The Bear Necessities
Subject: The bear necessities
Place: Kings Canyon, California, USA
“And this is a bear claw,” said the Ranger passing around a specimen. “They’re non retractable and real, real sharp. Please keep it in that jar, we don’t want anyone cutting themselves on it now.”
As I looked at the two plus inches of claw and the large bear skull the Ranger was holding a primeval fear stirred deep inside me. What were we doing thinking of camping out with toddlers in bear country?
The Ranger continued his “Bear Facts” porch talk, addressing a small group of people gathered outside the Sequoia National Park Visitors Centre. He gently stroked the bear skull, “Now, these animals have the most incredibly sensitive sense of smell; they can sniff out cooking odors on your clothes at a few hundred metres with the wind in the right direction, so to stay safe you need to keep a really clean camp. And if you meet a bear remember not to run cos I guarantee they can run faster than you. And there’s no point climbing trees to escape cos with claws like that climbing is no problem for a hungry bear. Best thing is to avoid disturbing them in the first place. But if you do encounter one, stay calm, stand your ground, talk to them to let them know you’re human, then back off real slow.”
He seemed to take pleasure in conveying these few well chosen facts about bears while watching the growing sense of fear in his audience.
“You know most won’t charge or attack as long as you don’t threaten them.”
This is no cartoon
The Ranger was a small young man, easy prey for a bear but without enough flesh to be worth attacking. He was dressed just like the Ranger I knew from Yogi Bear cartoons, shirt and slacks pressed with military creases, hat pressed tight on his head but with the addition of mirror shades hiding nervous eyes. He looked like the kind of guy that got bullied at school, turned to nature and found a disturbing affinity with things that scare people.
“So folks,” he concluded, “please remember those claws are pretty good for opening up cars too. We’ve had twenty one cars broken into here this season so don’t forget to use those bear lockers now. Now, does anyone have any questions?”
He stood stiffly, smiled without showing his teeth and scanned the group for movement much as you might scan the horizon for a bear. A worried looking woman twitched. He nodded at her.
“Where abouts are we likely to find bears?” she asked.
“Oh you don’t need to worry about that ma’am,” he replied, “They’ll find you.”
Are all bears bad?
“Daddy, Daddy, want the Disney CD on. Can we have the Disney CD on?” asked Cameron as we set off in the car to find a campsite.
The CD worked like a charm and the boys fell silent for a while as we all went on a musical tour of the magic kingdom. But something was troubling Matthew.
“Not all bears are bad are they Dad?” he said as the CD finished.
“How do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, the bear cessities bear was nice. And Winnie the Pooh only ate honey. And Coda ate fish and my teddy is really cuddly and hasn’t got any sharp claws,” he replied obviously struggling to reconcile his Disney reality with the briefing he’d just had from the Ranger.
I tried to help clarify things.
“Yes, you’re right Matthew. Bears aren’t bad, they’re just bears and Disney ones are quite cute and cuddly aren’t they? But the wild ones we may see here are big, strong and powerful and can hurt people. They’re wild and we have to respect them and try not to disturb them.”
“Will they attack us?” he asked quietly.
I tried to sound confident. “No. Not if we do what the Ranger says, store our food properly and leave them in peace. But if one does attack we know what to do, don’t we?”
Both Cameron and Matthew listened attentively for a change as if they understood the importance of remembering the instructions I was about to give.
“We stand still, make ourselves look big, talk loudly and move away very slowly. And remember no running, screaming or going off on your own. You stay with me and mum and if you see a bear call for help. Do you understand?”
The boys nodded quietly while I did my best to conceal my own runaway fears; of Cameron running wildly around disturbing a protective mother and her cubs, of a curious black bear crashing into the tent at night and pawing Matthew, of a hungry bear breaking into the car to get that bit of banana Cameron smeared down the back of his car seat, of us all bumping into a grizzly on a trail and me not having enough arms to pick up both the boys. I was starting to go off the idea of hiking or camping in bear country.
Camping with bears
We set up camp at a campground in the heart of the Kings Canyon National Park, in a peaceful sequoia grove in the High Sierra. Golden mantled squirrels scuttled excitedly around us as we pitched our new tent on the needle covered floor. It was six weeks since we last camped out and the boys were keen to road test our new home, shattering the peace of the ancient forest with the squeals of young boys bouncing on airbeds.
Meanwhile Kirstie was busy emptying the car after another bear warning from the local Camp Host.
“According to the host here we have to put all food and anything that smells into this locker,” said Kirstie as she trundled back and forth from the car to a large bear proof metal box. “She said if we have any kind of emergency we should call 911 from the phonebox but apparently a bear is not classed as an emergency.”
The heavy door of the bear locker crashed noisily closed as she began another trip.
“Apparently a bear broke into a car after smelling a single tic-tac so we’ve got to be sure absolutely everything that smells goes in the locker; deodorant, soap, insect repellent, that little packet of sweets you hid in the glove compartment, even the kids’ car seats have to come out.”
And while Kirstie searched for every last one of the jelly beans Cameron spread around the car, I tried to light a fire to cook dinner. I got a copy of USA Today from the car and unravelled the pages to make a fire starter. A small headline caught my eye, ‘Couple killed by grizzly.’
I read and reread two brief paragraphs that told the sad story of a couple killed in their tent by a grizzly bear while sleeping in backcountry Alaska. I passed the paper to Kirstie.
“Better make sure you get all those jelly beans eh?” I joked nervously, “and then we’ll go over our ‘what to do if we hear a bear in the night’ routine shall we?”
I’ve always enjoyed the drama of camping in wild places; of waiting for sleep trying to make sense of every strange munch, rustle or movement; of waking suddenly and straining to reveal strange shadows as familiar objects; of lying immobilised and vulnerable in a sleeping bag and trying to reason with a runaway imagination. But then I’ve mostly camped in pretty safe places where worst case meant a rat sniffing the food bag or cows munching at guy ropes. But this felt different, amongst snakes, bears, wolves and cougars, with no base of personal experience to help assess the risks or likelihood of an encounter, oh and with two kids and a pregnant wife.
There’s no doubt that bears are an issue here but how much of a risk they are is harder to assess. I reckon we probably threaten the survival of their species more than they threaten us and it’s probably healthy for us to feel a little bit like prey rather than predator every once in a while. Besides, if you want to experience the great outdoors, nature and wild places then you need to get out of your motel room, into your tent and have the experience. And with plenty of other campers, a camp host and rangers around I figured it couldn’t really be that dangerous.
A chipmunk and two birds boldly pecked at the bits of bread and sausage lying amongst the pine needles.
“Stop messing and pick up those bits of food,” shouted Kirstie at the boys as we cleared up after dinner. “If you leave any out the bear will come and eat you.”
The boys were unusually obedient. She turned to me.
“Now what shall we do about our clothes? It says here don’t sleep in the clothes that you cooked in as the odours may attract bears.”
She passed me a leaflet about safe camping in bear country.
“It also says, keep your pepper spray and torch by your side in case of attack during the night.”
I laughed, “We’re bear food aren’t we? No clean clothes and no pepper spray. We’ll have to improvise.”
Up all night
An hour later and Kirstie and I lay in the tent, the boys fast asleep in their sleeping bags beside us. We went over procedure one last time.
“OK, the torches are there with the car keys and the boxes of K-nex are next to them. If you hear anything wake me. We’ll get out of our sleeping bags, unlock the car, talk to the bear, bang the boxes of K-nex together, grab the kids, make a break for the car and go call for help.”
As the sun went down and the kids snored quietly we lay, listened for bears, waited for the bogey man and prayed our plan was good enough.