First Intrusion by the bears.
We were having breakfast when the back country ranger came over and asked if we had any bear trouble. She looked slim and trim in the National Park Uniform with her blonde hair tucked under the trademark “Smokey the Bear” wide-brim hat. We said no, but we could hear them last night and the camper next to us lost his backpack to the bears including all his food and his expensive camera. He was out looking for his backpack and camera at the present time. We also heard that the scout troop heading south along the John Muir trail to Mt. McKinley had also lost all their food to the bears. She said they were not the only ones. Apparently everyone in the campsite — including her — had lost their food to the bears. We were the only exception.
We offered her breakfast, which she gratefully accepted. We started by spooning a blend of Taster’s Choice freeze dried coffee crystals mixed with powered milk and sugar into a sierra cub and poured hot water over it for a starter. Then hot water over two packets of instant oatmeal with condensed milk from a squeeze tube and then a pilot biscuit with a mixture of peanut butter and grape preserves squeezed onto it. All washed down with Tang, the orange flavored drink made popular by its use during the NASA space program.
She was feeling much better but was dreading the razzing she would take from her fellow rangers when she had to cut her ten day stint into the wilderness short because she lost all her food to the bears the first night.
The funniest incident, to us, not him, was the young man in his early twenties who camped next to us. He was sleeping in his sleeping bag on a ground cloth and hoisted his back pack, with every thing in it including food, from a branch over his head with a cord. His theory was that he could protect his food by having it so near to him. We suggested that this might not be the best idea, but he had it all worked out in his mind as a bear-proof scheme. In the middle of the night he started to yell and thrash about in his sleeping bag. It seems the bear was totally ignoring him and was jumping in the air trying to get his back pack, landing dangerously close to him on each jump. He panicked and tried to unzip his sleeping bag catching the cloth in the zipper so the bag acted as a straight jacket imprisoning him. He rolled away and watched the bear get his back pack and head into the trees with it. After about an hour searching for it the next morning, he finally found it ripped apart with all the food gone, but he did salvage his expensive Nikon SLR camera.
Not funny at all, but sad, was the scout troop of about twelve who were heading down the John Muir Trail to Mt Whitney as part of a 200-plus mile wilderness hike. They lost all their food to the bears the first night and were hiking back to Tuolumne Meadows to regroup. Watching them head back to the Meadows, we were left with the image of the last scout, who had lost his back pack, carrying on his hip the huge aluminum pot that they cooked the troop meals in. This was the saddest part of our trip. We knew of how much planning, conditioning hikes, etc. they had gone through and how much they must have anticipated hiking through some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the country, only to have their hopes dashed by the infamous Yosemite black bears.
So why didn’t we lose our food?
Not wishing to hear bears in the middle of the night trying to get our food we had developed the habit of stashing our food well out of earshot. On this night, I found a spot about a quarter of a mile from camp. The food was in a clean garbage bag tied off to keep in odors and then placed in a second clean garbage bag also tied off. The so-called bear bag was hoisted over a limb of a tree about 25 feet off the ground and about 12 feet from the trunk with three parachute cords, each going to a different tree, so the bear would have to find and break three cords to get the food.Then came the hard part, getting back to the camp by constantly looking back so I would be able to find the food the next morning. It does no good to protect your food from the bears if you can’t find it the next morning.
This worked for us then, but no longer works. The bears are too smart and it is now illegal to use bear bags in Yosemite and many other parks. You now need to use bear canisters which are metal or plastic barrels that can not be carried by a bear and that have been tested (in zoos and field tests) to be bear proof.
Second Intrusion by the bears.
So is this the end of our bear stories for this trip? No. We still had two more days of wilderness camping to go.
The next night we camped right on the river bank a few miles further south on the John Muir trail. The water was flowing about six inches below the bank, so there seemed no danger of flooding. Poor judgement on our part.
There are usually thunder showers every afternoon that last for an hour or two along this stretch of the trail, but it rarely rains otherwise unless a storm is coming in. No storm was predicted, but, just before dark, a steady warm rain set in. Concerned that the warm rain might melt the Lyell glacier ice and swell the stream, I looked out the tent about every hour and by midnight the water level had risen six inches to the bank and the warm rain continued. I had stored our food in a clearing about 50 feet above the river and about 200 yards distance up the hill. I had Dolores shelter the sleeping bags and ensolite pads while I carried the Stephenson tent up the hill to the clearing and set it down. I then took up the sleeping bags and pads, then came back for the three kids, who were sleeping in tube tents. We had them put on their shoes and I carried their sleeping bags as we guided them up the hill. The three-man Stephenson tent will sleep all five of our family when needed, and this night it was needed and we all crowded in. The warm rain continued through the night and the when we checked our original campsite the next morning, the tube tents and where we had the Stephenson tent were all flooded. It would have been a miserable night if we had stayed in our original campsite.
The next morning I had hosted the Stephenson tent up a tree to dry (see photo) and we prepared and ate breakfast.
Just as be were cleaning up with all our food exposed, a black bear decided to join us for a meal. Which was our cue to start the Anvil Chorus from Verdi’s Il Trovatore.
My wife and kids grabbed their stainless steel Sierra cups and a rock and formed the chorus, while I stood center stage about 25 feet in front of them, between them and the bear, and started my Aria by banging my Sierra cup with a rock and shouting:
“Bad bear! Scoot! Go Away! Hey, Back to the Woods, Go!”
The rest of the family formed the chorus behind me and were spread out in a line with about four feet between them. They sang the chorus by cup banging and chanting with great enthusiasm.
“Go! Go! Go!, Scram! Scram! Scram! Scoot! Scoot! Scoot!.” A wildly discordant chorus with arms waving while beating on the Sierra cups.
The bear looked confused at our performance, first taking a step forward and then back, and after a standoff of three or four minutes, decided that there must be easier pickings somewhere else and retreated back into the woods.
We don’t know if this is the best bear defense, but it has worked for us about a half dozen times with black bears. For some strange reason I’m not afraid of black bears, but should be. This tactic does not work with aggressive deer, which we are afraid of, and we avoid grizzly bears as best we can, although we do have a story or two about them. Grizzly bears we are afraid of.
We had no problem the third night with bears and we finished our three day backpack with a couple of bear stories to add to our collection and memories of the incredible beauty of John Muir’s High Sierras along the Lyell Fork, with some very high quality time with our children, who still all love nature and the outdoors.
Another story told over coffee and biscotti during our Morning Talks.