Actually, the rant part is more about humans, but you want to talk about bears?
Disclaimer #1: This is the crazy rant from a crazy old man. Do Not try this at home. Do NOT try this in the woods. Everyone will tell you it’s crazy. All the experts agree. Absolutely crazy talk.
Disclaimer #2: When I say “bear”, I mean the Black Bear that is commonly found in California. This does not apply to Grizzly Bears (Brown Bears), and I’m pretty sure it will get you killed if you’re dealing with Polar Bears.
So, I’ve seen a lot of bears out in the woods, both at work and at play. At least a hundred. And I’ve decided there are basically two kinds of bears: The Wilderness Bear, and Yogi Bear. I’ve certainly met both.
If you want to see bears, go try out your rain gear in The Olympic Mountains! I saw 11 bears in 11 days. Just about stepped on one due to this rushing water that prevented us from hearing each other. Once, on the Skyline Trail, we had made camp and decided to cross this snowfield to get closer to, maybe get some pictures of, some bears we saw grazing nearby. Not much to hang our food from. The best we could find was a small tree that only got our food about four feet off the ground. So, we hung our food and went over and looked at the bears for a while. On the way back, we saw big bear prints in the snow… heading straight for our food! We hurried back only to see those prints go right up to the ridge and over the other side about two feet from our hanging tree with nary a stop to sniff our food or anything! That bear either had absolutely no concept of human food, or the smell of humans on the food was enough to discourage it. Definitely a wilderness bear.
A year or two later I was working with a crew of 10 guys, camping in a campground. We had this huge cooler that took two people to lift. It usually rode in a van so we could roll back the door and get to the cooler without moving it. Not long after we arrived, a bear came to visit. We scared it off, but a little later it came back and we had to scare it off again. We even had dogs with us, but the bear didn’t care. At some point we turned our backs a little too long before we realized Yogi was back and was in the process of lifting this 60-pound cooler out of the van with his mouth! I was very impressed. Picked it completely up and rotated it out of the van onto the ground. But we scared it off again and saved our food. The cooler is still in “the family”. We call it The Bear Tooth Cooler because it has some really impressive teeth marks where the bear grabbed it. This bear was persistent and to it, humans = food. Picinic Baskets!
With these experiences in mind, I avoided campgrounds while on the PCT. There’s lots of reasons I hate campgrounds, animals habituated to humans and human food is probably the biggest. And not just bears, but raccoons, skunks (nothing worse than a skunk in camp, if you ask me. Do you try to scare it away, or?), squirrels, deer, and mice. I took it a step further and, if possible, tried to camp somewhere that no one had ever camped before. I even looked at the landscape and tried to figure, if I was a bear, would this be on my nightly route? I think “stealth camping” was a big part of why I didn’t have any bear trouble.
I never hung my food. I slept with my food, either under my knees, or right by my head (in case I got peckish in the night). I did carry a BearVault from Kennedy Meadows to Sonora Pass, as required, but there were very few nights that I could fit ALL of my food in the bear canister. I almost always had a sack of food that could have been grabbed by a bear.
My plan if a bear came into camp was to get up and scare it off. Defend my food. “My camp! My food! Go on git!” Most wildlife doesn’t want to fight, and black bears are mostly vegetarian, not hunters/killers. My weapon of choice was going to be my digging trowel, which I usually needed immediately upon waking, and therefore kept close at hand anyway.
So, how do wilderness bears turn into Yogi bears? I postulate that it’s because humans don’t defend their camps! If they hear something like a bear, they hide in their tent and hope the bear leaves them alone. WRONG. Get out there and make that bear worry if you’re going to leave THEM alone. I think if every hiker in the last 100 years had done this, we wouldn’t need to carry a bear canister in Yosemite today. Once a bear gets a taste of high calorie backpacking food, it’s over.
(OK, funny side story. I was camped at a lake in the Sierra one night many years ago and a bear came and ate my neighbor’s food. A full week’s worth of dehydrated dinners and oatmeal, etc. for two. As you might guess, after such a feast, the bear got thirsty and went to the lake to drink. One can only imagine how the volume of food expanded as it rehydrated, but suffice to say the bear spent the next six hours or so up to its knees in the lake, drinking, and moaning pitifully. I hope that experience turned it off of human food for good, but I have my doubts.)
I can even see humans getting scared and feeding the bears. Like, they’re eating a candy bar, or a hot dog, and the bear comes up, and they’re like “Here! Take the food and leave me alone!” and throw the food at the bear and run the other way. That’s a great way to make sure the bear will approach humans in hopes they will throw food at it again. Much better would be to throw the food behind you and charge the bear. Yelling and banging pots and pans is pretty effective.
And what’s with people and their bear canisters? Like, they put them way far away, so far they wouldn’t even know if a bear was checking it out. True, the bear’s not going to get the food and will eventually get bored and go away. But I say no, keep it close and defend it! We need to teach bears that we are the apex predator on this planet, and when they smell human, they should keep their distance. (Not saying we should be armed and kill bears, but they don’t know that. We’re plenty scary to them if we come with some attitude.)
And for God’s Sake, DON’T PUT YOUR BEAR CANISTER IN A BEAR BOX! WTF is that? If your food is in a properly sealed bear canister, there is no way a bear, or anything else (shit, I could barely open that thing! Took me a week to realize I didn’t have to fully lock it during the day) is going to get your food. When I showed up at Rae Lakes, with a big bag of food that wouldn’t fit in my BearVault, at last light, after one of my longest hardest days, long and hard because I heard there were bear problems in this area and I needed to get to the bear box, only to open it and see it nearly completely full, including four or five bear canisters, I just about lost it. I contemplated confronting the locals to see who the idiots were who put their bear canister in the bear box, and could they take it out so I could put my defenseless food bag in there instead. I contemplated taking one or more bear canisters out of the box and just putting them on top to make some room. In the end I wedged my food bag in the corner, crushing my food and someone else’s a bit to get it in there. Come on people. Just don’t do that, OK?
OK, that’s my rant. If you go out there, be a human. Don’t be scared. Defend your camp! Have you ever seen a wolverine defending its den? Attitude!
But, of course if you’re dealing with Yogi, don’t be stupid. Some bears are not afraid of humans, and those bears can be very dangerous. My strategy was to avoid them by avoiding places where humans are known to camp. Like campgrounds.