The trip was my roommate Jason’s idea. Six days and five nights hiking around the John Muir wilderness reserve of the Sierra Nevada mountain range with his old high school friend Jared, making camp at a different lake every evening. The summer was winding down like a Victorian clock, and with only two weeks left until school started up again I’d yet to do anything remarkable other than fill my bottom desk drawer with increasingly mediocre short story drafts. I was between girlfriends, out of ideas, and bored. So I said sure.

I hadn’t been camping in years, but all the gear from my days as a Boy Scout was still in serviceable shape, so within two days we were cruising north on the 395, the three of us and our packs wedged into Jason’s tiny Geo Metro. The drive took hours, and as we climbed from the southern chaparral into the alpine slopes we passed through towns with names like Lone Pine and Independence, their welcome signs advertising populations measuring in the hundreds and the last cold Coca-Cola for X amount of miles.

It was early evening by the time we arrived, so we slept at a campsite near the trail head. In the morning Jason and I went over to the closest ranger station to check in his car and give them our itinerary. The ranger handed us a copy of the various camping rules, then asked if we wanted to rent a bear canister. “We recommend it for everyone this time of year,” she said. “The bears are going to be hibernating soon, so they’re getting pretty aggressive about food, and they don’t have a problem going into your tent to get it.” She pointed to a corkboard on the wall festooned with photographs of just such damage: shredded tents, torn-open backpacks and cars that had been ripped into. Jason and I took one look and agreed without argument to paying a week’s rental fee on a canister.

*****

Our first two days were calm and quiet. After an initial bit of effort we found our mountain legs and settled in to a light, easy pace. We chatted a bit from time to time, but were mostly content to hike in silence, stopping every now and then for a snack or a photograph or to pass water behind a tree. There had been some pre-seasonal snow earlier in the week, and small patches of it were visible on the peaks and hills around us as we followed the trail through thickets of lodgepole pine forest and small subalpine meadows. In the evenings we made camp next to lakes like sheets of glass; I would assemble the fire while Jason and Jared erected the tent, and we’d cook our dinners and make small talk.

Once the sun went down it was so cold we could feel it even through the double layers of long johns and flannel under our jackets, so we kept the fire burning as long as we could. I’d brought a copy of Call of the Wild with me to read and a notebook to jot down any observations and story ideas in. Jason had a harmonica, but he didn’t play much; though no one ever openly said it, we wanted to be able to hear if anything came upon us out of the night.

While the California grizzly is sadly extinct, there are still plenty of American Black Bears calling the mountainous areas of the state home. Despite being smaller than the grizzly, the black bear is still strong enough to kill a full-grown elk with a single paw swipe, though people I knew who’d grown up around them described them as shy trash can-raiding nuisances that generally avoided direct contact with people. I’d never seen a bear in the wild, and unlike my cohorts, I desperately wanted to.

City-boy Jared, less experienced with the wilderness than Jason or myself, listened with a certain quiet dread as Jason and I went over the common wisdom for dealing with a bear encounter. Don’t run, because they’ll think you’re prey and chase you. Don’t play dead, because they might think you actually are and try to bite off a sample. Don’t try to climb a tree, because the smaller bears are pretty good climbers in their own right, and the bigger ones might just push the whole tree over—assuming you managed to climb out of paw reach to begin with. In the light of the campfire there was a peculiar gray shade to Jared’s face. “I’m sure as shit not going to just stand there,” he said.

“I heard that you’re supposed to throw rocks,” Jason told him. “Wave your hands in the air, jump up and down, scream and shout. Makes you seem bigger and more dangerous.”

“You made that up.”

“No, he’s right,” I said. “They taught us that in Scouts.”

Jared looked back and forth between the two of us. “Tell you what,” he said, “while you two distract the bear by jumping around like a couple of crazy people, I’m going to run. No hard feelings however it turns out, all right?”

Fortunately for Jared there were no bears to be seen, but there was plenty of bear sign, mostly in the form of claw marks scratched into trees around our campsites. None of them looked fresh, but we weren’t taking any chances in getting raided. After dinner we’d seal all of the food into the bear canister, then suspend it as high as possible in a tree a good thirty feet or so from camp; to get it down, one of us had to be hoisted up on the shoulders of the other two. One morning we found an adventurous raccoon perched on it, trying his damndest to get inside. When Jared stuck his head out of the tent and shouted “Hey!” it shimmied up the rope like a chubby trapeze artist and disappeared into the branches. There were dirty little paw prints on our packs where he’d tried to get into them, too.

There were plenty of other animals about as well, always floating around the edges of the environment like a shadow in the corner of your eye: deer grazing at the far end of a small meadow; golden eagles soaring high overhead, diving occasionally to snatch up some unseen rabbit or pika; brave fat-cheeked squirrels that ran right up to us during our meal breaks, hoping to score a nibble of trail mix. While crossing through a rocky pass between two peaks one afternoon a large male Bighorn Sheep wandered out into the trail in front of us, his horns full and curved and his coat already showing signs of winter shagginess. He eyed us with wary curiosity for a moment before scampering up the granite-encrusted hillside.

****

Day three was the roughest of the trip. A mountain stood between us and the location of our next campsite, and to get there we had to climb it. At 10, 800 feet above sea level it was both the highest point charted out on our expedition, and the halfway point of our course. For two days we’d been heading southwest, and the plan was to make camp after descending the far side and then take another path northeast, forming a circuit back to our original trail head.

Even with a sunrise start it took us about seven hours to make the ascent, following a hardscrabble trail of gravel and dust up an unending series of switchbacks. It was earth that had never felt the touch of machine, only hoof, paw, and boot. Our path was so narrow we had no choice but to hike in a single-file line, and we were forced to off it onto the rocks when a rider with a mule train rounded the corner higher up on the trail.  He could’ve ridden right out of my Jack London book, with his sun-weathered face and the gear strapped to the backs of his pack animals. As he passed he gave us a tip of his hat and a “Much obliged.”

We were exhausted and blistered by the time we reached the pass near the summit, but is was worth it. The view from the top remains simply one of the most astonishing things I have ever seen, all the valleys and forests painted out on the mountains below. The lake we’d spent the previous night at, so large and deep and cool, looked like a pond.

We took our time enjoying it, eating lunch and tending to our sore feet before heading back down the southern slope on legs made of rubber. Fortunately, our descent was nowhere near as steep or as long, and we made camp well before nightfall.

We were all pretty beat at that point, and after some time consulting the map we arrived at a conclusion: instead of pressing on the next morning we would stay in camp for the day so to rest and recover, maybe explore the woods a bit. At a decent pace we could still keep to our original schedule, and if not, we had enough food between the three of us and could stand to be out in the wild for an extra day or so.

It was windy and cold in that little gully between the mountains, and we didn’t have the energy to gather enough wood to keep the fire burning beyond our dinner needs, so it was barely past sundown before we were zipped up in our sleeping bags, watching our breath curlicue about the air inside the tent.

The wind only got worse in the night, and I woke up several times to the rustle of tarp and tent fabric. The trees creaked and groaned, and the occasional wayward pine cone dive-bombed onto the tent’s roof. I woke up at one point in pitch darkness, vaguely certain in my semi-fugue state that something was moving through the camp. Probably just the damn raccoons again, I remember thinking. I rolled back over, trying to get back to sleep.

There was a noise from just outside the tent, mere inches from my head, clear enough even to be heard over the bustling wind: chuff-SNORT

And again: chuff-chuff-SNORT

I was suddenly wide awake. There was a viewing flap sewn into the wall of the tent above me, but I did not want to move enough to look out. I did not want to move at all.

Next to me I felt Jason stir in his bag. “Is that–” he started to say, and I cut him off with a “shhhh!” hissed out between clenched teeth. My mind was jackrabbiting, trying to think if there was a pouch of jerky or an apple or some other bit of food inside the tent we’d forgotten to seal in the canister, something that might be attracting animal attention. We hadn’t bathed or really bothered with much personal hygiene for three days; maybe we smelled like prey.

I wanted to see a wild bear, but not while it was ripping its way into my tent.

For what seemed like hours I listened to whatever was outside shuffling around our camp. As a child I’d once seen a huge stuffed black bear large enough to rival a grizzly in a museum, mounted in a standing position, snout perpetually pulled back in the bloody rictus of a snarl. In my mind it was this animal knocking around our packs and cooking gear, looking for leftovers. I was rigid with tension, ready to bolt the moment claw or fang penetrated nylon.

I considered my few options if it did discover us, and came up with a plan: my knife, compass, and matches were in pouches on my belt, and my belt was coiled in one of the boots placed at the foot of my sleeping bag. Our camp was maybe thirty feet from the water’s edge. If the bear came into the tent, I would grab my boots and dash for the lake. A bear might be able to outrun me on land, but I’ve been in and around large bodies of water since I was an infant, and was willing to bet it couldn’t outswim me. Even in their depreciated state my wilderness survival skills could probably keep me alive until I could make my way to a ranger station along the trail. Also, a potential death by hypothermia seemed favorable to being eaten. While it would have sucked to abandon the guys, as Jared said, no hard feelings, however it turns out.

Next to me, Jason was wide awake, his body held too still to be asleep–though Jared, it turned out, slept blissfully through the entire night.

I don’t remember falling asleep, but I did—though I don’t think “sleep” is really the accurate term; more likely my body could no longer stand the constant adrenaline stimulus and just shut down. It was daylight, well into morning, and both Jason and Jared were snoring. All I could see out of our tent flap was our bear canister, still dangling from the branches. But I didn’t get up and leave the tent until the others were awake.

Because of the wind there were no discernable paw prints around our campsite. Our packs had been knocked around a little bit but were otherwise unmolested. The same with the canteens left hanging on a tree branch and the mess kits fireside. I mentioned my plan to Jason. “Funny,” he said, “I was thinking the exact same thing.”

We started to wonder if maybe it hadn’t been raccoons after all, or perhaps even the result of the wind. It wasn’t until we went to retrieve our food that we saw the three claw marks gouged head-level into the tree where we’d hung it.

They hadn’t been there the previous day.

Without any discussion we decided to break camp after breakfast and push on up the trail.

*****

Quick note: Aside from the image of the bear (courtesy of the Internet) all photographs were taken by myself and my traveling companions. I would also finally see a live bear years later in the swamps of Louisiana.

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MATTHEW BALDWIN is a writer, martial artist and all-around misanthrope living in San Diego, California. He's published fiction and poetry in several small literary journals, most of which went out of business soon after. Make of that what you will. He currently holds a fourth-degree black belt in karate, a B.A. from the University of California and an M.F.A. from the University of New Orleans. In his free time he serves as a professional martial arts instructor, working mostly with teenagers. He's currently at work on both a first and second novel, and can be followed/harrassed on Twitter. And please, call him Matt.

103 responses to “Bear Country”

  1. Damn, man, that was scary… Also, a little SSE came into effect because I read this story immediately upon returning from a meeting with a guy where I scored two copies of The Call of the Wild. Weird.

    I’m glad you didn’t get eaten, but it would have been nice if you’d seen a bear from a distance. I never have, although I had a fairly similar experience when I was in Big Sur – I could hear a bear (I think) very close by.

    My parents saw several bears when they were in the Rockies. They saw grizzly up close in the wild that was so big they shut off access to that part of the park for a while. They got a good photo of it because my dad walked as close to it as possible, just snapping photos…

    • I have seen a puma in the wild more than once, which was pretty damn cool.

      I’ll give your dad props for his big brass balls. Bears are really neat animals, and I’m fascinated by–and even named for–them, but I think I would keep a healthy distance from a grizzly. Even without having seen Grizzly Man.

      And actually, I DID finally see a wild bear while I was living in Louisiana! Totally blanked on that. Have to go and edit again.

      (Damn you, SSE! Is there no avoiding your touch?! You’re like the shit needle up my cosmic rectum!)

      • Is a puma the same as a mountain lion? Like, a cougar? Or something different? I saw a cougar in California. And a bunch of other crazily awesome animals. Bears, whales and crocodiles are on my list… Although I saw some crocs in Vietnam, but I wasn’t sure if they were wild. It was in the jungle but I think it might have been some kind of park. I stuck my camera in one of their mouths… Made a good photo. Didn’t lose my hand, somehow.

        But I’m rambling.

        Grizzly Man is an awesome movie…

        • D.R. Haney says:

          A puma is indeed a mountain lion, or a cougar. They’ve staged a real comeback in California over the last few decades.

          I know someone who once had dinner with Werner Herzog, who directed Grizzly Man, and Herzog told my friend that the tape of Timothy Treadwell being attacked was more horrific than he could begin to describe; that bones can literally be heard snapping and so on.

          I only wish that you could hear that tape, David, so that you might think twice the next time you decide to place your hand in a crocodile’s mouth. Steve Irwin you no doubt ain’t.

        • True. It was foolish, but fun. I remember either in the film or in the extras Herzog listens to the tape and looks pretty sickened. I couldn’t listen to someone dying like that… It was scar me forever. I’m still scarred from the time some bastard tricked me into watching a man lose his face on some website. Sick.

          In Scotland we have ‘big cat’ sightings, but no official population of them. People deny they exist, even when we had 500 sightings around our little village in a very short period of time.

          One night I was sleeping in a tent in a forest and when I woke up in the morning there was a severed deer leg by the door of the tent, and an old man was on the news saying that he’d seen a puma on the edge of the forest.

          I feel honoured that it left me a gift.

        • Matt says:

          Depending on what part of the country you live in and your socio-economic background, it’s known alternately as a mountain lion, mountain cat, catemount, panther, cougar, and puma. I always preferred puma (POOH-ma, not PEW-ma as some will insist). And as Duke mentioned, they’ve been making a pretty big comeback.

          Having already had a part of my anatomy inside a crocodillian’s mouth, I am in no rush to ever do so again.

        • Zara Potts says:

          It’s pewma. And you know it.

        • Matt says:

          Sure thing, Zara. It’s “pewma” in the same way that Aussie is “Awwssie” or Maori is “May-Oh-Rhee.”

        • Yes, it most certainly is “pewma”. Pooma sounds like, well, poo…

        • Matt says:

          Listen up, ya durty foreigners: as I tried to point out above “puma” is NOT English; it is from one of the Native American dialects, so English rules of pronunciation do not apply. It’s “pooh-ma.”

        • Simone says:

          I’m jumping on the dirty foreigner band wagon here, it’s “pewma”, definitely!

        • Matt, if we stole their land do you really think we’re about to allow them correct pronunciation of their words? No. We steal those and pervert them.

        • Matt says:

          I’m part Cheyenne–so that’s “our” words you’re perverting, wasichu.

          *sigh*

          Leave it to the British to ruin everything.

  2. Oh yeah, and John Muir is Scottish, just like me. I studied a geography course in the middle of my literature degree (weird…) and had to write an essay about him, Gifford Pinchot and the movie, Chinatown.

  3. D.R. Haney says:

    This post brought to mind something forgotten. A few years ago, during a period of emotional upheaval, I decided to go on something of a vision quest, driving from LA to Seattle and through Montana to visit the Custer Battlefield, a place I’d wanted to see since childhood. I arrived in Hardin, Montana, on the Crow reservation, around midnight. My map indicated that there was a camping site nearby, but I couldn’t find it. Finally I stopped at a remote spot on the banks of the Yellowstone River, where I pitched my tiny A-frame and built a fire. I vividly remember sitting by that fire and writing postcards to friends that said “I am never coming back!” as I listened to the rushing water and cackling coyotes off in the distance. I wondered about grizzlies, which, as far as I knew, still roamed that part of Montana, and early the next morning, I was jerked awake by the sound of rustling, which I was convinced was a grizzly that had wandered onto my campsite. The rustling continued, and I stared at the entrance to the tent, convinced that I was going to see a bear’s face push through it at any moment. Finally, when a bear didn’t appear, I grew brave enough to step outside and saw that the rustling noise was simply a flap on the tent, blown by the breeze, that hadn’t been secured.

    However, when I was eight, I did have an encounter with a for-real wild black bear. This was in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, where my family was vacationing. We were driving down the road when we saw a guy standing on the hood of his car, feeding potato chips and Coke to a bear that was begging for more, a little like a dog, as people stood around snapping photos. My parents wanted to snap a photo also, so they stopped the car, and I instantly grabbed my little sister by the hand and walked right up to the bear, standing maybe two feet from it. My parents freaked out! Oh man, were they mad at me!

    Anyway, thanks for stirring a few memories. I love how this post ends with that picture — very spooky, a la The Blair Witch Project.

    • Haha, that’s crazy. I wonder when that bear eventually killed someone, because you just know it did. These creatures need to be respected – from a safe distance.

    • Matt says:

      I had that exact same experience once! I was camping alone and woke up to a massive rustling against the side of my tent. I thought for sure something was coming through. Being that this was Mexico, I was sure it was a pack of coyotes…or El Chupacabra, I suppose. Turned out a tent flap had just come unstaked.

      Funny you mention The Blair Witch Project. We took this trip a few months after that movie came out, and the thought of getting lost in the woods was very much on all of our minds.

  4. Nice piece. We went through Sequoia Nat’l Park running into many of the things you recount here, the astonishing views, the frigid nights even in July and the fear-mongering park rangers. They really make sure you’re scared shitless about bears before you camp for the night. We never did see anything more menacing than deer, but with the constant reminders about proper food storage and how even a stick of gum inside your car is enough to get the sidedoor ripped off, we felt the bear presence the whole time.

    • Matt says:

      They do a pretty damn good job of making you paranoid, don’t they? I really wish I’d taken a photo of that corkboard. The image that stuck out most in my mind was of a pickup truck that had just been demolished: flatbed shell ripped off, doors torn asunder, the seating and dash inside just shredded.

  5. Now if only that bear–or possible bear–had played the banjo, and been prone to anal sex. Well then, my friend, it looks like you would’ve had Deliverance II on your hands. Sweet.

  6. The slash marks on the tree are awesome – no matter who made them.

    I’ll assume it’s Bearverine.

    Chuff-chuff SNORT.

  7. Zara Potts says:

    I, like David, am glad you didn’t get eaten, by a bear or any other wild animal.
    Nice piece and great photos!

    • Matt says:

      Thanks, Zara. Thought I’d go with something a little more lighthearted after the last couple. I had a few more images I wanted to add, but they seem to be among the things I lost in Hurricane Katrina. Ah well.

  8. Dude. This. Was. Awesome. Hell yes. Tell you what, Call of the Wild paid off in your writing. I was so right there. Or wish I had been.

    I saw a bear once on a hike, but it was in a major park somewhere in the Poconos; lots of people around. Nothing like this. Then again, I did most of my camping in and around Jersey, and I’m fairly sure such large creatures don’t make a home of the Pines. Many, many deer, but who hasn’t seen a deer.

    I did once wake up a few feet from a bald eagle, though. That was pretty cool. I took to sleeping under the stars when the weather was mild enough, favoring making really good food over the pitching of a tent. That time I laid an old Army surplus (ftw!) canvas half-tent on the ground and then just got in a sleeping bag on top. I was near a lake, and when I woke, the eagle was, like, right there. Only for a second, then fwwoom like feathered gasoline. I don’t think I realized eagles ever landed.

    And outswimming. A. Bear? Dude, they paw-swipe salmon. They’re so insane.

    It’s pretty rad.

    Great stuff, though. Awesome pictures, too. Really liked the post as a whole. Came together really well.

    • Matt says:

      Thanks, Will. I was making a deliberate attempt to be somewhat Londonesque with my prose. Glad you noticed.

      I’ve seen bald eagles from afar, in the air, but only up close in a zoo (it was a rescued bird who’d been shot by a hunter and permanently lost the ability to fly). Very strange to see them on the ground, isn’t it?

      Lots and lots of golden eagles and hawks around here, and the California Condor has made enough of a resurgence that every once in a while I see one while out on a day hike. Lovely birds.

      My ability to hold my breath and dive would have been the crucial element in outswimming the bear. Black bears aren’t as adept fisherman as grizzlies and browns, too, so I think I would have stood a chance (hell, I still think I do). I’m a bit better a tactician than the average salmon.

  9. Don Mitchell says:

    Matt, I really liked this one. Those views! And of course what you wrote about the bears. The thing you see or don’t see, the thing you understand/know or don’t — it’s so interesting, what it’s reasonable to fear (and be cautious about) and what it’s not, and how the hell to know the difference.

    In your piece you’re an adult. I’ll mention a kid thing that makes me laugh whenever I think about it, but it’s sort of interesting because it shows kid-logic.

    When I was maybe 6 or 7, I would sometimes have nightmare about — get this — wild sheep that had come into the yard and were after me. Sheep! Eventually I realized that my little mind had created the syllogism:

    Dangerous animals are hunted with rifles.
    Dad hunts sheep with a rifle.
    Sheep are dangerous.

    • Matt says:

      You might have been onto something with that one. That Bighorn ram we encountered had a massive set of horns on him, and if he’d been aggressive (which they can get during mating season), we could have been in trouble. Getting rammed by him would likely have put us into a world of hurt.

      I was twenty at the time this happened, halfway through my undergrad studies–still just stripling play-acting at being an adult, really.

  10. Brad Listi says:

    I could tell a similar—though different story—about being out in Appalachia and thinking I was about to get mutilated in a tent. In fact, I’ve probably mentioned it in some form online before. But it’s a long one, and I don’t have time to hash it all out right now unfortunately.

    Love a good wilderness tale.

    And I’ve seen a few bears in my time. Black bears only. I’ve had three bear encounters in the wild.

    Was hiking once in Virginia and heard a twig snap and looked up the hillside through a thicket of trees and saw a bear (for some reason I wanna say it was a male bear) lumbering along in a parallel line. Didn’t even look at me. I felt no fear. I’ve never felt any fear with a bear, which is sort of surprising.

    Then again, I’ve never gone nose-to-nose with one.

    • Matt says:

      See, that’s the thing: I think if we’d come across one while out hiking or making our camp, it wouldn’t have been a big deal. But huddled in that tent, in the cold dark night, unable to totally rely on our senses to tell us what was going on outside? Different story entirely.

      Also, the Jack London character riding horseback down the mountain was the only human being we’d seen for about two days. Really reinforced the idea that we were at nature’s mercy.

      Wilderness stories and adventure tales were what really got me into reading at a young age (well, that and dinosaurs) and I always like going back to them.

  11. Dana says:

    Fun piece Matt — and the pictures are great!

    Brad, did the bear eventually glance over and say howdy?

    We’re SUPPOSED to have bear where I live and I look for them all the time. So far – no go. Of course I’m not likely to go wandering around in The Great Dismal Swamp anytime soon, so the odds aren’t in my favor. I do see a bald eagle pair on a pretty regular basis which always gives me a thrill. 25 years ago we drove to the upper peninsula of Michigan and THEN we got really remote and went miles off the main road until we finally found one of the few known eagles nests in the state. We were in awe at the time, and then about 2 years ago one landed in my back yard.

    My brother has killed bear. He has the upper torso of a female bear he killed (with a bow) coming out of the wall in his living room. Ugh.

    • Matt says:

      Wow. That’s gross. Like 1/2 of a morbid set of bookends.

      All of these comments are making me want to strap on my boots and back pack, grab my bush hat, and head off on an overnighter again.

  12. Woah. Okay, that was scary. Love the claw marks in the tree. Geez-us.
    But can I just say how jealous I am of people who are sure their wilderness skills will “keep them alive” until they reach a ranger station and such? I often watch Survivor on TV and think how, even with a camera crew breathing down my neck, I would be dead within 24 hours in those conditions, not to mention being completely solo in bear-ridden woods with nothing but . . . what, Matt, a pack of matches and a compass and a knife? Christ, I don’t even know how to USE a compass. I would use the knife to put myself out of my misery if caught in such a predicament, except I’m probably too much of an uber-urban girly-girl to mortally wound myself properly and would just end up leaving a scent of blood for the bear so that it could maul me to death properly.
    Basically, to me this piece makes you sound like a rock star. In my book, you could be Survivorman.

    • Matt says:

      Heh. Of the three of us, I was actually the only one who knew how to use a compass to take bearings and plot a course. Which meant that if anything had happened to me, Jason and Jared would have been royally screwed.

      My estimation was likely overgenerous, but it was based on the knowledge that a.) the water in the lakes was mostly safe to drink, so I wouldn’t die of dehydration, b.) I knew the general direction of park headquarters, and the area is a pretty popular hiking destination, so I would have encountered other people within a day or so and c.) the knife and matches would have been enough to get a decent fire going, so I wouldn’t freeze. Food might have been an issue; once upon a time I could set a decent snare and clean a rabbit well enough, but I can’t do that anymore (might have been able to spear a fish). But again, I *probably* could have hiked to safety before starving to death.

      But I will happily be your rock star.

  13. kristen says:

    “Don’t play dead, because they might think you actually are and try to bite off a sample.”

    Shit. Snorted/laughed aloud at this line. Something about “bite off a sample”–just funny.

    But–yikes! Glad you’re alive to tell, and to write such a well-crafted narrative of your experience.

    • Matt says:

      I met a guy once who’d been out backpacking in the upper Pacific Northwest somewhere (Washington or Oregon, I think). It was the middle of summer so he decided to sleep under the stars. Woke up in the middle of the night to find a full-grown grizzly mouthing his head, like a dog exploring a new toy. Luckily it dropped him and ran off when he screamed. He wasn’t even hurt too bad, by some stretch of luck; aside from a couple scratches the teeth hadn’t even broken his skin.

  14. I think this has been one of my favourite posts from you Matt. It just hit the mark.

    I’m also glad that you didn’t get torn to shreds, eaten, or trapped into performing in some kind of bear circus as revenge for all of the years of dancing bears that we as a species have inflicted on bearkind.

    Nice work, Jared. Way to sleep through the terror.

    • Matt says:

      I KNOW! Big jerk! Especially the way he was all refreshed and rested the next day while Jason and I were all exhausted and lagging. Some nerve, that Jared.

      Having seen Grizzly Man and The Edge and The Bear, I would gladly become a simian performer in the Grand Bear Circus if it means not getting eaten. I’d learn to juggle while riding a unicycle so quick you’d think I was born to it.

  15. Tawni says:

    This was great to read. Almost as good as actually going camping. But “chuff-chuff-SNORT” scared the crap out of me. You must have been so freaked out.

    If it had been a hairy bear and a scary bear, you could have just unpacked your adjectives, you know.

    • Matt says:

      Oh yes. Middle of the woods, dark of night, and chuff-chuff-SNORT about 4 inches from your head? Not the most reassuring thing in the world.

    • Gloria says:

      We have that very Schoolhouse Rocks video! Love it. Fun reference, Tawni. 🙂

      • Tawni says:

        Thanks for the validation, G-Love. After I posted that, I thought, “Weeeee! I’m the weird old lady making references nobody else understands! I always knew it would come to this.” 🙂

  16. Phat B says:

    I love me some John Muir Wilderness. Beautiful post. I’ve probably seen 10 to 12 Californian black bears, and all were pretty domesticated. I’ve only seen them in the bigger parks, like Sequoia and Kings Canyon. More often than not they have been radio tagged by rangers who will alert you when they’re getting close. I don’t know what I’d do if I got as close as you did to one in the wild. They are unreal in the speed they can display when they want to. I remember a ranger hitting one with pepper spray when it got too close to a tent and the bear must’ve hit 30 mph on its way out of the camp. I tried to pet one that wandered into camp when I was 8 or 9, and my dad yanked me away just in time. Smart fuckers too. They now know what a cooler looks like, so they don’t even need to smell food to rummage through it. They’re breaking windows in minivans and trucks cuz they can see the coolers through the windows. I think the Black Bear is just one of those animals with so much raw power that it has honed a lifestyle of complete laziness.

    • Matt says:

      I deeply, deeply love our state parks, and am glad they’re not being hit as hard by California’s budget crisis as it looked like they would–because let’s face it, they consistently make money year-round.

      One of the things I like about bears is how they look big and cuddly and kinda dopey, but all of a sudden they do something to remind you that they’re always top predator of whatever ecosystem they’re in. And as you say, much smarter than a lot people give them credit for. I know Yellowstone has had problems in the past because the grizzlies up there have become acclimated to humans and learned to get–and sometimes take–food from them.

      • Phat B says:

        I always have this daydream when I’m fishing in the Sierra’s that I’ll run across a black bear on my way back to camp and feed him one of my trout. Then the bear will protect me like a cub and take me back to the wilderness party where we get drunk on honey and make fun of the squirrels for being nature’s beggars.

        • Matt says:

          Ever since I saw The Journey of Natty Gann as a child (and later, the Ethan Hawke version of White Fang) I had this fantasy of going out in nature and being adopted/protected by a kindly if curmudgeonly wolf.

          And I’m with you and your party bear. Fuck the squirrels! The last time I went to the Grand Canyon, they didn’t even wait for me to set my pack down before they were hopping in it looking for my food. Bastards even had the gall to chitter angrily at me when I tried to shoo them away.

  17. Phat B says:

    My Dad laughs at any camper taking a picture of a squirrel. They’re like nature’s homeless, always looking for a free nut. The forest is full of nuts assholes, leave the tourists alone! And they carry the fucking plague and rabies. What the fuck squirrels? The plague? Fuck off.

  18. JB says:

    What do you do when a bear presents itself? I’ve read all sorts of things. Is there not one right thing to do? Scream? Grab a slab of wood and hold it above your head vis a vis The Gods Must Be Crazy II?

    Anyway, my closest contact with a “bear” was with Billy Bob from the Rock-afire Explosion.

    I enjoyed this. That photo of the mountain is gorgeous.

    JB

    • Matt says:

      Pretty much what Jason said. Stand your ground. Scream, toss rocks, wave your hands. Stomp. Make them think you’re bigger than you actually are, so they don’t think you’re worth the risk of attacking. Most of them will *usually* just ignore you.

      And thanks.

  19. Ducky says:

    Great yarn. Love nature stories. I’ve got a bear story, too. For another day.

    Have you read Craig Childs?

  20. Rachel Pollon says:

    YIpes — that was stressful! Glad you had your adventure and didn’t come into direct contact with any real trouble.

    Have you seen my bear pics on Facebook? Look under the Durango album. The shots are kind of hard to make out but we have a cabin in Colorado and bears visited our area a lot this summer. I was glad to have four walls around me and be able to watch from relative safety. Though I realize they could have pulled out a window with ease if they wanted to.

  21. Simone says:

    Great post Matt, I really enjoyed reading this.

    Although I think I totally would’ve left skid marks in my pants if i were in that tent listening to that bear (or creature) chuff-chuff snorting on the other side of the tent fabric.

    Loved the pics.

    • Matt says:

      Thanks for the read, Simone.

      One day, I’m going to come to your continent, and camp out in the wilderness, and listen to all the night sounds of the various African fauna. And likely be gleefully terrified of them.

      Also, one day, something is probably going to eat me. Universe only knows the bastards have tried…

  22. Mary says:

    Great piece, Matt! The hiking sounds so picturesque and amazing. I always wish I could do that sort of thing, but I don’t have any experience with camping, and I’m so not a fan of peeing in the bushes.

    • Matt says:

      It is anatomically easier for us males to deal with that sort of thing. And I’ve always gotten this rather childish delight in urinating outdoors.

      I love to camp. Been too, too long. And bears or not, this was one of the best trips I ever took. Canoeing down the Colorado river was pretty awesome, as well.

  23. Awesome post and fantastic pictures.

    Camping in this country isn’t quite the same and has little potential for danger…

  24. Gloria says:

    Beautiful description of the mountains. Great read. I’m thrilled you weren’t eaten by a bear – and that you didn’t have to choose between flight or fight.

    Once I camped in the mountains of Southern New Mexico in a spot far off the beaten path that was probably not supposed to be a camping spot. All night long, the coyotes howled. It was terrifying, but also pretty exhilarating.

    Thank you for the fuzzy animal story. 🙂

    • Matt says:

      Oh, it would have been flight. I’m pretty cocksure about my hand-to-hand abilities, but I’m not going toe-to-toe with a bear.

      I can hear coyotes at night where I live right now. It’s one of the things I miss when I’m in other parts of the country, where they aren’t as frequent.

  25. Richard Cox says:

    I’m glad you posted this again on Facebook or I would have missed it. Haven’t had much time to read the past week or so but I’m glad I saw this one. Great rendering of hiking and the wilderness. I’ve only gone on short hikes, and I’d love to do something like this. Minus the bear wandering through camp, though.

    I saw a bear once at Yellowstone. He was halfway up a nearby hill and looking awfully lonely. Something must have been wrong because it was daytime and he was out in the open, just sitting there.

    Also, I had the same question as a few others about you outswimming a bear. You certainly have the tactical edge, but I still wonder about his speed and sensory ability. Would swimming underwater really be enough? Although at least it would be something to try, instead of just sitting there in camp and accepting your fate.

    • Matt says:

      Most of the lakes we were at were pretty deep, and I’m a very strong swimmer. Would it have been enough? I have no idea. But at the time it certainly seemed like the best possible option.

      I think my plan hedged on the fact that overall, bears don’t look at humans as a food source, so any possible pursuit wouldn’t have been too vigorous. And really, I didn’t need to outrun/swim the bear so much as would’ve need to just outpace Jason and Jared.

  26. Greg Olear says:

    Nice piece, man.

    A guy I used to work with at AP did encounter a bear, in Alaska…while he was standing there waiting to have his camera snap his picture (on a tripod with a timer).

    He waved at the bear and said, “Hello, bear!” over and over until the bear left. Then he left, too…leaving his camera in the woods. So somewhere is a picture of him smiling like an idiot while a grizzly came up behind him.

    • Matt says:

      Thanks! I thought a little adventure yarn might be an enjoyable change of pace from the usual.

      Too bad the camera was left behind. I’ll bet that’s an awesome image.

  27. Irene Zion (Lenore's Mom) says:

    Hey, Matt,

    Sorry I’m coming to the party late, but I’ve been away for three weeks and the internet on the ship was 62 cents a minute. Victor about had a cow.

    This is super scary to me. I don’t understand for one minute why people would want to wander about unarmed with enormous black bears with vicious claws. Could your black belt help you with a black bear?

    Maybe your compass? Show him your compass, that’ll do it.

    • Matt says:

      $.62 a minute for the internet?! That’s highway robbery! Why don’t they just use a gun?!

      When it comes to animals, I am a deeply curious, stupidly unafraid moron. Someday, something will probably eat me.

      If it saves my life, I will certainly give a bear a cartography lesson.

      • Irene Zion (Lenore's Mom) says:

        But Matt,

        You didn’t say whether you thought having a black belt in karate would help you with a black bear. Can you only succeed in fighting with a human using karate? Seriously.

        • Irene Zion (Lenore's Mom) says:

          I forgot to say, isn’t it annoying that money is so cheap that they no longer put a cents sign on your keyboard?

        • Matt says:

          Well, punching that alligator worked out in my favor, but a bear….? Put it this way: given that they are strong enough to push down some trees and overturn boulders looking for food, I’ll not be putting that one to the test any time soon.

        • Irene Zion (Lenore's Mom) says:

          Yeah.
          Probably a wise choice, Matt.

  28. New Orleans Lady says:

    As usual, I loved this. Heart-racing. I want to hear the other story about the bear here, in LA.

    • Matt says:

      Wasn’t much of a story. Went out on a small swamp tour. Saw a black bear during it. Bear was on land, we were on the boat. Forgot my camera that day, though.

  29. Man, I keep coming back to read this damn story. It entertains me like a good song.

    • Matt says:

      Dude, that’s the awesomest compliment ever. Thank you!

      *strokes beard thoughtfully*

      Hmmm…may have to consider the idea of reinventing myself as a latter-day Jack London-type after all….

  30. Autumn says:

    Bears. They helped seal my decision not to apply to the University of Montana’s MFA program, despite the fact that Kevin Canty teaches there. The website had a little message about how bears sometimes roam the campus, but it’s okay as long as you stay indoors. WHAT???

    And then, of course, my own alma mater Manhattanville College gets a black bear on its grounds one day. You can’t escape destiny, I guess.

    Not many bears where I grew up in Florida, but we had plenty of alligators and sharks. Every year at least one or two people (usually old people or feeble women) would get eaten by an alligator, and one or two bit by sharks.

    I don’t know why alligators are more effective, except for the small fact that they were designed by Satan.

    As a kid, I feared alligators to a level that was phobic. I didn’t swim in our pool alone because I was always afraid a gator would somehow (somehow!!!) end up in the pool with me.

    But sharks I had no fear of. We swam all through the Intercoastal and the Tampa Bay, at all times of the day and evening. No sharks. We saw rays and dolphins, but not one shark. Turns out that area is absolutely infested with bullsharks, but the Gods were kind to us in our ignorance.

    One last thing: Bears are very good swimmers (so sayeth The American Bear Association). I wouldn’t recommend trying to out-swim one.

    • Matt says:

      Wait a minute. Some college friends of mine live in Florida, and from what they tell me alligators occasionally do turn up in swimming pools. So your phobia is kind of justified.

      I was bitten by an alligator once. If I’m ever in New York, I’ll show you the scars.

      • Autumn says:

        What?? I demand that you tell me this story–toot sweet!

        Alligators and crocodiles are the absolute scariest MF’ers on the planet. Even when I used to tube down the Santa Fe River, I would spend the first hour or so on my tip-toes, delicately balanced on my tube, certain that a creature straight out of Lake Placid was going to eat me!

        • Matt says:

          You didn’t read my Hurricane Katrina piece from last August? http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/mbaldwin/2009/08/eye-of-the-storm/

          About halfway through, in the section marked “Fun With Herpetology.”

          I seriously lack animal phobia. I’ll get into a cage with a great white or pick up an Indonesian python or try to touch a Goliath Birdeater tarantula. There’s probably some horrific death at the claws and teeth of the animal kingdom waiting for me down the line.

        • Autumn says:

          Holy Jiminy! I might have died of fright!

          I’m not scared of big mammals, or snakes, but anything lizard-like (from the smallest anole to the giant saltwater crocs) scare the bejeezus right outta me.

          When I was little, I had god-awful dreams that my father was attacked, and devoured, in our backyard. I remember his bloody handprints on the sliding glass door, his face screaming at me, and I was too scared to help him. I also dreamed, for years, that my little sister would fall into a lake full of them, and I would be too scared to save her.

          I actually used to wake up, walk over to her little bed (we shared a room) and pull her into my arms, crying hysterically, “I’d save you, Averie. I’d save you!”

          Poor little kid must have been terrified…of me.

          Remember the lesson of Steve Irwin: All the really dangerous creatures will probably spare you, but watch out for those fucking stingrays.

  31. […] wonders if you fear her. *Jessica Anya Blau on sticking it in your butt. *Matthew Baldwin heads out bear country. *Tyler Stoddard Smith in Madrid.  *Listen to us when we’re talking to you.  *Michael […]

  32. “Chuff Chuff Snort” are the scariest words known to man since you’re written this piece. I don’t think I’ve read three scarier words the way you put them together. All I could think about was that one photo-essayist dude and his gal getting eaten alive 10 or so years back and hearing the audio from it on the news…

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  35. […] arts.  Has demonstrated both skill sets at TNB, where we have read about him taking on sharks, bears, knife-wielding French Quarter muggers…but not, unfortunately, gun-toting drug […]

  36. Mady says:

    So- your survival strategy is cracking me up in light of an article I saw earlier today about altruism and natural selection. But now I have all of these questions- do you think that if all three of you jumped up and down and yelled that you would be three times more unappealing as prey than if only one of you did while the other two bolted? Would the bear be more inclined to chase the running individuals and ignore the relatively stationary one due to prey drive?

    In any case, I really like the way you let the reality of the bear drift out near the end, and then snap it right back into sharp focus. What a story!

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