It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me… A Sierra Trek Tale

Oregon Black Bear

Black Bears are much smaller than either brown or grizzly bears, but this doesn’t mean they aren’t scary. This one was cruising our neighborhood in Oregon and  tipped over the heavy Webber Grill on our porch. Our daughter, Tasha, was sleeping in the bedroom next to the grill. “Curtis!” she screamed. Later, our neighbor captured the bear’s photo on a surveillance camera.

 

I’ve been re-blogging older posts while my laptop is at the doctors with memory problems. Today it’s time for another Sierra Trek Tale. Next week, I’ll get back to the first Sierra Trek but today we are jumping ahead five years to the first trek I led into the back country of Yosemite where bears rule.

 

Bears like me, or at least they haven’t eaten me. They’ve had numerous opportunities over the years. It goes with the territory of backpacking throughout North America for over four decades. My scariest encounters, as it turns out, were also my first.

By the fifth year of the Sierra Trek, I had worked my way southward from Lake Tahoe into Yosemite National Park. Since we were utilizing a new route from Yosemite to Kennedy Meadows, I had to preview it. (Plus it was another excuse to head out into the wilderness and be paid for it.)

My friends Ken Lake and Tom Lovering joined me on the first three days from the Yosemite Valley floor to Tuolumne Meadows. Day one found us climbing several thousand feet out of the Valley and camping above the Little Yosemite Valley. The bears dropped by for a visit on our first night in the Park.

Half Dome, Yosemite. Little Yosemite Valley is on the other side.

Half Dome, Yosemite. Little Yosemite Valley is on the other side.

After carefully hanging our food bags from a cable provided by the park service and burying the left over fake freeze-dried raspberry cobbler (it was made from apples), we trundled ourselves off to our sleeping bags. The problem was we buried the food a little too close to Lake. I think Tom may have been up to his usual mischief.

The next morning, a very excited Ken asked if we had seen the bears in our camp the previous night. Neither of us had and we attributed his sighting to an overactive imagination. Believe me, if a bear had been digging up food next to my head, my two companions would have known about it, immediately.

Day two was tough. What I hadn’t counted on was the amount of snow still left on the ground. We spent most of out time slipping, sliding and slogging through it. By three in the afternoon, Tom was ready to set up camp right in the middle of a snowfield. Ken and I threatened to leave him with the bears and he committed to another hour. Fortunately, that night was bear free. They would have found little resistance from the three of us.

Eventually, we made it into Tuolumne Meadows where I was faced with another challenge: hiking over 70 miles of snow-covered trails by myself while Ken and Tom returned to Sacramento and work. The journey was fraught with opportunities for breaking a leg, or losing the trail, or being washed away when crossing streams raging with water from melting snow. None of the above was a desirable outcome for someone hiking alone.

Tuolumne Meadows in the summer.

Tuolumne Meadows in the summer.

My other option was to return to Sacramento with Ken and Tom, which was not acceptable. I had a week off to wander in the woods and I was going to wander in the woods for a week. I compromised by heading back over the mountains toward Yosemite Valley. My fractured logic concluded that it was better to break a leg and get lost where I had been than where I was going. I also promised myself to be really careful. This included keeping my food from bears.

Hiking out of Tuolumne Meadows took me back around Cathedral Peaks shown here.

Hiking out of Tuolumne Meadows took me back around Cathedral Peaks shown here.

The first day was non eventful and the second idyllic. I was exploring new country, doing what I most love to do. As evening approached, I found a delightful campsite on the Cathedral Fork of Echo Creek. Amenities included a babbling brook to put me to sleep, a flat space for my sleeping bag and a great food-hanging tree with the perfectly placed limb. A hot dinner topped off by tea spiced up with a shot of 151-proof rum and I was ready for sleep.

I carefully hung my food bags at the recommended 12 feet off the ground and 9 feet away from the tree trunk and then snuggled down in my sleeping bag. As was my habit at the time, I slept out in the open, only using my tent when rain threatened.

It was somewhere around 4 am and very dark when I awoke with a pressure on my chest. I couldn’t see very far but I didn’t have to. Approximately five inches away from my face was a long black snout sniffing at me. It was filled with grinning teeth and topped off by a pair of beady eyes that were staring at me with a hungry look.

I let out a blood-curdling scream and vacated the premises.

As I flew in one direction, the equally surprised young bear that had been standing on me flew in the other. I don’t even remember getting out of the bag. The next thing I knew I was standing up, yelling and shining my flashlight into the woods where not one, but two pairs of orange eyes were staring back at me. I lost it. Never have so many rocks been hurled with so much vigor in such a short period of time. The bears wisely decided to head off over the mountain.

But the damage was already done. My camp was a disaster area. My carefully hung food was scattered all over the ground with literally every meal torn open and sampled. All I had left was a chunk of cheese and it had one large bear bite out of it. I hid the cheese under a heavy rock.

As a further insult, one of the bears had chomped down on my plastic rum bottle and all of the rum was gone. I couldn’t even drink. With that option eliminated, I policed the area, crawled back in my bag and went back to sleep. When I awoke in the morning it was obvious that the bears had come back into camp to clean up anything they had missed. Once again the previous night’s trash decorated my campsite. At least the bears let me sleep this time. And they had missed my cheese.

So I ate it for breakfast, cleaned the area again, packed up my gear and hiked 18 miles into the Yosemite Valley to resupply. But my week wasn’t over; neither were my bear experiences. And the summer had only begun. (I’ll get back to these stories in the future after I am finished with my series on the first Sierra Trek. You won’t want to miss the time a bear grabbed me by the head.)

NEXT BLOG: A return to my photo series on Burning Man.

 

47 comments on “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me… A Sierra Trek Tale

  1. Oh, my gosh. Methinks it’s a darned good thing it was just a curious young bear and his buddy. Having a raccoon board my boat and eat all the Pepperidge Farm cookies was pretty irritating, but not even in the same galaxy as this experience!

    Just think – somewhere an old, grizzled old bear may be sitting on a river bank with the young’uns, saying, “Let me tell you about the night I met this crazy camper…”

  2. I never tire of hearing this story. It helps me to keep things in perspective when we backpack or hike. I always stay behind you when we have a bear encounter….grin.

    • Especially Yosemite bears. 🙂 The situation has improved somewhat with bear barrels that many backpackers carry now. The bears can’t get into them, so they go back to eating bear food. –Curt

      • Yeah, but that still does not address the issue of safety for the hikers. Would you say they pose a real life threatening hazard – after that close encounter?

      • Only rarely do black bears hurt anyone in the lower 48. Still, they are big, powerful animals, with large teeth and sharp claws. 🙂 Not something to mess with. Black bears in Alaska tend to be more aggressive. Grizzlies, wherever they are, tend to be more dangerous. You don’t want to surprise them. I’ve had numerous encounters with black bears and several with grizzlies over the years, and I am still here. (grin) –Curt

    • That experience was right up there on top of my scary list, Timi. 🙂 I think the bear was just curious, however. Maybe he was smelling my breath to make sure he had sampled everything I had eaten. (grin) –Curt

    • Laughing. It was a bit scary (grin), but worth for the story. And I imagine, Sue, that all of the rum in Cuba would have you wandering around in the woods picking fights with the bears. 🙂 –Curt

  3. “I had a week off to wander in the woods and I was going to wander in the woods for a week.”

    Hear, hear, my good man!

    “five inches away from my face was a long black snout sniffing at me. It was filled with grinning teeth and topped off by a pair of beady eyes”

    I had no idea my sphincter could slam closed that fast.

    “one of the bears had chomped down on my plastic rum bottle and all of the rum was gone”

  4. “Never have so many rocks been hurled with so much vigor in such a short period of time.” Oh man you got me. I busted out laughing and giggled through the rest of the post. 🙂 Yikes! That was more than a close one. How did you even fall asleep again after that. Bears and other wild animals don’t really scare me when I’m backpacking, but having one standing on my chest while I slept would have been the exception! My blood pressure would have been off the charts for a couple days.

    • I was definitely excited! And the bears realized it. 🙂 As for going back to sleep, it beat staying awake and staring off into the darkness. (grin) The next night (after having hiked around 22 miles in and out of the Yosemite Valley to resupply, I woke up with one emptying my backpack about three feet away from my head. That’s the type of summer it was! –Curt

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