From time-to-time, I like to break away from practical tips and advice and, instead, exercise my creative writing skills. This is a 100% true story from my time on the John Muir Trail in 2015. Sadly, both the bear and her cub were put down at the end of that season. No one to blame but ourselves.
“Have you been warned about the bear?” the ranger asked after we exchanged pleasantries?
“Yes,” I said, “the ranger at the wilderness office told me all about her.”
“Did they tell you she targets solo female backpackers?”
“Yeah, that’s what they said,” I replied.
“Did they tell you to put pots on top of your bear canister at night and to find other people to camp with?” Yes, and yes, they had. The ranger imparted a few more tips and continued on his way.
As I continued to catch my breath while munching on my GORP, I started to get worried. Everyone was so concerned about this bear and making it clear she targeted female backpackers. Was I actually going to run into her? And what would I do if I did?
I had just started out that morning for a thru-hike of the John Muir Trail and was inching my way up the grueling trail from the Yosemite National Park valley floor to the top of Nevada Falls when I ran into this ranger. But, I had first heard about the she-beast bear when I picked up my coveted permit the day prior. The ranger in the wilderness office had walked me through the park rules and regulations for wilderness backpackers, checked to be sure I had my bear canister and then asked where I planned on sleeping my first night on the trail.
“Here,” I said, pointing to an area just east of the base of Half Dome on his worn out map.
“Find some others to camp with,” he said. “We’re having a bit of a bear problem in that area.”
The ranger explained that a mother bear with a cub had started targeting backpackers for their food. She would leave the cub behind to do her dirty work, and she was smart! She was rolling bear canisters over cliffs in an effort to crack them open and would swipe food from right under backpackers’ noses in broad daylight. Furthermore, she had figured out that solo, female backpackers were more likely than groups or solo males to give up their food and run away.
The problem had grown so bad that the National Park Service decided to station a ranger in that area at all times to educate unsuspecting backpackers and provide assistance should the bear make one of her almost daily appearances. Because she was no longer foraging for her own food, her cub had only learned how to steal from backpackers and could not survive properly in the wild. Both creatures would be put down by the end of the summer. Apparently relocation would not work as they were too conditioned toward humans and our scrumptious smells and foods.
I asked the ranger what to do if I became the bear’s next target. He told me to stand my ground. He told me to look as big as I could, make a lot of noise and throw pinecones or small sticks at her. He also told me not to give up and not to let her have my food, UNLESS she was already on it. Then, he said, run like hell!
Other than running like hell, I wasn’t sure I could do the other things he suggested. Throw things? At a bear? That just sounds like you’re inviting trouble. What if she gets pissed? I know I would!
After receiving my marching orders, I headed out. As I began my thru-hike on the famously scenic Mist Trail, I pondered this bear. I knew that her problem was our fault. If we humans practiced better food safety, weren’t complacent and didn’t give in quite so easily, she would live past the summer and a cub would grow up. After all, we were in her territory and she was simply being resourceful.
I also got angry at the women who had hiked before me. This bear had learned to target women because, from her point of view, women were weak. She was statistically more likely to get her free food from females. Why had we women allowed that to be the case? Shouldn’t men and women be equally afraid of bears? And why should women be any more or less likely to back down in the face of fear? Then I thought of all the women who can’t even be in the same room as a spider. When it comes to critters, are we perhaps the weaker sex?
As I lay on a cool rock in the shade in a pointless attempt at cooling off, I decided I would not be one of those women. I would stand my ground, if it came to that. I was not going to make this bear’s problem worse, and I was not going to be weak. She would not get a free meal from me!
The next morning I awoke with the sun alongside the tents of my newfound friends from the night before. I took the rangers’ advice and found a group headed the other direction to camp with. As the morning progressed, they each packed up and left. Finally, it was just me and a man from South Korea who had hiked the John Muir Trail from the South. Today was his final day.
The night before, as we discussed this bear, the Korean man had made it clear, with his heavy accent and limited English, that he was very afraid of bears and was thrilled not to have seen one on his entire 220-mile trip.
In a state of complete unawares and enjoying a false level of comfort, having made it through the night without incident, I spread my food out on the ground to plan the day’s rations. I turned around and there it was: She-Beast.
The bear was about 50 feet away. She was beautiful, really. Kind of like a really big dog. She looked kind. She wasn’t growling or reared up on her hind legs. She was just standing there, looking at me. Sizing me up, almost inquisitively.
“Bear!” I yelled, as loudly as I could. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the South Korean man flee with his pack half dragging on the ground. Great. Now I was truly solo. And last I checked, I was female. So much for men being the stronger sex in the face of a bear encounter! Chivalry is dead.
As the bear stood there, watching me, I looked down at my food, splayed out across the pine needle forest floor, and then back up to the bear. I knew instantly I couldn’t’ possibly gather up all my food, shove it into the canister, and get the heck out of Dodge with her so close by. I immediately assumed the most ridiculous position you could imagine. Half samurai warrior, half cartoon character. I karate-chopped the air, did some ridiculous high kicks and started growling and making guttural noises. It seemed like the best response at the time.
The bear, clearly undaunted by my tactics (antics?), started slowly walking towards me. OK, I thought, what’s my next move? I raised my arms over my head, my hands shaped like claws, and squared my shoulders to her approach. I screamed. I yelled. She continued walking toward me.
I picked up a pine cone and hurled it at her. A miss! I was never any good at baseball. I picked up another one and threw it at her. Dead hit, on the shoulder. She didn’t pause. She didn’t flinch. She just crept closer. I picked up a stick, and not a small one, either. I chucked it at her and it nailed her right in the face! Nothing. No effect.
Now Miss Thing was about 10 feet away from me. Nothing I had done had stopped her approach. Then, the smell hit me. Dear God! How can a creature born from Mother Earth smell so bad?!?! It was like a toxic mix of musk, shit and decomposing animal combined into a bomb of odor. The blast of it invaded my nostrils. I could actually taste her smell, and I almost wretched. Never had I desired to know what a wild bear smelled like. I mentally added it to, and then crossed it off, my bucket list.
Now she was only about five feet away. She could have reached out and swiped me if she wanted. It became clear to me that she was not going to stop. She would just continue taking steps forward, knowing that, at some point, I would give up. It also became clear to me that she might be right. I had a breaking point, and she was about to find it. How close could one get to a wild bear before one got attacked? Three feet? Two feet? At what point do you transition from brave to stupid? I didn’t want to be a statistic.
Just then, my hero arrived. A woman who had camped in the same spot the night before hadn’t made it that far down the trail before hearing my banshee screams and crazy grunts. She ran down the little side trail into the camping area, flinging off her pack as she came. We made eye contact and knew what we needed to do, without speaking any words.
We stood, this unknown woman and I, shoulder to shoulder. We screamed, we yelled, and we both threw whatever sticks and pinecones we could grab off the ground and hurled them at the hulk of a bear. It began to work. The bear started having second thoughts now that one had become two. Just like in some cheesy movie scene, she actually took a few steps backwards. This emboldened us.
Again without communicating, we both knew we needed to go on the offensive. We began to step toward the bear as we carried out our theatrical display of toughness. She turned around and trotted off, quite casually. And so we chased, now overly confident. And then, finally, she ran from us. Hooray! High-fives all around, and my mystery co-warrior then slung her pack on her back and took off, never to be seen again.
As frantically as I could, I began throwing my food and gear into my bag, to be unpacked and reorganized later. Suddenly, the man from South Korea reappeared, looking chagrined. Furious, I didn’t want to talk to him. How could he leave me alone like that?
He smiled slightly, looked down at his feet and in a heavy accent said, “You are so brave!” Miffed, I sarcastically yelled out, “Thanks a lot!” The sarcasm apparently didn’t translate well as he replied, very seriously, “You are welcome.” And then he, too, disappeared, never to be seen again.
Yeah, I fended off a bear. I did that. I had some help at the end, but she was also a solo female, not some burly man. I stood my ground and then we stood our ground. I didn’t give in. I didn’t make that poor bear’s problems worse. I proved to her, myself and anyone who cared to listen (which was everyone I came across for the next two weeks) that women are strong enough to take care of business.
Only problem is, I can’t squeal and flee the room when I see a spider anymore – seems a tad ridiculous after standing my ground for a bear.