Have you ever encountered something (a lot) larger than you in the woods? I’m not talking about a cow in a pasture, I mean something that weighs three of four times what you do, and has claws, teeth, and a reputation for a certain amount of ferocity.
That happy incident occurred to me on the very first day of my first John Muir Trail thru-hike.
The climb out of Yosemite Valley (which begins at Happy Isles) has a reputation for being tough. It certainly was for me. I climbed 4,500 feet on the first day, but the trail was wide, even and well maintained—more like walking on a sidewalk. I also had lots of day-hiker friends heading for Vernal Fall, Nevada Fall, or Half Dome, to buoy me along. It was never crowded enough to be unpleasant but I was always aware of people being around me.
All that changed once I passed the Half Dome trail intersection; the woods got quiet. I was alone and walking on dirt so even though I wasn’t trying to move stealthily I was hardly making a sound.
As I turned the corner I actually spotted the two cubs, first, just to the right of the trail. They were scrounging around under a fallen log. I stopped in my tracks and immediately looked for mama bear.
She was on the left of the trail, completely oblivious to me, also looking for a late lunch.
Despite being more excited than scared (I’m sure I had a huge grin on my face), I realized that there was a potentially bad situation here. One thing’s for sure: I wasn’t going try to sneak between mama and the kids. I considered retreating, but for how long? I had only managed about seven of the 211 miles that I had ahead of me; it was a little early in the game to start backtracking.
I got out my camera and snapped a couple of photos. Then I alerted all the four-pawed animals in the area that I was there with a quick yell. Three sets of bear eyes were on me in a split second.
The two cubs immediately started running over to mom, although they stopped a couple of times to get a better look at the strange guy with a big red hump on his back. Eventually mom got them behind her and she turned her attention to me.
She rose up on her back legs just a bit, shouted a half-hearted growl in my direction, and then spun around and headed away with the kids. My bear encounter (one of two on the trail) was over.
Almost the entire JMT is within prime bear habitat, but (somewhat counter-intuitively) encounters are more common the closer you are to civilization. Although you might see one anywhere the most likely places are: Little Yosemite Valley, Lyell Canyon, anywhere else within Yosemite, Thousand Island Lake and Garnet Lake. Each of these locales has something in common: lots of people with food, often carelessly stored.
A bear encounter can be thrilling! Just make sure you don’t encounter one eating your dinner. Keep everything with a scent in your canister.
Good hiking, Ray