I Can't Bear It

1 Oct 1997 - by Jim Curl

"You're looking at about $1400", the auto repair manager casually informed me. My jaw dropped. I knew that replacing the driver side mirror that a Yosemite Valley bear had eaten for dessert on Friday night was going to be expensive, but I had been bracing for an estimate of a couple hundred bucks. What I had missed were the numerous small dents on the roof and hood, coincident with all of those muddy pawprints I had thought were so cute. The bruin must have been doing the rumba on my car that night. A neighboring truck had fared worse: the entire door had been peeled back. And the previous weekend, my girlfriend's car had been vandalized as well. Telltale paw and hair smudges covered the windows and side panels.

None of these incidents scored any meals for the hairy thieves. Indeed, the sight or smell of food is no longer a prerequisite for the ursine scavangers to go to work on your vehicle. Bending metal and breaking glass as easily as you or I might open a bag of Doritos, they have taken to prying apart cars just to take a peak or a sniff of the interior. For years I had laughed at the sufferers of these sorts of attacks. It always seemed that the victim had left odorous food in plain view. Probably the same people who didn't know how to properly counterhang food in the backcountry, I thought. Darwin at work. But now I found myself at the receiving end of a midnight raid. And I wasn't laughing.

While gearing up one August morning in the Ahwahnee parking lot, I spotted an old friend of mine and his two partners cleaning up a big mess. They had fixed the first three pitches of The Prow the day before and planned to start up the route that morning. But emerging from their forest bivy, they found their truck would require their attentions that day. The passenger door had been twisted backwards, their haulbag tossed out the window onto the parking lot, and their grocery bags and ice chest disembowled. Bear slobber and hair covered the seats and dashboard. They didn't look especially happy about their unintended change in plans.

Bears have been a problem in Yosemite for years. And despite efforts to educate the public, it's likely to continue. Like an arms race, the bears keep getting smarter and the park keeps trying to stay one step ahead of them -- or at least not fall any farther behind. After finding that bears had discovered how to open the giant trashbins, carabiner closures were added to the doors. Even the bombproof bearboxes, I recently learned, are not immune to invasion. But when it comes to our cars, flimsy tin cans from a bear's perspective, there's not a whole lot you can do short of sleeping in your vehicle. Some bears have even taken to opening cars of a specific make and model. Keeping your food elsewhere is no guarantee of safety at all.

Ten years ago, on one of my first backpacking trips, I stopped for the night near Shadow Lake and set up my camp. I'd heard stories on the trail of a very large bear in the area, taking food almost every night. So I searched until I found the perfect tree limb and hung my food practically in the stratosphere. Late that night, as I sat next to a small fire I'd built, a bruin the size of a sofa came out the woods and stopped to stare at me. Confronted with the first bear I'd ever seen outside of a zoo, I was paralyzed. As I looked into the depths of his black emotionless eyes, I felt as if I were staring at the devil himself. I managed to stammer in a squeaky voice, "Errr, h-h-hello Mr. Bear." He walked slowly away, leaving no doubt who was in charge. I tossed rocks in his direction -- once he was too far to actually be hit. Later, I heard yelling several times in the area as he scored food bag after food bag. In the morning, I went to see if he had also reached mine. But there they were, two small blue bags swinging far overhead -- and directly below them, a huge conical pile of dung, replete with tin foil and candy bar wrappers. I think he'd come by my camp the previous night simply to snear at me for hanging my food so well.

Starting in 1998, bear cannisters will be required for food storage in some areas of the Sierra. Expensive, heavy and awkwardly rigid, these plastic tubes will make certain types of mountaineering trips more of a challenge. Given the number of parties that lose their food each year, this regulation was probably inevitable. It is unfortunate that they may be required even where the creatures are rare or nonexistant. One can only hope that the new rules actually work to reduce the number of bear incidents. In Yosemite Valley, food storage in vehicles has recently been prohibited. Previously, you could keep food in your car as long as it was well hidden. But, as my recent experiences attest, bears are going to keep on breaking into cars as long as they think food might be found there.

The park generally tries to relocate bears that become too accustomed to seeking human food. But when that fails, they are euthanized. Several Yosemite Valley bears, upon returning to the Valley after several relocation attempts, were recently shot to death. Their increasingly aggressive behavior could no longer be ignored by park officials. Sadly, these bears included a mother and her cubs. It's hard to ignore who the real culprits are in a case like this.

Saturday night, after wondering what part of my car might be eaten this time, I finally drop off to sleep. Suddenly, there is very loud metallic crash. It sounds like someone has dropped a crate of shovels out of a tree. Forty feet away, I see the shadowy outline of a large black animal eating noisily. It has ripped open the door of a bearbox and is devouring the contents of an ice chest. The chest's owner emerges from his tent and shouts, but the bear ignores him, eating the last of his bacon before moving on to the next item on the menu. Finally, a well aimed rock persuades the bruin to casually saunter away... towards the parking lot.


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