Scared to Death... Almost

Julian Tapia

Along the Pacific Crest Trail, somewhere in Northern California, I find myself face to face with a distressed mama bear threatening me to protect her cub.

 

Let me back up. I have just re-supplied for another five day stretch on my thru-hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. Things are good; it’s summertime, and perfect California weather gives way to colors that instill a warm and fuzzy feeling. The views are big, the streams are cold, and the alpine lakes are inviting.

I have about four hours of daylight left and I’m approaching Lassen National Volcanic Reserve. LNVR is an area with active hydrothermal features (hot mud puddles) and a  massive protected bear population. The PCT runs a little over 20 miles through the park and anyone who plans to camp within the borders must use a bear canister to store food. I don’t want to carry a bear canister, so the plan is to camp at the edge of the National Park and shoot for a big mile day all the way through the protected area. At this point in my hike, I am capable of hiking twenty-mile days. It’s my job. I wake up, eat, walk, poop, and walk some more.

As I approach the border of the NP the sun is setting behind the mountains. I quickly claim a camp spot, kick away any protruding rocks and sticks that might stab into my back all night, and start dinner. 

As my chicken ramen starts to boil and I roll out my sleeping bag I am startled by a sharp grunt. My eyes have to adjust to the now darkening sky. Twenty yards away is a large blond bear standing on her hind legs curiously looking at me. I am caught in awe before I realize that she has a little black cub standing behind her.  Quickly I spring into action. Having dealt with bears before on this trip I am used to the ensuing charade.

I stand up, get big, make noise, and stand my ground. Usually, this sends a black bear running in the other direction, leaving me feeling like Grizzly Adams as I pat myself on the back for being so brave. Not this time. This time I was dealing with a mama bear. A bear who will go to any lengths to protect her cub. Its now dark and the mama bear has not fled, instead of becoming more vocal with me. After a few grunts from her, I try again. This time I try yelling even louder and waving my hands more frantically. She doesn’t respond and decides to charge me. She runs about fifteen feet and stops. This is a warning. She wants me to know that the cub is hers and willing to fight.

 

Things got real. I am alone, it’s dark, my camp is set up, and I’m staring down a 500-pound mama bear. Scared, I now think that I’m going to be mutilated. Experts tell you to fight back if you’re being mauled; black bears don’t like it when you fight back. The thing is, I don’t want to fight this bear. She’s huge and will probably destroy me and I’m in the middle of nowhere. No one can hear me yell and I have no idea when the next hiker will pass. I have to make a decision. Not turning my back on the bear I quickly start gathering my things. I’m making as much intimidating noise as I can with every movement I make. She backs away with her cub into the bush. I take this opportunity to finish shoving things in my pack including slamming my hot ramen noodles into a side pouch, and I try and locate my headlamp. Where is my headlamp!?  Why can’t I ever find my headlamp when it’s needed? Finally, find the headlamp, switch it on,  slam my trekking poles together to make more noise, and start night hiking away from mama bear. Back on the trail I move quickly and cautiously. My voice cracks while talking out loud to warn any other animals that I’m coming down the trail. Mainly I’m talking to soothe myself. After a few miles of night hiking, I decided to pull over and again set up my camp. I eat my cold ramen noodles, zip my tent closed, and realize I need a new pair of hiking shorts.

 

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Lake Aloha: The lakes are the perfect temperature in the summer for swimming in Northern California.

 

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Every morning and every evening there is a magical event that most people miss. Sunrises and sunsets are free.