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Bear Aware in Yosemite

Introduction -

Bear Aware is something you learn, or at least you should, when you visit Yosemite Valley.

It's pretty simple: Don't feed the bears, don't leave food around for bears to find, don't approach the bears - LEAVE THE BEARS ALONE!

Given that four million people visit this seven mile long by one-and-a-half mile wide valley, I think being Bear Aware is working overall - for now. If it will be enough in the end to save the valley from being loved to death is another story (with the outcome not necessarily a bad one - one can hope).

I'm thinking that being Bear Aware can be adopted in a much larger sense - as a general philosophy of life.

All Aboard -

Another excessively hot and busy weekend, combined with our early departure and task of emptying two rooms of our city flat in preparation for painting during our absence, make for a more basic trip preparation than usual. Hiking shoes, camera, underwear - all one needs for survival in the wilderness; thank goodness our cabin will have a shower, there's nothing better than a hot shower after spending a day surviving in the wilderness...

By 6:30 we were seated inside the Ferry Building Amtrak station, waiting for our bus to take us over the Bay Bridge to Emeryville and the 7:49 departure of the first southbound run of the San Joaquin, running from Oakland to Bakersfield, with bus connections in Bakersfield to destinations further south. Riding the train from Oakland to Bakersfield, then climbing aboard a bus for a long bouncy ride to Los Angeles is, one might say, a very tough day. But that's another story.

Our story is much more appealing and finds Jayne and I getting off the train in Merced to transfer for the 70 mile bus ride into Yosemite.

Taking this public transit way of getting to Yosemite has its challenges. Both times we have taken this route, the train stayed flawlessly on schedule going to Yosemite, only to be at least an hour late coming home. On the way home on a previous trip we were delayed for about an hour on a siding waiting for a freight train to pass. While we waited, a fellow rider walked by and, seeing the train schedule lying on the seat commented, "A work of fiction..." While that may be a little harsh, the schedule should not be taken too literally, especially later in the day, when things have had more time to get fouled up.

That's just part of the charm of riding the train.

Some of the charm is lost on the bus. The seats are truly designed as torture implements for tall people. On our trip out we endured the cacophony of dueling monologues wafting in from opposite ends of the bus, the bus driver from the front and some sort of group leader speaking to his flock from the back. Nonetheless, the scenery is fine, and you don't have to drive.

The point is to leave your car at home, if you possibly can. If you do have to drive, you can drive, park the car, stuff the keys in your backpack, and take the shuttle bus (or walk!) once you're there. The shuttle bus system connects the valley almost as well as the Muni in San Francisco; and the bus drivers are a lot friendlier - sometimes alarmingly so. (they're given a microphone and encouraged to talk, most of the time this is informative, but to excess leads to the horror of listening to someone talk to themselves.)

It's true that going beyond the valley to explore other parts of Yosemite National Park requires a car, but if you only intend on visiting Yosemite Valley, leave the car at home. You'll meet a lot of interesting people on the bus.

It's also being Bear Aware. 12 bears were killed last year by private cars. The last bear was killed only a couple of weeks ago; a young cub, whose mother mourned her child, like any mother would.

Getting Inside the Yosemite Bubble -

It begins to seep into the corners of my subconscious stepping off the bus at Curry Village into the warm early afternoon air, sweet with the smell of pine. By 1:45 we are settling into our lodgings, along the back row of cabins nestled among hundred foot pine trees and cabin sized granite boulders, just as the gentle rise toward Cathedral Rocks turns nearly vertical.

Once settled and fed, cameras are unpacked, butt-packs are strapped on, and we're off for a "short walk". El Capitan rises to the northwest and Half Dome to the east, three thousand feet straight up, shining white and purplish-gray in the afternoon light; and this is when it swarms into my conscience awareness - The Yosemite Bubble.

The Yosemite Bubble is a term that originated with Ranger Julie, who isn't really a ranger and whom we'll hear more about later. It is the best way I can think of to describe the feeling of walking amongst the tall pines, black oak, and incense-cedar; the gently meandering Merced River, lined with lily and crossed with quaint stone bridges; the lengthening shadows of afternoon illuminating the autumn-hued valley with a warm glow. And just beyond, the soaring granite walls, reaching up to the sky, their sheer rock-face standing as color pallets for the sun, ever changing with the light. Here, in this perfect setting, protected by mighty walls of granite and limestone, the world outside is held at bay. Inside the Yosemite Bubble, you can let go and concern yourself with more important things. Like watching the river slide gently past Clark's Bridge; or following the furtive flight of a Steller Jay as it darts amongst the limbs of an Oak tree; or just standing quietly looking up, way up, at Half Dome, turning pink-red as afternoon wears toward evening. This is being in the Yosemite Bubble, and much of what is going on outside seems of little importance.

Jayne and I thus find ourselves entranced and our short walk turns into a several hour exploration; with a stop at the Visitors Center a couple miles down the road, and finally, with the help of a shuttle bus, at Yosemite Lodge in search of refreshment. By the time we are back to Curry Village the inky veil of dusk has settled into the valley. We consider taking in the ranger talk for the evening, but by 7:45 exhaustion overtakes me and I am sound asleep - dreaming happy thoughts of being Bear Aware and content, living inside the Yosemite Bubble.

Honey, Someone's Rummaging Around in Our Luggage -

Despite all the peace and tranquility, Man's mind - or at least my mind - if left unattended long enough, will wander off into pointless distraction. So it is that I lay in bed thinking about that cabin sized boulder not 20 feet from my head; and how at some point in time, that boulder was part of the mountain looming over Jayne and I. Hmmmm...

As if a bungee cord is attached to my wondering mind, I am snapped back into acute awareness of the moment and my immediate surroundings.

Rustle rustle...

At first I think of all the reasons we I didn't just hear the sound of rustling coming from the open closet, about six feet from the foot of the bed. None of them really seem very plausible, but I'd rather not consider the alternative. How on earth a bear managed to get in the cabin closet unannounced is completely mystifying.

Somehow, somewhere, we have not been Bear Aware - and now we're paying the price. But what could the Bear want from us? We hadn't brought any food with us - or had we?

"Hear that?" I quietly ask.

"Yes, there are Cliff Bars in there, but they're sealed in plastic"

Rustle rus... I turn in bed and the rustling abruptly stops.

Okay then, a truce.

Soon my mind is wandering again and I go back to the time Jayne and I were in a little burra (think "tropical cabin") in Fiji, along a sandy beach, on a small island where the ferry couldn't even dock; we had to wade ashore. Every night we heard the sound, just outside our bathroom window, of rather large sounding choppers - like those you'd see on a crab, only a lot bigger - chopping away at something. It sounded is if was either tunneling underneath our burra, or eating a hole into the wall. Using the bathroom in the middle of the night took on a whole new twist... Yeah, I remember that...

Rustle rustle rustle...

The truce is over.

It is time to take action. I fumble for the flashlight on the nightstand; my plan is to throw a beam of light on the bear and face it down. What might happen after that has not fully formed in my head. In any case, it's too bad that I'll never get a good look at the bear since my contact lenses are in their little case next to me and without them I'm blind as a bat.

I hear a bat chirp outside our cabin window as I raise the light toward the open closet door.

With my finely honed sense of hearing, to compensate for the rather impressionistic vision of the world my unaided eyesight provides me; I aim the beam of light toward the sound of the rustling

There it is, rushing toward us... Only Jayne actually sees it, of course, as it speeds outside through the heretofore unseen hole at the bottom of the door frame; So it isn't a bear after all, but a two inch mouse, or maybe a shrew. No matter; for the next three nights, the shrew (or mouse) challenges wits with Jayne and I.

The next night we stick a sturdy piece of cardboard in the hole, and put the Cliff Bars (that are left unnibbled) in the built-in dresser drawer. Later that evening we hear the sound of the cardboard in the doorframe being pushed from outside, and then a rustling inside the drawer. There is obviously more than one way into the cabin.

We consider putting the Cliff Bars in one of the large steel containers provided throughout Curry Village for folks with real food. It seems ridiculous to use up one of those containers for two Cliff Bars. We put the bars inside a plastic bag, put the bag in our little vinyl cooler, and put the cooler in the bathtub. After putting the piece of cardboard back into the small hole in the doorframe, we confidently head out for an evening of fine dining at the Lodge and a show presented by Ranger Bob.

Upon our return, around 9:30, we find that the piece of cardboard has been completely eaten through. We immediately go into defense mode. He's in here somewhere...

After thoroughly checking out the cabin, all we find is a rather large bug that, while menacing looking, is apparently not interested in the Cliff Bars or in much else, really. In a typical fit of human insensitivity, I go at the bug with a hiking boot, when Jayne stops me, wraps the bug in a tissue, and deposits it outside - another example of what is meant by "My Better Half". After all, I probably appear pretty hideous to the bug, who, if a bit larger and able to avail itself of a hiking boot, would have just as well stamped out my ugly mug. Jayne is the true humanitarian.

But there is no shrew to be found in the entire cabin; despite the obvious signs of its visitation. The remaining Cliff Bars are safe in their triple-sealed environment. It's as if the little rodent wanted to let us know that it could get in anytime it wanted.

We sleep that night with no sign at all of our shrew adversary, who each night was starting to seem more like a little friend; a friend with a taste for Cliff Bars; and who helped expand our understanding of being Bear Aware..


What is There to Do in Yosemite, Anyway?

Ah, my friend, soon enough you will be back into your rushed little world of traffic jams and deadlines and all the nonsense that makes up a modern life in the human world....

Some are attracted to the extreme possibilities, soon finding themselves in some hormone induced drive, hanging from the vertical side of Half Dome with nothing more the a thin line of nylon as their best hope for a bright future.

Another approach is to stand on a meadow's edge on the valley floor, gaze at Half Dome three thousand feet straight up, and let it soak into your conscience as you think to yourself, "Well, there's nothing I can do here to make this any better", snap a picture, and amble on down the trail.

There are a variety of physical challenges available for a wide range of motivations. From dangling at the end of a rope two thousand feet in the air, to walking downstairs for a bite to eat (if you're staying at the Ahwahnee that is, otherwise you'll have to walk just a little bit further.)

We fall somewhere in the middle, perhaps a little toward the lightweight end, averaging maybe five or six miles of hiking a day. Our walking adventures along the valley floor take us to Happy Isles - a pleasant walk along the Merced across wooden footbridges, the surrounding forest showing the first signs of autumn color - and also include walks along the Mist Trail, Cooks Meadow, the Sentinel Bridge, Mirror Lake and whatever other little trail we could find. By the end of each day, our feet are a little sore and we're a little hungry, but rarely do we feel more satisfied.

Hiking isn't without its challenges and little annoyances, however.

One crisp but hazy morning finds us leaping from the shuttle bus at the designated trailhead for the one mile hike to Mirror Lake and the two mile loop trail around the lake.

The hazy morning is due to fires burning off in the more remote sections of the park (most of Yosemite National Park is wilderness area.) The lightening induced fires burning off in the wilderness are part of the natural process, essential to a healthy forest. The fires are being monitored by the Park Service, but allowed to run their course. Though distant, the fires are evident by the shafts of smoky light glinting through the trees in the angled morning light.

This restraint to not rush in and put out the fire exemplifies the more enlightened approach the Park Service has taken in recent years in "managing" the wilderness. From no longer encouraging the feeding of bears with "bear feeding platforms" throughout the park, to allowing natural fire to burn, we are learning to leave some things alone; learning that human invention and interference in regard to managing nature is many times simply folly. We have not always been so Bear Aware.

In any case, I digress.

We stumble off the bus and naturally gravitate toward the dirt path leading up into the woods, shadowed from the morning sun by the looming presence of Half Dome.

It is soon apparent that the course we have chosen is designated as a bridle path. The first clue being the caravan of a dozen or so horses ambling single file down the path moving toward us, each horse carrying the burden of a single human rider. We step off the path and politely wait as the caravan makes its way back toward the stables. After they pass, we rejoin the trail and make our way back up the valley toward the lake. Reminders of their journey dot the trail.

No matter, other than the caravan, we see nary a soul on the trail; this is the path for us.

After a mile or so of hiking, it is apparent that Mirror Lake is really more of a marshy pond at the end of long dry season than a full blown "lake". We follow a path leading down to what was once the waters edge, poke our way out onto the rocky dry lake bottom and with a short leap over a shallow lap of water find ourselves on the other side of the lake.

We make our way onto a paved trail, complete with interpretative signs at regular intervals explaining the ecology and history of the area.

One sign tells of a time that the lake sported a bathhouse, riding stables, guest house, boat rentals, ballroom, and expansive outdoor deck.

I look out over the brackish pond, surrounded by dry lake bed and marshland and try to imagine what it may have been like here at this spot, a century ago. The sounds of stately waltzes echoing through the cool mountain air; the shimmering reflection of dancers rippling on the moonlit lake.

A compelling vision, to be sure, but the green marsh, rocky lake bed, and still pond reflecting the surrounding peaks are just fine for me at this moment. The happy bathers, boaters, and dancers are but a wisp of imagination and the natural process of silting and seasonal dryness are the dominant features now.

Instead of making the complete loop, we decide to head back toward the trail head and find a dirt path gently rising into the forest, forking off to the right above the lake.

We have, of course, ventured onto another path used by horses. We have a knack.

In the late morning sun, things aren't quite as sanguine as was the earlier trip on the other side of the lake. Dodging land mines left by caravans long past becomes inconsequential when compared to the excited swarms of nymphs swirling around my head.

My vision of a nymph is of something alluring, provocative, and beautiful, all while being a little dangerous. How these nasty little gnat-like creatures making dive bomber runs on my head ever got to be called "nymphs" seems to me to be a sign of a twisted sense of humor.

We are nothing more than moving towers of food, announcing our presence by radiating heat and carbon dioxide. The nymphs are not only annoying, but a little humbling as well. Walking now entails taking a few steps and then wildly flapping your arms around your head. Nature's way of making humans look downright silly.
Jayne, however, makes the best of it and devises a new type of aerobic workout. Stylishly waving her scarf above her head, she not only succeeds in mitigating the swarm of nymphs, but makes it look like a cross between Tai Chi and modern dance.

Perhaps Jayne has found her "pet rock", destined to make her wealthy beyond her wildest dreams - Jayne's Horsetrail Workout Video.

Conclusion -

So in the end, what does it mean to be Bear Aware?

Walk with a grateful heart, notice things, tread lightly, appreciate much, be humble; and, of course, leave the bears alone. That's an easy thing to do while walking amidst the grandeur of Yosemite Valley. It's a lesson to remember and strive towards always, even if we continually fall short in achieving.

Wildlife Count -

Deer - 17 (9 girls and 8 boys)

Coyote - 5

Starling Jay - 48

Various Butterflies - 12

Nymphs - 3,279,322

Squirrels - 1,422

Rabid, Mad, "Chirping", Body-Shaking Squirrel - 1 (one agitated squirrel!)

Bear - 0

But we always tried to be Bear Aware!

- September, 2003



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