Hiking back from El Cap to Camp 4, the first-come-first-served, dirtbag climber campground, we met a bear. A brown one. Shaggy. Gorgeous. The sunlight glinted off its coat as it ran straight at us. Paul, my boyfriend and climbing partner, grabbed me. “A bear.” He hissed.
Paul had seen bears in Yosemite before; a mama grizzly and her babies crossed a trail he’d been hiking. Mamas are the real danger, getting between one and her cubs can be deadly. Paul said that he hung back and gave them space. He warned other hikers, but they just tried to get close enough to see.
Since we arrived at Yosemite, we’d had kept our camping food in bear boxes, we took even the smallest amount of food or drink out of the car and into bear boxes when drove around the park, and we kept ourselves within arms distance of any food outside a bear box. At night, I’d drag myself out of the sleeping bag to store my chap-stick in a bear box before falling asleep. That’s because every time, I sat on a National Park toilet there was a bear safety the poster for me to read. “Put food in bear boxes. And drinks. And cosmetics. Don’t run from a bear. Make yourself big. Make noise. Stand with others to make yourself bigger. If the bear attacks, play dead.”
When Paul tried to drag me off trail where snow still lined the shadow side of trees and bushes, all those bear tips came back. I stood still. “No, we have to stand together and make noise.” I said, lifting my arms and hollering woo-woo like I was at a concert. Paul then let go of my shoulders and began to yell. The bear stopped, lifted its nose. Then it barreled off into the woods as if it were frightened.
“It worked!” I squealed. “We saw a bear!!!” I said to Paul, then again to the ranger who came jogging up the trail.
The Ranger told us he was out on a trail run. He came up on the trail about a half mile back. “I’ve been clapping hands, seeing how far I could make it run the trail with me.” He looked a little disappointed when we told him it ran into the woods.
I wasn’t. I kept thinking about the first time I had seen a bear at a summer camp in Virginia. There were no signs, no warning posters. There wasn’t anyone else there but me and another girl who had arrived early. The trail out to the ropes course that I was going to run followed a small creek flowing between two steep ridges. The trees were thick, the trail, a bit dim. When we turned a corner, we saw a bear just across the creek from us. Black and gleaming. A smallish bear. We didn’t think. No bear tips came to mind then. We were just two teenage girls who were so elated that we did what teenage girls do—jump up and down squealing. “A bear. A bear. A bear.” That bear took off running too. Straight up the ridge. It paused once or twice to take a look back at us before running farther and faster away.