Weary from the day’s backpack, after setting up my tent, I popped open the lid on the bear canister and wandered over to a rock to plop down. I needed a moment to rest my aching back before pulling out my food and beginning the dinner routine. With the sun setting, the shadows were lengthening and the light went fast, with dusk descending on our camp.
A small movement out of the corner of my eye brought me out of my stupor quickly. A bear crept ever so stealthily, without a noise into our camp. He headed straight towards my open bear canister. Oh my God! That had a week’s worth of food that I had just picked up at Tuolumne Meadows! I could not let that bear get my food.
That’s when all my Park Ranger training kicked into gear. All those days of presenting Bears Forever Wild to visitors of Sequoia National Park came flooding back to me.
I jumped up and grabbed some rocks, pelting the bear. At the same time, I yelled at the top of my lungs.
“Go away Bear! Get away from my food! Get out of here!”
I stood on top of the rock, waving my arms frantically, trying to look big, yelling even louder. That bear could not get my food!
“Get out of this camp! Go away!”
I stepped up the barrage of rocks at him, some finding their target as they hit him in the mid side. Plunk! Plunk!
Finally, he gave up and moved off into the darkness of the nearby woods.
Whew! Crisis averted.
Yesterday, as I headed for a morning hike out of Hessie Trailhead near Nederland, the above incident came to mind. Though my close call from years ago came in the Sierra in California, it could have just as easily happened here in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
Bear activity is high this summer in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Not surprising, as we have already seen several black bears near our neighborhood and in nearby Boulder Canyon.
Campers and backpackers need to take special care when camping in the wilderness area. When I first went backpacking as a young woman, people used to hang their food using the counter-balance method. I never could quite get the “hang” of it, as it required numerous rope tosses with a rock tied to it over a branch of a the tree. The tree branch needed to be high enough that when your food hung, it couldn’t be reached by a bear. You hung two stuff sacks on either end of the rope, thus “balancing” it. I spent 30 minutes at least just trying to get the first rope toss over the right branch.
Now, the bears are too smart. They figured out how to snap or chew the tree branch, thus bringing down their reward. In the western U.S., it’s standard protocol to carry a bear canister. Bear canisters are rigid, hard cylinders that the bear can’t get a claw into and can’t open. They are also quite bulky as well as weighty, so a general pain in the butt to fit into your backpack.
But in my opinion, they are well worth the peace of mind they bring. You put your food in them, stash the canister 50 feet or so from your tent, and enjoy a good night’s sleep. In the morning, your canister is safe and sound as is your food. Note — do not store said canister at the edge of a cliff, as they can roll easily if gently nudged. They also make a fine seat to sit on while enjoying your evening camp meal.
For car campers, pretty much all campgrounds have bear boxes to store your food in. It’s important not to leave any food visible in your car, or anything that looks like food. Even an empty ice cooler can be enough to lure a bear to break into your car, smashing your window, and peeling back the window frame as if it is a sardine can.
When I worked at Sequoia National Park, the Park Rangers walked the campground in the morning, talking to campers who had their car broken into. Adults would swear they had not left any food in the car, only to have little Johnny speak up.
“But mom, remember, we left the box of Cap’n Crunch in the back seat?”
Oh, the honesty and innocence of a child….
I love living in wildlife habitat and having access to some of the most beautiful scenery and wilderness in the country twenty minutes from my door. But I want to enjoy that without leading to danger for fellow backpacker and campers, and also danger for a bear. Once a bear goes after a person, that is their death warrant. Let’s do what we can do to keep the bears forever wild.