The Bear Bell Boys

posted Aug 9, 2010, 9:33 AM by Paul Wagner   [ updated Aug 9, 2010, 1:36 PM ]
So there we were, resting below a pass over 9,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada, and a strange tinkling noise came to our ears.  I looked at my wife in confusion.  A bear bell?  In the Sierra?   (We've seen one bear in the last three years and three hundred miles of backpacking--and it ran away when it saw us.  See it in the photo at left?)
For those who don't know: bear bells are used by some hikers in Grizzly country to give an audible warning.  Grizzlies hear a lot better than they see, and the goal of the bear bell is to let Ursus Horribilus know you are coming.  In Glacier National Park the old joke is that you can always tell the difference between Black Bear and Grizzly Bear scat, because the Grizzly Bear scat always has little bells in it! 
But the last Grizzly Bear in California was shot in 1922, and there have been only 12 Black Bear attacks in the state since 1980--that's thirty years-- and none of them were fatal. (To put this in perspective, over 4,000 people die every year in motor vehicle accidents in the state.)  So wearing a bear bell in the Sierra is a bit over the top---particularly if you drove your car to the trailhead!
When the group of middle-aged men passed us, I couldn't help asking:  Is that a bear bell your wearing?
Yep, it was.  "I really, really don't want to see any bears on this trip!"
Nor any other wildlife, it would appear.
After they passed us by, we waited a bit longer on the trail--we could hear that bell dingling down along the trail for quite a few minutes after they passed.  We shared chuckle at their expense, and then finally took up our packs and followed them down the trail in peace ad quiet.
Which would have been an amusing end to the story, but it wasn't.  The next day, as we rested in our campsite, we heard a familiar tinkling coming down the trail.  Yep--they were hiking the same route, and set up their camp across the lake from us.   No harm done, and we shared another smile.
The next morning, as we started out, we found our same group of just leaving their camp.  I invited them to go first (since they had passed us the first time, I assumed they were the faster hikers.)  I figured that they would be out of earshot within a few minutes, especially if we walked a slower pace behind them.
Not so.  It turned out that they were quicker to descend a trail, but slower going uphill. Within five minutes we found them sprawled along the trail resting.  "We take a lot of rests, so we are probably going to be passing each other all  day long," explained one of the men.
Oh joy. 
"I hope not," I replied.  "You should just pick a livable pace and hold it."  I replied.  I was not in the mood to hike to the sounds of little bells in the wilderness all day long.
To their credit, they did just that.  And it turned out that their pace up over the next 10,000 foot pass was slower than ours.  We had a lovely day hiking in sweet solitude, the only sounds we heard being the wind in the trees, the burbling of the streams, and the singing of the birds. 
It was only much later that afternoon, after we had set up camp, that I heard the bell again.  I was fishing the nearby creek when I heard its now familiar tinkle as the men walked by up the canyon. 
We never saw or heard the again.  No did we see any bears. 
But if you find some bear scat high in the Sierra with a litte bell in it, you'll know what happened!