Bear CountryBy Matthew Baldwin
December 17, 2009
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 my old high school friend Jared, setting up our hybrid caravans 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.