Every camper has a few bear stories. Here are our five favorites, all of which are true.
The Easy Opening Volvo
There was a time when we spent a week at Lassen Volcanic National Park every summer. We love the place, and compared to some of the other parks in California, Lassen really is undiscovered.
This was in the days when we car-camped with the kids, and we usually stayed at Manzanita Lake Campgound. This was before bear boxes.
The first day we arrived, we set up our camp and had a lovely visit to the lake. At dinner, we grilled some sausages on the BBQ, opened a bottle of wine, and had a delicious dinner on the picnic table.
Manzanita Lake is over 5,000 feet in elevation, and we always feel quite sleepy that first night. We tidied up our campsite, put all the food carefully into our Volvo station wagon, and tumbled into bed by about 9:20, and were fast asleep in minutes.
As we slept, we kept hearing odd noises outside. Our older daughter actually expressed some concern about them, but to P they just sounded like someone trying to break up firewood by leveraging it between two trees. Creaking and breaking noises.
After a while, the noises stopped, and we all fell into a deeper slumber.
That's when our neighbors from Sweden woke us up.
"Excuse me," they said. "I think you have a problem with your car."
Hmmm. That didn't sound good.
It turns out that a large mother bear had climbed onto the top of our car, and had pulled open the sunroof. With one paw on the roof, she had used the other paw to peel back the sunroof like a tin of sardines.
She was too big to climb into the car through the opening, and so had finally given up. But the car was now wide open to raccoons or any other animal who wanted to visit, and so we knew we had to come up with a plan.
With our youngest daughter still asleep in the tent, we threw everything else into the car. At the last moment, we woke her up and tossed her sleeping bag in, and the tent on top. And we drove down to Redding to find a motel for the night.
The next morning we visited a rental car company, where we rented a nice Ford Explorer and headed back up into the park. After all, we only had one week of vacation, and we weren't about to kiss it goodbye.
As we entered the park, the ranger at the entrance station warned us about bear activity. "You know," she said, "last night a bear peeled open a Volvo station wagon to get at the food inside!"
"We know," we replied. "That was our Volvo!"
At the end of the week, we returned our rental car and picked up our Volvo to drive it home. P got on top of the sunroof and jumped up and down with all his might and weight. He couldn't budge it a millimeter. We drove home with the roof peeled back--by a bear using only one paw.
The next year, Lassen installed bear boxes in its campgrounds. We'd like to think we are responsible for that.
Packs and People
In the good old days (ca. 1971), before they had installed bear boxes in the backcountry, P and his sister once did a pack trip into the Little Yosemite Valley, then camping at Merced Lake. This was an active bear area, but they were prepared, and not worried.
In the evening, they were cooking dinner, sharing a campsite with a group of three other people and a dog. They began to hear the traditional sounds of a bear in the campground---people yelling, banging on pots, etc.
But they were not worried. There were five people in their group around the campfire, and a dog! Surely the bear would not dare to attack them.
Imagine their surprise when a bear arrived and walked calmly up to the campfire and helped himself to all of the food. The bear walked right through the group, and we scattered as he did so. The bear calmly ate the dinner, including some of the food in the pack on the ground. And then ambled off to the next campsite.
And at that campsite, the bear coolly surveyed the backpacks hanging in the tree, and followed the rope down to where it was tied off. The bear took one swipe with its paw, and cut the rope in two.
The packs fell to the ground, and the bear ate the second course of his dinner.
There are now bear boxes in the popular backcountry campsites of Yosemite, and bear canisters are required for all backcountry trips in the park.
Those Fearsome Grizzlies of Yellowstone
When our daughters were early teens, we took them on a long road trip to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. It was a epic adventure with lots of memories for the whole family.
And of course we went hiking.
Each day in Yellowstone we would pick another wonderful trail--and discover that once we had hiked about a hundred yards, we simply didn't see any other people. Yellowstone isn't crowded: the roads in Yellowstone are crowded. The rest of the park is empty.
So one day were off on another hiking adventure, our youngest daughter leading the way with P; and M and the older daughter taking a more leisurely pace. And at one point, the pair in the lead noticed a big sign placed on the trail. Yep. There had been grizzlies seen in that area, and hikers were advised to use caution.
We did. The first thing they teach you about grizzlies is not to startle them. So the two of us in the lead began to chat away at the top of our voices, enjoying the conversation and also quite happy to be making the trail safe against any grumpy grizzlies. Blabber blabber blabber.
After a couple miles of this we called a halt and waited for the rest of the party to join us.
When they arrived, M expressed some considerable annoyance at the noise we had been making. "We'll never see any animals with all the noise you two are making with that jabbering," she said.
We smugly pointed out that we were scaring away any grizzlies in the area, and asked her if she hadn't see the sign.
"Yes," she agreed tartly. "And did you read the date on that sign? It was from more than a month ago."
We continued, in a quieter vein, for the rest of the hike.
Never did see any grizzlies on that trail....
Bear Raid at Glacier Point
In the early 1970's P was working at a camp near Yosemite, leading kids on pack trips and exploring this wonderful park. At the end of the summer, he and a colleague decided that they were going on a grand adventure---hiking from Yosemite to Sequoia without the convenience of the John Muir Trail. They were young, they were strong, and they had no idea what they were getting into.
Their route started at Glacier Point, and from there they were going to ascend the Illilouette Canyon, cross over Red Peak Pass, and then keep moving south, sometimes on lesser known trails, sometimes cross country.
So they started in Yosemite Valley, and managed to hitch-hike up to Glacier Point by the end of the day. Not wanting to start out on the trail late in the day, they decided to camp (perhaps illegally?) around Glacier Point so that they could get an early start the next day.
And the weather was perfect. They simply put down a sheet of plastic, and laid their sleeping bags on top, sleeping under the stars. With a long night ahead, they were asleep soon after dark.
And were soon awake again, hearing loud noises in the area. As they looked around, they realized that they were in the middle of a bear attack. The bears, six or more of them, were racing each other to the garbage cans, knocking over the cans, and then wrestling and fighting each other over what they found inside.
In the moonlight it looked for all the world like a huge bear football game...and the players were not from Chicago. They were huge, they were feisty, and they were racing from one spot to the next. A scene from a horror movie, to be sure.
The boys didn't think twice. They leapt to their feet, grabbed their bags and packs, and raced for the only safe haven in the area--the restrooms. It was a hard sprint, but P was faster and made it first. He is a nice person, and did not slam the door in his friend's face. Once inside, they were both relieved to see that it was possible to lock the door from the inside.
What luck that the rangers had not locked the door the night before!
They spent the night in the restroom, resting. And got a very early start the next day.
(In the end, they never made it outside of Yosemite National Park. P's friend really, really didn't feel good on their second night, at about 10,000 feet at Lower Ottoway Lake. And the next morning, he announced that he really thought he needed to turn back. They hiked out that day, then spent a night in Yosemite Valley before hitch-hiking home to the Bay Area, where his friend found out that he was suffering from bronchitis. No mean thing at 10,000 feet, with sixteen miles to hike home.)
Strangers in the Night
Now we are going even further back in time--when P traveled with his parents and younger sister on an epic road journey through the Canadian Rockies. We camped our way through Banff and Jasper, and then down the Frazier River, all the time reading endless Tolkein books as entertainment. That's him in the photo below left...
But P was about thirteen years old, and not about to give up his mountain man image. While the rest of the family slept in a small 15-foot travel trailer, P slept like a real man, nestled in his mummy bag, lying out under the stars.
It was a great feeling, until one night in Jasper National Park, when he awoke to find a bear standing on top of him, sniffing his face.
You might wonder what he did.
Did we mention that he was in a mummy bag, and the bear was on top of it?
He couldn't move, even if he wanted to. And somehow, in his sleepy mind, he knew that. So he closed his eyes and pretended to sleep. He smelled the bear's breath, which reminded him very strongly of garbage.
(Not surprising, considering what the bear had been eating!)
About twenty seconds later, he judged that the bear was no longer near him. He opened his eyes and looked around, to see the bear rumbling off to another campsite.
P leapt to his feet and carried his bag into the trailer, explaining to his family that there was a bear outside.
Not knowing the full story, they were not excited.
Then P stuck his head out of the trailer to check on the bear. And that's when he saw a small black animal scampering along the campground road, wailing for its mother.
"maaaaa!" said the animal.
P reported to his family that there was also a little black lamb out there.
His family was mightily amused.
But the next day, the story was verified by bear and cub tracks in the dirt.
That evening, P and his sister were BOTH out under the stars, surrounded by folding aluminum chairs and rope--hoping to catch a photo of the bear when it got near.
(This is a true story. really. )
The bear never arrived. Although it did find another campsite further along, where a mother and her daughter had gone to sleep with some food inside the tent. The bear opened up the tent and ate the food, sending both women to the hospital as a result.
FYI--this is a great story to tell young campers who might be tempted to sneak a candy bar into their sleeping bags for a late night treat.
The Ranger and the Bear
Our last bear story is also the oldest, told to us by an old friend who was a ranger in Glacier National Park.
Many, many years ago, he was stationed in a far off corner of the park, and given a tiny one-room plywood cabin for lodging. That's where he, his wife and their tiny baby were to live for the duration of the summer. It was a beautiful and isolated area, and the only drawback was that there were reports of a rather aggressive Grizzly bear in the neighborhood.
With that in mind, the park service had issued him a revolver. (This was in the good old days, when rangers didn't carry firearms as a matter of course!)
One night, as they lay sleeping in their beds, the unmistakable sounds of a bear came to them through the thin walls of the cabin. And as they listened, the bear obviously smelled the food in the cabin, and started trying to push down the door.
Our ranger yelled at the bear, trying to scare it away. The bear kept pushing against the door.
His wife starting screaming, both at the bear and at him. In the pitch black night, the young ranger reluctantly pulled out his service revolver and faced the door. He did not want to shoot the bear, but he would stand between the bear and his wife and child.
The bear kept grunting and pushing on the door, and it was only a matter of time before the flimsy door gave way.
With a heavy heart, the ranger fired a shot at the bear. The roar and flash of the gun filled the cabin.
No effect. The bear was still hammering away at the door...only now it might be a little angrier.
He shot again.
Still the bear kept attacking the door.
His third shot was followed by silence.
He waited. He listened. He could hear nothing.
Now what to do? The bear might well be dead. But it also might well be wounded, and just outside the door. He listened some more. He decided to wait until morning, and spent a fitful night in bed.
The next morning, he and his wife tried to peer out the windows to see if they could see the bear--but they couldn't see any trace of it. Nor could they see the porch of the cabin directly in front of the door.
With his wife cradling the baby, he took his service revolver and cracked the door open, just enough to see that there was no bear on the porch.
Where could the bear be? Was it still alive? If it was wounded, could it be just inside the forest, waiting to attack?
He searched the porch for blood stains, and reported to his wife that he couldn't find any.
His wife, still inside the cabin, said that she understood why.
In the darkness, the ranger had carefully fired three shots. One into the ceiling, one into the floor, and the third into the wall about five feet from the door.
The bear had left because of the noise, not because it had been shot.
But it didn't return all summer.