Saturday, May 29, 2010

Bear hunt

Bears are the crocodiles of North America. I mean, they're the major frightener in nature, same as crocs in Australia (I know they have alligators there too, but bears are more wide-spread, and anyway I haven't been to the southern states). Go anywhere in the Top Half of Aussie and you'll see the signs, from the laughable 'Do not interfere with the crocodiles' in freshie country, to the more chilling gape-mouthed 'Crocodile Warning' that not only indicates there could be a saltie anywhere, any time, but is also posted next to every body of water you might be tempted to refresh yourself in.In California, we were made bear-aware as soon as we entered the national parks - by law, it seemed. There was a lecture at the lodge at Sequoia before we were even able to pick up our room keys, there were signs everywhere, all the litter bins were bear-proof, and at the Ranger Centre there was a loop video showing a bear approaching a locked car and standing up to put its paws against the driver's window. The glass seemed to disappear, the bear dived in and clawed its way through the seating into the boot, where it found the chilly-bin of food that it could smell - and also expected to find. It was an impressive performance, I must say.
But the lack of imagination that has eased my way through so many possibly dangerous situations meant that I still wanted to see one, and get a decent photo. Sequoia was lovely, with lots of wildlife and spectacular views, plus seriously big and beautiful trees, but it was only when we got to Yosemite that a sighting seemed possible.
Yosemite Valley's an odd place: it's raw nature on the grandest of scales, but also so user-friendly and populous. All the postcard views are within strolling-distance of coffee shops and car parks, and the roads are humming with vehicles. It really doesn't feel like the sort of place to find a bear - but on a guided walk, we saw one. Actually, two, a mother and cub, but some distance away, fossicking along the river bank - too far for a photo. But that wouldn't do:
>>> ... It was our last day in Yosemite. We had driven around the valley, looked up at and down from the immense and awe-inspiring cliffs, seen them reflected in still pools fringed with golden grass, noticed how the haze from the burn-offs tinted the granite pink and lilac, gazed over range after zigzagged range of wooded hills layered in every shade of blue and purple towards the horizon, seen deer, squirrels, chipmunks and woodpeckers – but we hadn’t got a photo of a bear.

“Let’s just stroll around the top of the valley,” I suggested to my husband, a reluctant walker. “It’s not far, look,” and I showed him the map with my thumb over the small print that read ‘Not to scale’. It was a hunch. It was also a very pretty walk along the stony river, through the trees dripping with gold and red autumn leaves, around huge boulders dropped by glaciers millennia ago, and the squirrels and deer almost made RW forget a) the distance and b) that we were actually looking for bears. Almost. “I don’t think I should be carrying these muffins,” he said, holding up the carrier bag with the muffin bottoms in it that I hadn’t let him throw away in case we got hungry. “You know what they keep saying about bears and food. It’s asking for trouble.”

We couldn’t just dump them, I pointed out, because that was against the law, so we still had them with us when we got to Mirror Lake. Except there was no lake: the dry summer had strangled the river that fed it and left a meadow of grass and sand, with a massive boulder in the middle on which children were climbing. I spoke to their mother who was watching them: “Not much of a reflection, is there?”

“No,” she said, “it’s disappointing after walking all this way.” And then she dropped the bombshell. “Oh, we did see a bear though. Just down the trail. It’s probably still there…”

I was off, RW dawdling behind with the muffin bottoms. “Just leave them beside the path,” I said, “we’ll pick them up later. Come on!” I hurried along, excited, remembering the Michael Rosen story I had read so often to our daughters: ‘We’re going on a bear hunt, we’re going to catch a big one, we’re not scared!’ Although, as I went swishy swashy through the long grass, maybe I was, just a little.

When I caught sight of the bear just 15 metres away nosing through the fallen leaves for acorns and it lifted its head and I saw its two big furry ears, I wasn’t scared any more but thrilled, and eager to get a photo. Then RW, who had been hanging back fretting about still carrying the taint of muffin, hissed “Behind you!” and I looked away from the viewfinder. I realised that besides the patter of falling acorns and the snuffling of the bear, I had been hearing something else, and turned to see another bear, even bigger and shaggier, and much less focused on acorns, standing on the path looking at me. Now I was remembering the bear attack advice we had read: ‘Don’t run, don’t climb. Look big and fight back!’

It’s hard to look big when you’re suddenly feeling quite small, so it was lucky that just then some hikers came along the trail behind the bear, sending it bouncing off into the trees. It felt like time to go. There was this bag of muffin bottoms we needed to retrieve…
[Pub. Next April 2008]

4 comments:

the queen said...

Surrounded by bears! No wonder you sent me that video of bears breaking into the car.

Pam said...

Beats me how people go camping in the woods with those things wandering around loose, with all those claws and teeth. Just asking for trouble, I reckon.

Romania Travel Tips said...

Bear are freaking scary, but if you live at the outskirts of Brasov, a mountain city in Romania, you kinda get used to them after a while. Since the forest is so close to the residential areas, the bears often pay visits in order to rummage through trash cans in search of food. They don't cause trouble if you leave them alone, though...

Pam said...

Gidday, Romania Travel Tips - are you in the right job?! Because all this bear talk could well scare off potential visitors. Not me, though: the possibility of a bear encounter is a totally unexpected extra reason to want to come. As long as I would survive it...

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