It was mid-October 2015 and my four-month camping trip was coming to an end. I was in the mountains of southern California rounding north to head home to Washington State. With a quickly closing window on my summer gear camping, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks were in my sights. I pulled into a sweet little spot in Sequoia. There was a nice buffer from neighbors and deep forest behind me. I paid my fee, left a camp chair out to signal other campers and went out to see the big trees.
Plastered to the top of the picnic table was an array of photos illustrating the many warnings of “Do Not leave food in your car! Use the bear box!!” There was the classic photo: bear in car with face in cooler. There was the new one on me photo: the aftermath of a bear trashed car complete with toothpaste smashed out & licked up. Then there were many of the standard photo: smashed windows, thrashed upholstery and half eaten wrapper of a Snickers, Slim Jim, Cliff Bar, cheese stick, etc. littering the scene of destruction.
I took these many illustrated warnings to heart, removed EVERYTHING from my car and put it all in the giant bear box. I really didn’t want to have a bear run in this late in the game. I set up camp, started a fire, cracked beer & book. As the sun went down and the evening chill settled in, I had this feeling… Just a little bit of “there’s something in them there woods” with a touch of “OOOooooOOoooo” but nothing dire. The hairs on the back of my neck weren’t up but they were fluttering.
I cooked some dinner before the light was totally gone, careful to keep spillage to a minimum. I pulled on my trusty hoodie that had been with me the whole time to keep the chill off as I finished another beer and read an Anna Pigeon adventure by firelight/headlamp combo. Every now and then, my eyes move up the page and over the edge of the book to scan the tree line
I was getting cold and the firewood was low. It was time to wrap up for the night. The long sunsets of summer had turned into the hurried sunsets of autumn before I knew it. Evening was already here. Empty beer cans went into the bear box and out came the toothbrush, toothpaste, towel and soap.
I angled my headlamp up for walking and walked up the slight incline of the campground road toward the restroom which was about 40 yards up the road and to the left. The sounds of fires popping, people chatting, kindling being chopped and the clank, clank of cooking floated along with the smoke from the campfires. I was kind of lost in thought as my headlamp settled on a shiny hump at the entrance of a camp neighbor’s driveway about 20-25 feet away. “Huh,” I thought. I moved my headlamp a little to the right. Two green eyes were shining at me. It was too big to be a dog. Besides it was all alone and I didn’t see a lease. “What the?” I said to myself. “Is that…? What is that? Is that… a… bear….?” I froze. The animal froze. We stared at each other.
About 20 or so seconds had passed as we stated at each other in the dark. I had this thought: I’ve been camping for four months. I have done all the right things to reduce my chances of a bear encounter. I bought and carried bear spray while hiking. I called out “Hey Bear” when approaching blind corners on trails. I clapped my hands and Hoot Hooted every 20 minutes or so on the trails (even sang Neil Young’s Hey Hey, My My and Rockin’ In the Free World because you DO NOT need to carry a tune to sing Neil Young). I waited at trail heads for fellow hikers when signs were posted to warning hikers not to hike alone due to bear activity in the area. I always joined up with fellow hikers when on the trial – safety in numbers. Up till now it had paid off. Until now, I had only seen a bear just outside Waterton Lakes township and from faaaaar off in Glacier National Park, Montana.
Then I had this thought: Wow. After all that I finally saw a bear! There it is. About 20-25 feet away. A little black bear! You know, little compared to a Fiat. The bear was probably about 3 feet tall at the back haunches.
Then I had this thought: Uh-oh. Buddy, you shouldn’t be here. All you’re gonna get is trouble.
I stomped my foot, clapped my hands and yelled, “Shoo!” I had a moment in introspection. Questions like, Did l just yell “Shoo” at a bear? Have I turned into a pioneer grandma? What in the hell am I doing? flitted thought my mind. Then I did it again. I was surprised at myself. The bear’s head jerked up a bit like, “Really?” This Shoo/Stomp/Clap thing I was doing seemed to be involuntary. I took a step closer, stomped and clapped again! The equally freaked out black bear turned on its “heels” and bolted – right towards the bathrooms where it disappeared near the dark doorway marked Women. “Aw crud,” I muttered. Nice one, pioneer grandma.
I finished walking up the hill, crunching extra loudly on the gravel in front of the restroom. I stopped in front of the door to the Women’s room. It was slightly open. I had this vision of me flinging open the door to see the bear shoulder deep in a trash can with a guilty look on its face. I stood there a couple of minutes. Apparently, pioneer grandma was only good at clapping and yelling Shoo! Not so good at flinging open doors Charlie’s Angels style.
Finally, I squared up to the door and quickly pushed it open while scooting to the left. That would have saved me, I’m sure. Nothing. No sounds. I stepped into the doorway and looked around. Empty. I walked into the restroom and checked under all of the stall doors. ??? Yes. I really did. Then I firmly closed the restroom door.
I was brushing my teeth, kinda of chuckling at myself, when a woman opened the door and walked in. With a mouth full of toothpaste I muffle shouted at her out of surprise. She was, quite rightly, taken aback. A lady, foaming at the mouth, shouted at her as she innocently walked into the bathroom. It’s weird. I apologized and said I was still a little keyed up from the bear encounter. The woman’s eyes got wide. “You just saw a bear? Just now?” she asked with an elevated voice and animated hands. She began to mumble as she walked into a stall. A stream of mumbles continued. Mumble, mumble, bear, mumble, damn bears, mumble, camping, should have known better, mumble, bear! She was obviously a little upset.
The mumble stream continued as the woman exited the stall and walked up to the sink to wash her hands. I offered to walk her to her campsite if she was scared, but she declined. Mumbles continued while she dried her hands, tossed the paper towel into the trash and walked out, leaving the door open for any bear to walk through.
I walked back to my campsite flashing my headlamp left and right like a crazy person. My headlamp fell on a picnic table to the right of me: a collection of Subway wrappers and soda cups were right on top of the pictures warning not to leave food out. I looked into the campsite and saw the campers at the campfire with their backs to the table. I decided to let them know that a bear was out and about and they should clean up before the bear finished their scraps and then ate their faces off.
They were deep in conversation, and I was approaching from behind them. I knew I was going to scare them, so I tried to be loud as possible, scuffing my feet over the rocky driveway. “Hello,” I said. I scared them. They jumped in their camp chairs and swiveled to look at me. “Sorry! I didn’t want to scare you, but I just saw a bear and wanted to let you know that the wrappers on your picnic table will bring that bear right to you which is bad – for everyone.” The woman instantly turned in her chair to look at the table full of scraps. Then she stood up. She wanted details. I noticed an accent – kinda like Netherlands. I told her about seeing the bear, turning into pioneer grandma and the bear running off. She asked if I was scared when I saw the bear. I said, “Yeah. I guess so.” “Really?” she asked. “And your American?” My head tilted as I tried to puzzle out the link between being American and not being afraid to be eaten by a bear. I reminded them about the wrappers, still wondering how being American would make me unafraid of bears. It was time to put my fire out anyway.
After making sure every scrap of food and anything that smelled like food was securely stowed in the bear box, I crawled into my tent with book in hand. I fell asleep soon after but was awoken to hoots, hollers then pots clanging together in the neighboring campground. The bear had made a late-night visit to the sites over there. As I lay in my sleeping bag, I imagined the bear loping wide-eyed into the woods as campers rose from their camp chairs to bang pots together. I closed my eyes and went back to sleep.