My husband and I just returned from a backpacking trip to Yosemite National Park. There were a few adventures on the trip, but the shining moment was when I met a new furry friend in camp on the last day of our outing. I’m not sure if it was a boy or a girl, but it was big – a big old black bear. Let me tell you about our encounter, shall we?
On the last day of our trip, I found myself feeling ill for one reason or another – I’m still not exactly sure why. The group was scheduled for a 4 mile round trip hike to the summit of Half Dome from our campsite – then we were to return to camp, have a late breakfast, pack up and hike the 7 miles back down to the valley. The hike to Half Dome was a strenuous one, even with lighter day packs vs. our heavier backpacks. At the end of that 4 mile hike, I would still need to feel well enough to carry my big backpack 7 miles down the trail to the valley floor. There was also considerable elevation gain/loss over the 2 miles up to the summit of Half Dome and back down again. One of the potential reasons for my ill feeling was altitude sickness. Strenuous activity and altitude gains are not recommended if you are sick because of altitude issues. I suppose it was a wise idea for me to opt to stay in camp vs. attempt the hike.
I spoke with our guides that morning before leaving and my options were:
(1) attempt the hike and if I couldn’t make it, they’d leave me at some location on the trail and continue on, I’d rejoin them on their way back to camp
(2) stay in camp and try to rest in the tent
I chose option 2 – there was a chance of rain and we knew there was a bear in the area – she visited us twice in our camp the night before with her cub in tow. If I had to deal with either rain or bears, I’d preferred to be in camp – in my tent. Perhaps the tent gave me a false sense of security with the threat of a bear visiting camp. If I had it to do over again, I think I’d still make the same choice, though it was not an easy choice to make.
Watching my husband hike off with the rest of the group was very hard for me to do. I wanted to share the experience of summitting Half Dome with him and I feel like in many ways, I let both him and myself down by staying behind. In the end, he reported that he knows I could have done that hike feeling well, but he’s not sure if I could’ve completed it while feeling ill. It was probably best that I stayed behind.
Before he left, he said “Are you sure you’ll be okay staying in camp? There’s a bear in the area and you’re very afraid of bears.” To be honest, the last thing on my mind was the silly bear. I was feeling awful – both physically from whatever was wrong with me – and emotionally/mentally – from missing out on the highlight of this trip. I could care less about the bear. I also reasoned that it was daylight – in my silly little mind, bears are nocturnal animals, they don’t come out during the day. Um yeah, I’ve been told it’s the opposite.
Let me preface the rest of the story by explaining the “bear” protocol we followed on this trip. The first rule was that anything that had come into contact with food or smelled like food would be left in the kitchen area of camp – on a tablecloth we spread on the ground. This included our dishes, eating utensils, pots, pans and any water bottle we’d mixed with a drink mix at any time during the trip. All food and “smellable” items (toothpaste, toothbrushes, lip balm, etc) went into the bear canisters. If we were not in camp or we were sleeping, the bear canisters were closed and secured. Our backpacks were left unzipped and open near our tents. They were to be cleared of any “smellable” items, including food. The reason why the packs were left open was to deter the bear from tearing the pack open with their paw to be able to sniff inside. There was no food allowed in the tents. That’s a no-brainer, if you ask me.
If we were to encounter a bear, our guides advised us to yell at the bear and make ourselves appear larger by waving our hands in the air to scare the bear away. The bears in the park were described as large, timid dogs and scared easily. The only time that a bear would typically get aggressive is if it was a momma bear and she was with her cub and she felt that her cub was threatened. I should point out that the bear that visited our campsite the previous night was a female with her cub.
I should also add that I was in my tent with the rain fly on (it was drizzling the previous night when we went to bed), so I could not see out of the tent. The tent we were in had no windows and large vestibules on either side and there was no way for me to see outside without physically coming out of the tent.
The group left for Half Dome around 5AM and I was able to fall back asleep shortly after that. I didn’t expect them to be out for too long, maybe returning around 8AM? That’s why when I awoke to the sounds of dishes clanging around near the kitchen area of camp and checked my watch to find it was 8AM, my thought was “Oh great! They’re back!” and then I listened for sounds of voices talking. There were none. What I did hear, though – was the sound of a bear stomping around, nosing our bear canisters, dishes and whatever else she could find that might contain food. (I’m assuming the bear in camp was the same female that visited the night before, therefore I am using “she” when referring to my new furry friend).
While I was scared out of my mind to be in such close proximity to this enormous and potentially dangerous wild animal, I was amazed at the strange noises she made. She kept making this strange sound that I’d never envision a bear would make. It’s hard to explain, but the the first audio clip on this page imitates the sound I heard the female making – after some research and reading up on this detail, her cub must have been nearby.
She also sniffed our packs, which I could hear quite well as she went through everyone’s packs, looking for food. The sniffing sounds were similar to the sounds the bear makes in this video during the first minute of the clip. The scraping of the paw and the sniffing were very similar to what I heard outside my tent that morning as she foraged for food in our camp.
Thank goodness that all participants in our group followed the bear protocol outlined by our guides from the start of the trip. If not, we would have had some damaged gear, that’s for sure. When the bear was done sniffing around the kitchen, she started to look through everyone’s packs and tents. Methodically going from one area to the next, she sniffed all around our camp, returned to the kitchen area – kicked around our bowls, cups, bear canisters and kitchen gear a bit more before making another round to the tents and packs. I should add that when the bear sniffed mine and my husband’s packs, she was about 1-2 feet away from me. I just laid there in the tent, in silence – praying for the group to return and for the bear to move on, away from our camp. I reasoned that it was only a matter of time before she figured there was no food to be had and made her way to another spot in search of food.
As I sat there listening to her rustle through everyone’s packs, I thought to myself “Oh dear, what if she’s damaging our stuff and I’m just sitting here, listening to it happen!?!? The group is going to be so mad if I sat here and let this happen, knowing it was going on and I didn’t do anything to stop the bear.” That was quickly followed by “Hmmm, I’m here all by myself in camp, with no communication device nor a personal first aid kit (we were instructed to leave ours behind because the guides had a group first aid kit that contained everything we needed, so ours sat in the car in the parking lot in Curry Village). If I were to be mauled by this bear, there would be no way for me to help myself. The last thing I want to do is become a guest on that show ‘I shouldn’t be alive‘ because I was mauled by a bear.” Then my thoughts quickly turned to “HA! I was afraid of the Half Dome cables. I was afraid I’d fall from them and die. Now it looks like I’m going to die because I was mauled by a bear. Great! I guess you can’t escape the grim reaper when it’s your time to go.” Yes, I know it’s crazy to admit, but I had a good 30 minutes of freaking out to do while the bear perused our camp. 30 minutes is a long time to lie quietly in fear in your tent, wishing for your husband to come back and wishing for that silly furry thing outside your tent to go away.
After the bear sniffed our packs for the second time, I thought she was moving on. But she had other plans. I began to see the imprint of her snout on the rain fly and it moved in toward me in the tent. Then the tent pole moved and the tent began to collapse in on me. I moved back slowly and turned my head from looking directly at the snout coming from the side of the tent and looked downward, down toward my sleeping bag. I suppose I reasoned that if the bear was to bite me, I didn’t want to see what was going to happen next. Perhaps I was trying to appear less threatening to the bear, but then the bear probably couldn’t see me through the tent and the rain fly. Who the hell knows. I have no idea why I turned my head. I just stared at my sleeping bag and prayed for this big old furry thing to move on. My prayers were answered as the bear took a few sniffs of me – I’d venture to guess she came within 6 inches of my head – and slowly ambled away. I never heard her again in camp. I waited about 20 minutes, then came out of the tent with my two hiking poles. I sat by the campfire ring and awaited the rest of the group to return to camp. In that time, I watched a doe walk through camp, our eyes met and it was almost like we had an agreement that it was okay for her to wander and I wouldn’t bother her. It was kind of neat watching her sniff around camp and eat some foliage. I was happy the bear didn’t return, though – very happy. It was upsetting that I didn’t have a camera handy during any of these bear encounters. I’d sent the camera with my husband as capturing Half Dome pictures was more important than having the camera with me as I slept off whatever funky feelings I was having.
Around 9:30, I heard our group returning and spotted one of the guides, then saw my husband’s hat and was very thankful everyone returned from their trip to the summit of Half Dome. I’d been running on adrenaline all morning and I immeidately burst into the story of the bear and her stay in our camp. They were eager to hear my story and then I felt badly for overshadowing their summit of Half Dome – they had their own adventure story to share with me and here I was babbling on and on about my encounter with the bear. I quickly asked how their trip was and we shared stories. In the end, all of the women in the group said that would have stayed in their tent if they found themselves in the same situation as I was – alone in camp with a bear sniffing through our stuff. For a number of days after my encounter with the bear, I second guessed how I handled the situation. One thing that the rangers try to do is to keep the bears fearful of humans. Once a bear stops fearing humans, they often must be destroyed.
Perhaps by staying in the tent, I contributed to the bear no longer fearing humans. Honestly, I don’t know what I should have done. Perhaps I should have come out of my tent, but I only knew where one bear was – what was I getting myself into? Was it the same momma bear and her cub that visited our camp twice the night before? What if I was in a position where she felt like I was threatening her cub? A family member reasoned that I followed my instincts in the situation and that’s usually the right thing to do.
I’ve had varied reactions to my encounter. One friend of mine asked me to tell his young daughter the story of my bear encounter. When I advised him that it may make her fearful of bears and tent camping, he said he wanted her to understand that people have these experiences and live to tell the story. Others (who are not avid outdoor adventurers) just exclaim “You’re lucky to be alive!” Perhaps I was in more danger than I initially thought. Yes, being that close to an animal that large is not something that has ever happened to me in my lifetime, but I surmise that it happens more often than not, just the stories where people live to tell about it aren’t as dramatic and tragic as the ones that don’t end so well – and those tend to make the news.
Looking back on the situation, I reason that this situation may just be a result of serendipity. Ever since seeing a bear while camping near the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in 1999 (I blogged about that experience here), I have been very fearful of bears while tent camping. So fearful that I will wake up my husband in the middle of the night if I think I hear something outside the tent. Perhaps this was the adventure I was meant to have on this trip, not summiting Half Dome. Maybe God knew that I needed to face this fear – literally – and live to tell about it? All in all – everyone in our group had their own adventure that day – mine just came in a different package.