We had hiked up the Bridal Veil Falls Trail the previous late afternoon. My friend Mel and I were both experienced campers and hikers and we'd spent our first day on Yosemite Valley's floor, getting our land legs back again after a three and a half hour drive, a tire change and the loading and unloading of my '74 Plymouth Duster at the start and end of our journey.
After getting some necessary victuals at the General Store, placing our gear on our packs, lashing my tent, sleeping bag and all my "necessary" gear that wouldn't fit in my frameless day pack, we set off at a brisk pace up the Bridal Veil Falls Trail to our camping location in the High Country of Little Yosemite Valley, two thousand feet higher than Big Yosemite Valley, where the main entrance was and where most of the day campers bring their little'uns for their first forays into nature.
We left at about two ‘o’clock in the afternoon. We'd been on the Valley floor for about two hours. Before that, we'd been up all night working on the huge C-5A Galaxy and C-141 A/B cargo planes that our positions as Avionics Maintenance Technicians demanded. We'd gotten off work at about six thirty, went to the chow hall, wolfed down substantial breakfasts, then went back to our barracks room (it's more like a dorm room in college) and started packing. It was Monday Morning and the beginning of our weekend.
This means, we'd already been up for something close to eighteen hours by the time we got to Yosemite. Our climb up the trail, though beautiful with clear sunny skies, mist from the falls and plenty of wide open views, was fairly brisk. Neither Mel nor I wanted to be on the trail in the evening, or worse, after dark. Even with flashlights, hiking up the mountainous switchbacks of granite, covered with moss, mist and slippery smooth edges was not something we relished.
We made it to our location at Little Yosemite Valley about an hour before sunset. By now, Big Yosemite Valley was already swathed in deep shadow that might as well be called night. We had the dying twilight of evening to set up our tents, unroll our sleeping bags inside them, hang our foodstuffs and check out the little "lake" where a few very optimistic older men were tossing out lines in the hopes of catching something.
That night was a time of sharing where we were from, hearing where others called home, and tales of previous camping expeditions amongst the fourteen or so other people aside from us that were calling this location shelter for the night. Sharing our meager rations wasn't really an option, but the extra stores of cookies, milk, and juice and candy bars were pretty common amongst the campers. It seems, no matter how nature oriented these hardy High Country campers were, they all had, like us, succumbed to the overpriced temptations of jelly rolls, Danishes, doughnuts, Butterfingers, Mars, Hershey's Milk Chocolate and Nutter Butter Peanut Butter Bars or Fig Newtons from the General Store down below.
In the High Country, you are likely to meet bears, elk, sometimes even big Pronghorn Sheep (that's really rare) and plenty of birds, squirrels and other rodents. So the trash cans have big heavy lids on them that you have to unlatch just to open. The latches are heavy and require not only opposable thumbs to open, but also the ability to comprehend pushing in while pulling up, then out. Not easy to do and impossible to do one handed.
Another thing is that you need to hang your food -- all of it. It doesn't matter if you have a locking cooler or not. No-one wants to be awakened to the sounds of a bear ripping your tent apart during their efforts to get inside your cooler. Yes, they can smell that well. And if you happen to be in the tent at the time? Say your prayers quickly, you're not likely to last very long.
Just before dark, while we were gathering up firewood to contribute to the group fire, Mel and I heard a lot of yelling, pan banging, whistles and screams. This was done only when bears were trying to enter camp. Forget that whole "play dead" bullshit you hear in the movies, alright? The best advice is to group together and make a lot of noise, toss rocks and carry heavy sticks.
I know it sounds crazy at first, because it challenges the notion that you grew up hearing. Let me break it down for you. Animals do not prefer to fight if they can run. Even predatory animals pick their prey as a matter of general safety. A Bear is not going to tangle with a wolverine if there's a nice tasty honey comb in a log nearby. They can deal with plenty of bee stings, but the bite of a wolverine, or the prongs of a stag's antlers can deal out some ultimately fatal injuries.
So, instead of ten people all falling down and playing opossum, the wisdom (and it is wise when you consider it) is that making lots of noise, aggressive sounds and tossing the occasional rock at a bear will make it reconsider the value of a romp through camp for your Snicker's bar versus finding some nice mountain Morels. By the time Mel and I got back to camp, the bear, a young one, was already well scampered away. Dang! (Really? Dang?) I missed my first chance to see a bear in the "wild" as it were.
The night after we all turned in was uneventful and I slept well. I should have, by then Mel and I had both been up for over thirty hours, climbed a five mile mountain trail, packed and unpacked a car, changed a tire and drove for three and a half hours, blasting the music the whole way. Not up the trail, just in the car. So to say I slept deeply would be a mild understatement.
I awoke before dawn broke. I had had about five hours sleep, which is something I usually do anyway. The day was just starting to light from blue-black to that gray pre-dawn color that says the sun is on its way. Mel crawled out of his tent about ten minutes later. I had already gone to the middens (aka: latrine) and then washed my face from the water in the lake. I was now getting my coffeepot ready.
Dang! I had everything I needed; except enough wood for the campfire. The stuff we'd collected the night before went to the "community" fire while we swapped tales, travels and destinations. So I had to go get some more. No biggie, I thought. Shouldn't be but a few minutes.
About twenty minutes later, I had a sum total of four twig sized pieces of kindling and one small branch that might burn a whole three or four minutes. In this area of Yosemite, you weren't allowed to break branches off live trees, only dead wood and deadfall. All the dead trees that were still standing had had their branches within reach picked clean.
Now, almost thirty minutes from my departure of the camp, I had gone something like two or three football fields’ distance away from camp, along the most unused trails I could find. I had no more wood than my initial twenty minutes provided and I was losing hope of having that vital cup of coffee that has been a staple of my morning camping routine since I was eight. Dang!
Then I saw it. A dead Lodge Pole Pine. It must have towered at least eighty feet above me, even though the top was just a stump about the thickness of a telephone pole up there. It was bleached a nearly bone white (with shades of gray) and had died many years ago. It was fair game.
Except that the lowest useable branches were a good fifteen feet over my head, or about twenty feet up into the tree. Hah! No worries, I thought. I dropped my fire starter wood and walked around the base of the tree, looking for promising ascension points. After a couple minutes I decided on a course and began shinnying up the bare bole of the tree, using my toe ends to grip the broken stubs of already used for firewood branch nubs and gripping the tree with my hands, grabbing any available point to pull myself up higher.
The whole time, I'm thinking, "This probably isn't my best idea." But, damnit! I needed my coffee! So I climbed like a little Capuchin, hauling myself up rapidly along the barest of hand and toe holds to the waiting branches that said, "Firewood." A few minutes later, I was standing on a branch that would, even dead for years, hold my weight easily six feet away from the trunk of the tree.
I figured I needed a decent amount of wood, so I climbed up four or five branches above the first available one. After all, it would be easier to climb down to the last branch if they were still there. By now, I am probably forty feet above the ground. I begin testing the branches above me with my hands. I grab hold and shake the branch above me vigorously. I do it rhythmically to start the branch swaying up and down. Within a few moments my effort is rewarded with a satisfying -- CRACK! -- as the branch snapped off, caroming down just past my head to the ground below. That's about fifteen minutes, I figure.
I work my way around this level of the tree, steadily breaking the branches above my head by this shaking method, until I have to climb down to the next level. Once there, I begin to repeat my efforts. I had to climb back up once and stomp on the branch -- until I really thought about how stupid that was. I had this image of Wiley Coyote snapping off a branch on the wrong side of where he was standing and that wide-eyed stare that said, "Oh Shit!" and I climbed back down to shake with my hands.
I was on the next to last set of branches. I had made my way back down to about twenty-five feet above the ground. I figured, I had enough wood for this morning and some for tonight too. I also realized I probably broke off more than I could carry in one trip. So it was time to come down.
I always carry my camera with me – except this time. I knew I'd be collecting wood and the chances of damaging my camera outweighed the potential opportunity to snap a photo of the views. I began to make my descent down the tree. Climbing down is a lot harder than climbing up for two reasons. The first reason is that it's harder to see the toeholds and you're holding yourself up and trying to lower yourself down onto something that's hard to see. The other reason is that you're a lot more tired going down than coming up.
So I took my time. I'd been gone for probably an hour by now. As I lowered myself down to the last branches before having to shinny against the bole of the tree, I heard someone coming down the trail. I'm thinking, "Oh man, they're going to skive off with my wood!" So I concentrated on getting down a little quicker.
That was when I looked around one last time before climbing down. It really was an awesome view from up there. And that's when I saw that it wasn't someone coming down the trail. It was some thing.
It was a large black bear headed straight for me. She grunted and made straight for the base of the tree and looked up at me. All I could think at the time was, "Fuck! And I don't have my camera!" I know, stupid, but that's me at twenty-three. Then she reached up on her hind legs and tried to climb the tree. That was when I thought, "Fuck! I hope she can't get me!"
Mind you, I really didn't think I was in any greater danger than being treed for a while longer. With no branches and no bark to get her claws into, there was little chance of her being able to shinny up the twenty or so feet to the first branches. The truth turns out that she probably could have easily gotten me if she really wanted. I didn't know that at the time. So I felt safe enough to enjoy my first sighting of a real honest-to-goodness-bear in the wild.
Her two cubs came out of the bushes after she came back down on all fours and now I was a bit worried. It seems that her intention was to make sure I stayed up in the tree while her cubs were out and about. It worked. Not that I was about to go down and play Mr. Ranger with her, by any stretch.
It was about twenty more minutes later before she scampered off, calling her cubs and running off out of sight into the woods. Now I know bears are pretty smart, so I waited another ten minutes by my watch just to be on the safe side. Then I climbed back down, which took me about another five minutes.
I gathered up the largest branches, laid the smaller ones on top, then held the larger branch ends between my armpits and curled my arms around them and dragged about three hours worth of dead firewood back to camp. In all I had been gone close to two hours and my friend Mel, upon seeing me smiled and said, "I was wondering what you were doing. I thought you were out taking pictures until I saw your camera bag inside your tent."
He helped me with the wood and said, "Hey, you missed all the excitement here. A momma bear and her cubs came by and we had to chase them away, just like last night. They were really cool."
I laughed and said, "Yeah, I think I saw them. I got this wood from climbing up a dead tree. I'd have been back about half an hour ago except I had to wait for them to go away. They were right under my tree for about twenty minutes."
Mel, always the best friend, said, "Damn! Too bad you left your camera, that would have made some great photos later."
I nodded and said; "I thought the same thing when I saw them." We both laughed as we broke up the wood and got coffee ready. It was only eight ‘o’clock by then. I'd only been up about three hours and I'd already had a pretty full day. We talked about our planned hike up to Half Dome's peak and having lunch up there as we had fresh coffee.
Mel and I made breakfast from the eggs, milk and pancake mix we'd brought along. We sat there, scooping up eggs, bacon and pancakes into our hungry mouths and drinking freshly brewed coffee. By this time, there were still about ten others in the camp. The more serious High Country campers had already been up, eaten and gone by the time I came back. The others still there cast envious glances at our big breakfast, most of them pulling out sandwiches from baggies made probably two or three days ago.
You gotta carry your stuff in -- and most of your trash back out. I have always hiked with my gear and about three to five days worth of food on any camping trip, which would include a cooler whenever possible for milk, eggs and other things like lunch meats, mayonnaise and mustard to bring with me. My pack is usually packed with four or five cans of soup, a couple of cans of beans, chili and sometimes a few packages of macaroni and cheese.
I figure it like this. If I can carry about fifty pounds of provisions with me, including my tent, sleeping bag, three spare clothing changes and the rest in food, I'm going to camp in style compared to most of my fellow adventurers. I always bring my coffeepot, a can opener, a pot for boiling water, a skillet for frying and a grill for cooking hamburgers, hotdogs and putting the coffeepot on over a fire. You'd be amazed at what I can stuff in a daypack. Or tie onto the outside.
And so ends this chapter in my “Adventures In Yosemite.” More is sure to come.