Face to Face with Black Bears in Yosemite
“Chris,” Heather’s arm across my chest stops me in my tracks, “I don’t mean to alarm you, but that’s a bear”.
It’s shortly after sunset in Yosemite and what little light remains is a thin strip of fiery orange smothered by thick sequoia trunks. We’re in a relatively dense portion of the wood on our 1.1 mile walk from Sentinel Dome back to the safety of our car and we’ve got about one mile of it to go.
Surrounded by hulking Humvees, Toyota Land Cruisers, and Jeep Cherokees – our humble Nissan Altima doesn’t look like it’s ready for the great outdoors, but at that moment it’s a towering fortress to we two slightly frazzled explorers.
There’s a bear about 50 meters away from us. We’d joked all day about wanting to see one of the bears in Yosemite National Park, and now we’re getting our wish.
I hear it first. The snapping of twigs and the rustle of undergrowth as something much larger and heavier than either of us makes its way through the forest to our right. In the rapidly fading light, it takes my eyes a long moment to adjust and make out the shape made familiar by countless nature documentaries.
“Chris,” Heather hisses urgently, “We need to move”.
It’s already after seven as we pull off the Glacier Point road and into the parking lot for both Sentinel Dome and Taft Point, but we’re confident we’ll be able to make it out to the dome in time for sunset and a spectacular view of the valley floor.
With cameras and Camelbak at the ready, we begin to pick our way along the trail. After spending the morning on more clearly marked and evenly paved trails such as Bridalveil Falls and Mirror Lake, it’s a fun challenge for us to clamber over rocks and spot the footprints that are to guide us to Sentinel Dome – which is said to boast the best 360 degree view of the park.
“The sun sets at 8.15 or so,” I advise Heather sagely as the parking lot disappears behind us and we begin to make our way through the forest, “We should be back before it’s dark”.
It’s a 2.2 mile round trip and while it’s not particularly strenuous, there is considerably more up and down then we had planned for. The sun is already beginning to dip behind the mountains when we pass a German couple on their way back.
“Is it worth the walk?” I ask.
“Oh yeah,” the man replies with a big grin, “And you’ll be there just in time for the sunset”.
Buoyed by his encouragement, we continue on. Soon enough we’re clambering up the side of the massive stone dome and joining ten or fifteen of our fellow sunset chasers to witness a truly stunning spectacle.
We’d intended on being there only a few minutes, but we become so enamoured of the stunning light show and the scenery rolled out before us that we soon abandon our plans to be back at the car by the time night rolled in over the park.
After about forty minutes of posing and photo-taking, we decide it’s time to head back. The last slivers of sunlight guide us down the steep rock face and then we’re shouldering our cameras and loudly discussing the photos we’ve taken and our plans to see the stars come out over Glacier Point.
And that’s when Heather speaks:
“Chris, I don’t mean to alarm you, but that is a bear”.
It’s about fifty meters away but I can see that it’s roughly my size. Black bears in Yosemite don’t grow quite as large (or aggressive) as the notorious grizzly bears or brown bears, but they’re not exactly Yogi and Boo Boo either.
“Chris,” Heather speaks up, “We need to move”.
We do move, but in totally different directions. I move back towards Sentinel Dome and the ten or twelve people we’d left there, while Heather smartly heads farther down the trail and towards the car. In hindsight, I’d basically moved parralel to the bear and not removed myself from danger.
Thankfully, the bear seemed more interested in sniffing at the ground than in the two big bundles of stupid meat to its left.
“Chris!” Heather hisses, “Come here!”
I join her and we’re soon moving down the park.
“Oh my God,” her voice is thick with panic, “We’re going to die. There’s more of them, I know it”.
As we rush down the trail our own passage and the movement of her backpack convince us that the bear is on our trail. The last of the light is rapidly fleeing behind the horizon and for all we know, there’s a curious bear wandering after us.
I can’t begin to describe the tension on that mile long walk back to the cars. Heather’s cellphone provides feeble light as the last of the day’s light fades and the moon does a poor job of covering for it. She steadfastly refuses to look left or right, but I see mountain lions and bears in every tree stump or looming rock along our path.
“This is it,” she’d occasionally say with certainty, “It’s just around the corner now”.
But then we’d see another stretch of forest or another expanse of rocky hillside and our hearts would sink.
“Did we lose the trail?” I ask at one point, keenly aware that we’ve got no food with us, a half empty Camelbak, and nothing warmer than the shorts and t-shirt I’d spent the day in.
“No,” Heather assures me, “Just shut up”.
It’s full dark by the time we break out of the last stand of forest and spot the car park. It’s all we can do not to break into a frenzied run, despite knowing full well the bear is a mile distant and probably no more interested in us than I am in the lazy buzzing of a dragonfly while I’m out walking.
Once the adrenaline has left our systems and we’re able to think about the situation logically, we realize how lucky we were. Not to survive, because we were never in any real danger, but to have seen one of the black bears in Yosemite in its natural environment. The big, beautiful creatures are not so uncommon around camp grounds, but to see one so far from civilization going about its business was a truly unforgettable experience.
And not just because I’m out a perfectly good pair of underpants.
And Heather’s first words after we’d reached safety?
“Dammit! We didn’t even get a picture of it”.