I’ve had four encounters with black bears — two of them fleeting, one menacing, and one too close for comfort.
Given my tendency to hike the high Sierra every opportunity I get, you might assume the menacing encounter was while I was on foot.
Instead I was on a racing bicycle steadily making my way up the shoulder of Highway 50 as it neared Spooner Summit. It was 31 years ago.
I was bicycling with Gary Pogue who was a good 100 feet ahead of me. I heard him yell “bear” and then saw him point into the nearby brush. About then two cubs came into view and turned toward me. Right behind them was their mother who — when she saw me — looked none too pleased.
The cubs stopped moving but mom kept advancing. I had few options. Cars were whizzing by me on my left just within a few feet traveling at more than 60 mph. On my right just off the paved shoulder was scree and brushes that weren’t exactly conducive to a quick turnaround.
I started to come to a stop as the bear was now 40 feet away. I figured my best chance was dismounting quickly and using the bicycle to deter the bear much like I did with an aggressive wild burro I had encountered two years earlier while cycling in Wildrose Canyon in Death Valley. I really didn’t believe it was going to turn out well.
Just then, however, a trucker coming up from behind me laid on his horn startling the bear. Seconds later, she turned around, gathered her cubs and doubled back the way she came.
The closest encounter I’ve had with a bear was literally six feet away, if that.
Bear saunters by just
six feet away from me
Three years ago I had pulled up to the trailhead south of Mammoth Lakes for a hike to Ducks Pass at 10,800 feet.
I had started to get my backpack and hiking gear from the back of my vehicle when out of the corner of my eye I saw a black bear coming around the corner of a car 30 feet away. It nudged a bear-proof trash can and then started strolling down the gravel parking lot toward me. By then I had my backpack on my back and was acutely aware I had food in it.
I figured I did not want to make any sudden moves. Meanwhile, the bear kept coming toward me. Eventually he just sauntered by and then took off at a causal pace toward the trees where I would be heading to in a few minutes.
Rest assured I did not try to whip out my smartphone to take a photo as I didn’t think that would be smart if I had to somehow try to elude the bear.
Bear going at full
gallop 30 feet away
To be honest I got over any tendency to elevate getting a picture above getting the hell out of a bear encounter safely during a heart-stopping close encounter two years prior on a hike to Mono Pass at 10,599 feet in Yosemite.
I was on a solo hike heading up the trail when I heard a lot of rustling noises. I turned around and saw a doe running like the wind perhaps 30 feet away at somewhat of an angle. Then about six or so seconds later a large buck followed in hot pursuit. Instead of putting one and one together I reached for my smartphone thinking if I got lucky I could record a video of a third deer running by.
That’s when I saw the sight that took my breath away. A large black bear in full gallop was chasing down dinner. I stood there frozen with the phone stopped at chest level.
I was stunned at how fast the bear was hauling as well as its size.
As the bear came into and went out of sight in a flash, all I could think of was how lucky I was no one else was hiking with me. If they had been I probably would have shouted out for them to look at the deer — or if my reflexes were real slow — to look out for the bear. Had that happened I would have committed a cardinal sin when it comes to bear safety — don’t startle bears.
The bear could easily have been on me in seconds.
My other Yosemite bear encounter was returning from hiking up to the top of El Capitan from the high country. It too was chasing several deer across a path ahead of me. The bear, however, was easily 100 feet away.
My philosophy — if you can call it that — regarding animals in the wild is simple. I’m on their turf. I also need to respect them. If something happens it clearly is my fault for being there as they are doing only what comes natural.
I’m not wandering around Disneyland. I’m hiking in the wilderness.
I do take bear bells with me in bear country but I haven’t started carrying bear repellant as some hikers do.
Bobcat crossing hiking
path on Mt. Diablo
I’ve encountered other animals as well.
Among them was a herd of wild mustangs while riding with a group of cyclists heading out of Virginia via the “truck route” toward Carson City. The lead cyclist had to stop as the 20 or so mustangs moving at somewhat of a gallop crossed the road.
I’ve had a stare down of sorts headed up to Monitor Pass at 8,314 feet east of Markleeville with one of the biggest range steers I’ve ever seen straddling the center lane of Highway 88. He was none too pleased about being startled by two other cyclists who were with me that had passed him by seconds earlier.
Birds have even taken their best shots at me.
I literally was dive bombed repeatedly by several crows or ravens in a wooded area above Death Valley coming back from Wildrose Peak at 8,232 feet. It was surreal, to say the least, and it really had me on edge thanks to Alfred Hitchcock and “The Birds”. After taking a dozen or so dives at me including one where it felt as if they had touched the brim of my hiking hat, they stopped. Later talking with a ranger he figured I must have walked through their nesting grounds.
Jogging along a highway in Death Valley in early mornings I’ve crossed the paths of roadrunners and coyotes.
I’ve hiked within a dozen feet of deer — and got them in videos or pictures — numerous times including in the Panamint Range above Death Valley.
I can even count being lucky enough to see a bobcat on Mt. Diablo while hiking with an acquaintance from Georgia who thought it was a mountain lion.
Believe me, it was no mountain lion.
I’ve seen one in all of my hiking and that was more than enough.
prowl Death Valley
I happened to have someone from North Dakota with me on a trip to Death Valley. I had wanted to hike Nemo Canyon but because his feet were in the mood for a shorter hike, I decided we should try a nearby unmanned canyon that was about two-thirds the length of the topography map.
We were a mile into the canyon when I looked up and noticed a mountain lion on the edge of the wall above us.
As we continued walking for a minute or so, it shadowed us from above. The distance that he was above us was 80 feet or so. Given I had no idea whether the canyon got deeper or shallower ahead of us or whether an 80-foot leap was doable for a mountain lion, we quietly turned around and headed back to the car. We glanced back occasionally and finally the mountain lion retreated from the edge.
Three other times I was in the vicinity of a mountain lion in Death Valley.
The first time was in a remote canyon dubbed Gray Canyon in the valley. I typically head cross country over alluvial fans looking for a mouth of a canyon to explore. Given I’m by myself I’ll hike until I encounter a dry fall that I can’t safety bypass scrambling.
The canyon wasn’t stunning as the walls were never higher than 15 feet although there were numerous side canyons. But it met my criteria of being completely devoid of people and reachable in a round trip day hiking over an alluvial fan from parking along Scott Castle’s Road.
A few days later when a ranger asked where I had been hiking on my trip I mentioned Gray Canyon. He shared information I wish he hadn’t. The previous day two park naturalists were in a neighboring canyon and saw evidence of mountain lion activity.
The second “vicinity” encounter was in canyon in the southern valley where I wanted to hike until I got to the base of what I was told was a spectacular 40 foot dry fall.
When I got there I started taking photos like there was no tomorrow until I got near a corner of the area below the dry fall where there was a distinct odor. I looked around and there was the fairly fresh carcass of a big horn sheep with everything in its belly region gone. I did not linger. Although the mountain lion could have forced the big horn to go over the edge of the dry fall and then made his was down for dinner, there were quite a few areas along the canyon I came up to harbor a mountain lion.
Fresh mountain lion tracks
high-tailing it back to car
The hairiest for being in the “vicinity” of a mountain lion happened five years ago on my way to Townes Peak at 7,129 feet in Death Valley.
It was early December and it had snowed the previous night.
I was hiking across a ridge with nothing to slow the 30 mph wind down.
It was cold. How cold was it? If you know my preference to wear shorts as much as I can including hiking in the winter besides my hiking shorts I was wearing thermals, bicycling leg tights and snow pants. I had three layers on my upper body and I was still cold.
For some reason I looked down. There in the snow that had fallen early that morning were fresh mountain lion tracks.
To the west of the flat plateau I stood on was a drop off of a couple hundred feet. I could not see what was to the east but based on topography maps within a quarter mile there was a sharp drop off as well. That meant one of only two things. There was likely a mountain lion somewhere in the vicinity of where I was heading or where I came from that including trying to precariously make my way through a boulder/rock field was over almost a half a mile.
Given there was a relatively high probability of a mountain lion among the rocks ahead of me or behind me and it was nearing 1 p.m., I decide to abort and head back to the car to avoid worrying about an encounter after sunset.
To contact Dennis Wyatt, email email@example.com.