As a youth, I loved hiking and camping in the High Sierras. One summer, I was perhaps 16 years old and I was asked to go help the younger scouts on their first 50-miler.
We were going to start by hiking about 13 miles out of Yosemite Valley to Merced Lake. It was a good hike because you climbed Vernal and Nevada falls and then through Little Yosemite Valley and further.
The night before we started, we drove in and camped in Yosemite Valley. I remember buddying up because, as was typical, we shared a tent with a friend. My friend was most always Dave Peachey.
We had a number of tent options but this night we decided to use a tube tent and attach it to Mike Bacon and Ed Booth, another couple of scouts who were about a year younger than us.
So we proceeded to make one long tube tent where you could enter from either side. With our sleeping bags positioned in the middle with our heads facing each other, we could easily all chat, play cards and tell typical young men camping jokes.
Our scout master had warned us that there were black bears in the valley and some of them had gotten quite aggressive with other campers. They urged us to make sure all our food, toiletries, fishing bait, etc. was either in a “bear box” or our cars.
I had spent a lot of time in the High Sierra back country and knew all too well how persistent and potentially aggressive bears could be when they wanted your food. This was especially important because we had not even started the 50-miler and losing our food then would have been extremely problematic. We older scouts were were all vigilant in making sure our backpacks were void of anything that would attract a bear. We asked (and double-asked) the younger scouts and they assured us all food was taken care of.
After dinner, we all hunkered down for a good night’s rest before the first big leg of our week-long adventure.
I remember being partially asleep and hearing some rustling on the opposite end of the tent. I thought it must have been Mike and Ed re-positioning their sleeping bag or getting something out of the backpacks. I looked up and when my eyes focused, I was astonished to see a large, fat black bear, upwards of 350 pounds, quietly entering the tent on the opposite side. I was stunned and a bit nervous. I quickly and quietly put my arm on Mike and Ed and told them to quickly get out of their sleeping bags and exit the tent on our side. By this time, Dave had woken up and was helping me get the two younger scouts to safety.
Once I was out of the tent, I asked Mike and Ed if they had anything in their backpacks or sleeping bags that would attract the scent of a bear.
They both assured me they were clean and could not imagine what the bear was going for. I knew Dave and I were clean — we had spent way too many nights in bear country to make a foolish mistake like that. So we got big and stood our ground and scared the bear away by raising our arms and making very loud noises — screaming, banging pots, etc.
This made quite a commotion and woke just about everyone in camp.
But it did accomplish what we wanted as the bear was scared away. It quickly backed out of the tent and lumbered into the woods. We shared the bear story with others and drove home the point that bears can smell ANYTHING and that was why we had to be diligent with our food the entire trip. We then all crawled back into our tents and sleeping bags. After about 20 minutes and more adrenaline-fueled chatting, we all settled down and started to doze off.
That is when I heard it.
It sounded like someone was walking around just outside our tent. I could hear the twigs breaking and the soft rustling of pine needles and leaves. For a second, I thought it might be a scout master just checking on the boys and the camp in general, or perhaps another scout going to the bathroom. But then I saw the silhouette against the light of the moon through the thin plastic used to form the tube tent.
It was no human.
It was a bear and a big bear at that. I could see the bear walking to the end of the tent he had previously entered. He poked his head in. Yep, that was the same bear, I thought. But this time, he was not so timid and cautious. He looked as though he had a purpose — he was focused on something in our tent, no doubt about it.
I again woke Mike, Ed and Dave and we scrambled out our end of the tent.
Once outside and the bear all the way inside, we again began to try to scare the bear away. We shouted, hit pots and pans together and blew horns. The bear did not flinch. All of our noise and commotion did not faze him at all. No — he was focused on something and nothing was going to stop him.
The bear picked up Mike Bacon’s 55-pound pack and carried it away like it was weightless. I was struck by his strength, dexterity and focus. He had Mike’s pack in one paw, holding it up so it did not drag in the dirt. He scampered into the bushes on his hind legs and his one free front paw.
For those who have never dealt with bears in back country:
Once a bear has what he wants (Mike’s backpack, in this case), you should never try to chase him down and take it from him. That is only going to incite the bear. He has what he wants — leave him be. So that is exactly what we did.
After the bear rumbled off into the woods, we all turned and looked at Mike.
“Mike, what do you have in your backpack?” He stammered a bit and then said that he thought that he had tuna fish. I asked, “tuna fish… canned tuna fish?” He sheepishly nodded his head yes. “Why on earth would you bring tuna fish on a 50-miler?” I asked. You want your pack as light as possible and hauling canned goods is not the name of the game. Not to mention you have to haul the can back out when you are done eating what was inside.
I do recall him saying that he did not think the bear would be able to smell through the can and that he had taken the precaution to bury the can in the deepest part of his backpack. I had to chuckle at his logic, but he was new to hiking in the backcountry and did not know any better. Mike was a bit embarrassed and befuddled.
Once again, we all went back to sleep. This time, there were no bear interruptions. The next morning, I decided to look for Mike’s backpack.
To my surprise, I did not have to go far. In a small clearing of bushes about 30 yards from our campsite, I found the backpack. There were several images that instantly struck me.
One, the pack was covered in a slobbery mess, but other than that, it was in very good condition. (I expected it to be torn to shreds.)
Two, the pouch that Mike had used to try to hide the tuna fish can had been cut open along the zipper line. It looked like someone had used a razor blade and cut a clean hole with great precision.
Three, next to the pack there sat the can of tuna fish — or what was left of the can of tuna fish. It looked like it had been hit with a shot gun blast. It was ripped wide open and spread apart. To the best of our knowledge, the bear must have held the can firm with its hind legs while in the sitting position and then with its two front paws punctured the side of the can and literally pulled it wide open.
Four, one of the saddest things I have ever seen is the can itself. It was licked clean. Not a hint of tuna fish anywhere, just slobbery blood. The bear must have cut his tongue on the jagged sharp pieces of the can. It was odd to me that even with his tongue bleeding, the bear still licked the can completely clean.
It was a great lesson learned for the younger scouts; we did not have any bear problems the rest of the week. We showed the boys how to hang a very effective bear bag in trees.
I have thought about this experience many times.
Sometimes in our professional or personal lives, we need others to show us the way. We may not listen. We may listen and choose to ignore the advice. And then there are a few who listen and learn from the paths others have already taken.
Mike listened and choose to ignore our advice. His disregard to our pleadings of taking ALL food out of his pack was born of ignorance. He honestly thought the bear would not be able to smell through the can. What a great life lesson. The entire rest of the 50-miler, Mike was more than willing to listen and follow the advice of others who had been there and done that.
A humble, teachable attitude and the willingness to admit your ignorance or mistakes can help you avoid a lot of pain.
But, if you are one that knows it all, then you will most certainly experience many large bears come into your life’s tent and walk off with your backpack before your life journey has even really started.
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