I got my new issue of Backpacker yesterday and got a huge chuckle when I looked at the cover. One article title reads: "The World's Smartest Bears: Is Your Food Safe in Yosemite? Are You?"
I'm with seven young women between the ages of 12 and 20 from a big city four hours to the south. Four of them are spending their first night in a tent. I'm also with 3 other women my age or older (see last post) who are fairly well seasoned backpackers, more so than me although I definitely know enough to make it a few days on my own.
Two of the women have decided to ditch a tent all together and sleep outside under the stars. We had just spent the afternoon in the Yosemite Valley divying up food, teaching the girls how to pack their backpacks and why we have to leave behind deoderant, books, and matching outfits for every day. While in the Valley, one of the girls sees a few deer and exclaims, "They just let them walk around like that!?" That sums up their familiarity with the wilderness.
So after evening lessons on how to relieve yourself in the woods and why backpackers keep their food and everything smelly in locked bear canisters at least 100 feet from their campsites (or hung bear bags or metal bear boxes depending on the park you're in), we retire for the night. We've slept about a half an hour when we wake up to the panic alarm going off on a truck belonging to a large family of car campers that's parked about 200 feet from our campsite. You can actually see the offending truck in the picture above.
So the panic button continues to go off. We all just lay there. Then it goes off again, and again, and again. I have a pretty good idea why they are sounding the alarm, but since I've been through a bear scare before while Matt and I backpacked up at Pictured Rocks in Michigan, I'm only mildly worried. That time the bear was right next to our tent, sniffing our sugary sweet SkinSoSoft (which I've never worn again). Matt and I just laid there until we could fall back asleep. It worked out well then, so I figured why mess with the technique. Plus, with the truck's horn going off for over 5 minutes, I was pretty sure the bear was long gone. Unfortunately, they wouldn't stop with the panic button. Now we were all just getting annoyed, and begin talking about whether we should go over to see what was going on.
So one of our sleep-under-the-stars ladies comes to our tent and says she's going to go over there. She's still sleepy, and she tells us later that it didn't occur to her yet that there was a bear. So she walks over and asks the car campers what's going on. They're huddled in their tents in a total panic. They say, "THERE'S A BEAR!" Our wilderness woman responds, "Where's the bear? I don't see a bear." She was kind of hoping to see it.
Then she sees not only a big bag of dog food by their picnic table, but also a couple rough totes filled with food and cooking utensils. She then spots a trail of food disappearing into the woods. She, obviously much much braver than I, follows the trail. The bear had grabbed one of the rough totes and dragged it off. She went after it, not so much to get a peak at the bear, but to pick up all the food so the bear didn't come back.
Meanwhile, I and the other leaders climb out of our tents to go check on the girls, who now realize there might be a bear and are closing in on total panic. Suddenly the family bolts from their tents, jumps in their truck, and drives off leaving a cloud of dust. Now comes the tears, the begging, the pleading, the threatening. The girls are so ready to leave. Crisis management begins.
The wilderness woman returns, totally calm. She tells the girls that she picked up all the food and put it in the trash bins. There is no bear box unfortunately, but all our food is safely contained in bear canisters a good distance away. Somehow we managed to convince the girls to stop crying, take deep breaths, and come up with a plan for the night. They are in awe of wilderness woman, with total respect for her bravery. They are also wondering if she's crazy for not only for approaching bear territory, but also for following the bear's escape route. She just humbly says the car campers were so scared and that this is all really sad for the bears, because once they get human food, their lives become much more at risk.
The girls decided if we huddled out tents really close, and if the sleeping-under-the-stars women kept guard outside the tents, it would be okay to stay. So we all went back to sleep.
An hour later the bear came back for the trash bins.
We woke up to the crash of aluminum. Wilderness woman wakes up and darts into the dark again. This time I start thinking maybe she is crazy because the bins are closer to our campsite than the car camping family was. She lets out the most fierce growl I can imagine a human being mustering. We all start growling and screaming "GO AWAY BEAR!" It was actually kind of fun.
After a few minutes of screaming into the dark, wilderness woman jumps in the mini-van to go down to tell the camp hosts of the bear problem. They say they told the car camping family early in the evening that they had to put away all their food. They also said they've been telling park officials that the campground needed bear boxes. Wilderness woman boobytraps the garbage cans with branches, thinking we'd hear it if the bear returned for a third snack.
When everything calms down, the woman I was sharing a tent with and I got a huge laugh imagining wilderness woman becoming an urban legend in Oakland. The wilderness woman who chased a bear. We go back to sleep and wake up in the morning. The girls survived their first night of camping, and we averted our first "we want to go home" crisis.
The Backpacker article is really quite funny, retelling the stories of the bears many efforts to get some high carb grub from the thousands of campers who visit Yosemite every day. My favorite is the Kamikaze bears which would climb above hanging food bags, "take a flying leap, grabbing for groceries on the way down".
The rangers in the article said they have several hundred bear-to-human contacts a year over food, including car break-ins, but that they only average two injuries a year. These mostly happen to people who sleep next to their food. On record, no one has ever been killed by a bear in California. The author said that if bears had an interest in eating people, Yosemite would be like Jurassic Park. Since bears need to eat up to 25,000 calories a day and they can smell a hamburger cooking a couple miles away, your rough tote or picnic basket is their pay day. Unfortunately, many more bears are killed because of human contact, from being hit by cars and also being put down for getting too used to people food.
The most boisterous girls in our group chided me for staying in the tent. I wasn't apologetic. Unlike wilderness woman, I've never seen a bear face-to-face and that's okay with me. It might be kind of cool to see one some day on the other side of a lake, but that'll be plenty of bear-to-human contact for me. I like a good bit of distance between myself and wild animals. I will never be like the family we saw in the Valley later in the week, literally 15 feet from a herd of six antlered deer, snapping pictures with their kid in tow. Along with leaving boxes of food 10 feet from your tent, that's the most foolish thing I can imagine doing in the wilderness, for both your own safety and for the animals.