Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Bears On The Trails

Dale Matson

I have often been on a trail in the cool of the morning and seen fresh bear scat steaming in the morning sun. It never fails to make me feel somewhat discomfited. It seems that knowing that there is a bear close by but not knowing where, can often be more disturbing than actually seeing the bear, if there is distance between you and the bear. Distance provides a psychological cushion especially if you ignore the fact that the bear could cover that distance in a matter of seconds.

Bear scat with my cap for comparison

I am ambivalent about the absence of Grizzly Bears in the Sierras.  They once were prevalent throughout California but were hunted into extinction. They are represented on the California State flag. There is an excellent book on the Grizzly in California called, California's Day of the Grizzly: The Exciting, Tragic Story of the Mighty California Grizzly by William B. Secrest. With rattle snakes, black bears and mountain lions, however, there are enough apex predators to think about without considering the grizzly too.

In the past couple of years, I have run into several bears in Kings Canyon National Park. Two of the bears have been on the trail coming toward me. Last year I ran into a large black male on the first set of switchbacks that ascend along the Bubb’s Creek Trail heading east out of Roads End. This is a narrow trail on the exposed face of a cliff with a granite wall on the left and a steep slope on the right. About half way, I looked up to see the bear so close, I could see the flies on his face.

I was surprised that I wasn’t afraid even after breaking through the initial denial, “That is not a bear standing in front of me!”  We stood there facing each other and I decided it was too dangerous for me to walk below the trail. “Well, I’ll just take his picture.” While I slowly got my camera out and focused on him, he must have decided to go around below me. He then got back on the trail and continued down the trail behind me.

This summer, I headed out of Roads End again for an overnight at Charlotte Lake off the John Muir Trail. On my return leg, I saw a dark brown lump partially obscured by a large boulder beside the trail. It was not an ordinary wilderness color and got my attention. As I got closer, I realized it was a bear with her head behind a boulder. I stopped and whistled to let her know that I was there. She backed out and stood on the trail facing me. Then she started walking toward me.

Once again, I did not get off the trail. I was simply too tired for detours. Suddenly a cub came out from behind the boulder and started running past her toward me. I was not happy about this. The mother must have realized I was not a threat, wheeled around and walked away on the trail. The cub lost both his curiosity and courage at that point and fled back to the security of his mother.

They both eventually took a route perpendicular to the trail and I continued on. I believe she walked toward me initially to put herself  between me and her cub.

In both cases, I was not fearful and I didn’t try and drive the bears away with gestures and yelling. Is this the way to behave in a bear encounter? It was for me for those two bears. Neither bear seemed the least bit nervous or irritated. I have seen a mother bear circle back and begin to pace back and forth on another occasion.  That bear was nervous. She made me nervous also. Fortunately she eventually moved on. I don’t know if a bear can sense that you are not afraid or a threat but in both cases, I got good photographs. This summer (2013) seven people were attacked by black bears. I was glad that I was not one of them.

Here are some bear tracks in the snow on two different c.c. ski trips I took to Glacier Point from Badger Pass. My ski glove is in the first picture for comparison.

Bear On Hike To Cloud's Rest Yosemite   

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