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Friday, April 5, 2013

But What About Bears?

I'd be lying if I said I've never spent a wide-eyed night straining to hear the sound of bears rummaging around outside our tent. And I can't say that I don't think about bears when we hike in the mountains. But I'm not as worried as I used to be.

It's always one of the first questions I get when I tell people I like to camp and hike. "But what about bears?" they ask. Every time. Thing is, even if you do lie awake with a flashlight in one hand and a frying pan in the other, most likely you won't even hear them as they make off with your food. They are crafty and smart and surprisingly stealthy. Like everyone else in the world, bears are just trying to make a living. And if people leave tasty items out for them, could you blame the bears for helping themselves?

California only has black bear left, having killed off the last of the grizzlies about 50 years after we put them on our flag. I can't say that I'm upset about this. Don't get me wrong, if they were still around I wouldn't be voting to exterminate them or anything, but it does make sleeping in the Sierras a little sounder. Black bears (which are almost never black, at least in my experience) are smaller and more timid than Brown (Grizzly) bears. Small is just a comparison though, as black bear males can be over 200 lbs, all of it muscle and teeth. Over the years we've had many encounters with black bear and one memorable one with a grizzly. Even though everything turned out fine, I would still prefer a black bear over a brown bear.

We spend about a week a year camping in Yosemite and those bears know their stuff. They know what coolers and grocery bags look like. They know to check the locks on bear bins and dumpsters to see if they were left unlatched. They know which cars are the easiest to break into, and I even heard a story about a bear that broke into the same make and model car every time he saw one just because he knew they were an easy mark. They aren't picky about their food either; toothpaste is just as tasty as cookies, a nice Arrid Extra Dry can be followed up with a cold (or warm) Bud Light. We once came across a pile of bear scat composed almost entirely of Luna bar wrappers. Unfortunately people are idiots and leave things out even after the dire warnings they receive at the park entrance. So the bears get punished for being smart and the stupid people are still allowed to enter. It hardly seems fair.

Yosemite bears don't hibernate in the winter.
The easiest way to find a bear in Yosemite is to follow the crowd of people with cameras. It's kind of like middle school used to be when a fight broke out--a crowd gathers and gawks. The really cheeky bears don't let it bother them and continue eating whatever inappropriate thing they've found while the cameras snap away. Sometimes people just can't help themselves and start to follow the bear, which then gets nervous and starts to lope, and pretty soon there's a full blown chase. This happened once a few years ago when a bear was wandering through our campground. It started to run and actually ran right under Mark as he was lying in the hammock he had strung up. I didn't see it, but did witness the look on Mark's face right after it happened.

Black bear in Yosemite Valley
One night, we were camping up in Yosemite's high country at Porcupine Creek Campground, right off Tioga Road. It's a nice place to get away from the crowded valley; the campsites are spaced well apart and it's quiet. We had finished dinner in the dark and were just eating the last of our s'mores around the campfire when we heard, ever so softly, a squeeeeak. What was that? Then a scraping sound, barely audible. What WAS that? Mark shined a flashlight towards the camper and there, not 5 feet away, a bear was slowly dragging our firewood bag out of the bear bin (bad, bad us for leaving it unlatched, but to be fair we never thought firewood would be considered food.) Mark picked up his marshmallow roasting stick--one of those old fashioned metal ones with a wooden handle--and started banging on top of the bin, yelling "Get away from there! Get outta there!" Mind you, the bear still had it's head in the bin. The bear dropped the bag and started running away. Only afterward, as we were looking at the severely bent marshmallow stick (it hasn't been the same since) did it occur to us what the bear could have done if it had really wanted that firewood. Mark had been well within the swipe-with-a-paw range. For the most part, black bears are scaredy cats.

Grizzly bears are another matter. I've never had the displeasure of having a grizzly after anything of ours, but if I did I don't think I'd try the marshmallow stick defense. I think I would let the bear help itself and slowly back away. Have some food Mr. Bear, I don't need to eat every single day. Here, take my sleeping bag too, I'm fine without it. Isn't this nice weather we're having?

We saw a couple grizzly bears in Alaska, but they were at a good viewing range: at least a half mile away. We narrowly avoided an encounter when, just before we started a hike around a lake, the campground host happened to mention that a mama grizzly and her cubs were working on a moose carcass just up the very trail we were about to take. You might want to go the other way, she said.

Mama and her cubs from a safe distance, Harding Icefield,  Alaska

The closest we've come to a grizzly was purely coincidence. We were walking along St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park, just stretching our legs after dinner. It was a warm night by northern Montana standards, in the 70s. We heard a little rustling in the tall grass along the trail and looked back just as a bear rambled out and crossed the trail behind us. Oh crap. We had our camera and got lucky enough to get a picture.

We stood really still and watched to see what it was up to. It meandered around a bit then walked right into the lake. It just wanted to cool off. It sat there a while, then hauled itself out and wandered up the hill a ways and started grazing around in the bushes. It was the coolest thing I have ever seen. A bear being a bear.

Bath time in Saint Mary Lake, Glacier National Park
Seeing large wildlife never gets old. I'll admit I'm still a tad scared but I think that's a good thing. You have to have respect for something that could rip your arm off but, usually, chooses not to.

Just makes you want to pet him, doesn't it?

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