth First was created by Edward Abbey in his book the Monkey Wrench Gang. The actual group started up after the book. I think Peacock was friends with the founders and attended some events but I don't think he has said that he was a bonified card carrying member.

    Walking It Off has gotten a lot of good reviews and sounds like something that you and I would like.

  15. Encountered a bear once in my life when I was a child up north here in Michigan. It was up on its hind legs... pretty scary!

  16. I am more familiar with your Appalacian Mountains below but both photos are extraordinary....just breathtaking.

    I've seen bears in the Smokies and when we go to Pigeon Forge but I have yet to see one here in Patrick though others do often. We had a siting near our home not long ago but I never saw it. My best friend actually had a baby bear get on the hood of her car one night and play....muddy...tore the windshield wipers off. I had to laugh but it scared her. She was afraid to go "shoo" it off thinking the mother might be out there watching.

  17. being a bit of a city wuss and living in a long way from bear country i've never seen one in real life (except once at a zoo and it made me cry! nuff said)

    i have to say i'm not sorry i think i would be terrified.
    but it must be an amazing experience to encouter such an impressive truely wild creature. wonderful stories once again. thank you for sharing.

    ps i was standing on mud! the boots were a neccesity but usually i would opt for flip flops or even bare foot!*

  18. Ed, I remembered there was some connection, but had thought the group had its start before The Monkey Wrench Gang(my reading of Abbey was mostly 15-20 years ago). I've got Peacock's "Walking It Off" on order.

    Karen, I haven't seen any bears here in Michigan. I've been told there are bears in Chicago, but there's some question as to the validity of that statement, if you catch my drift.

    Deana, the picture of a cub doing in windshield wipers is humorous!

    Keda, mud between the toes is a wonderful feeling--quite relaxing

  19. Sage - I guess there is going to be a run on them. I ordered my copy yesterday.

    I just started "At Home In the Woods" last night.

  20. I still haven't seen a bear. I don't think I want my first encounter to be in my campsite and certainly not my tent!