Tag Archives: Bears

Managing in the Mountains

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I love these mountains in Taos County, NM.

Most fulltime rubber tramps know that going up in elevation is the key to cool comfort in the heat of the summer. For every rise of 1,000 feet in altitude, the temperature falls about 3.6 degrees.  If, like me, you grew up a flatlander, you may not know the tricks to staying happy above sea level. You want to go up the mountain, but you may be a bit cautious about doing so. After spending the better part of the last five summers above 6,000 feet, I know a thing or two about mountain living, at least during the spring and summer months. Today I’ll share my tips for managing in the mountains.

#1 Know that altitude sickness is a real possibility. I’ve been very fortunate; I’ve never suffered one bit of altitude sickness, but some people get it bad.

According to a comprehensive Health Communities article about altitude sickness remedies,

acute mountain sickness (AMS), is the most common type of altitude sickness. It can occur at elevations as low as 5,000 feet, where it is likely to last only a day or so, but is more common above 8,000 feet. At elevations over 10,000 feet, three out of four people will have symptoms.

The article lists these symptoms of altitude sickness:

  • Increased rate of breathing
  • Headache
  • Lethargy
  • Fatigue and insomnia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dizziness and nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Shortness of breath and rapid heartbeat accompanying physical exertion
  • Impaired thinking.

The article also lists some precautions to you can take to acclimate to higher elevations.

  • Acclimatize and take it easy. Spend your first day at high altitudes relaxing…
  • Do not smoke and avoid drinking alcohol. Smoking and alcohol consumption increase the risk of dehydration and decrease respiration rate during sleep…
  • Drink extra water. Drink as much as you can to remain properly hydrated, at least three to four quarts. Your urine should be clear and copious…
  • Eat foods that are high in carbohydrates.
  • Get headache relief. Acetaminophen or an NSAID (such as ibuprofen) can be taken for headache.
  • Don’t go up until symptoms go down. If you start showing symptoms of moderate altitude sickness, don’t go any higher until they decrease—or descend a few hundred feet to a lower altitude.

I suggest you read this entire article and familiarize yourself with the symptoms of and remedies for altitude sickness before you start your ascent.

#2 In the mountains, it stays colder later in the year and gets colder sooner. Early May in Flagstaff brought a storm with a predicted high of 43 degrees and a chance for two inches of snow. The Man and I headed out before the storm to avoid the inclement weather, but we experienced chilly nights and mornings in the California Sierras until well into June. Memorial Day weekend gave us a foggy Saturday where temperatures in the Mercantile never climbed above 42 degrees. If you’re too hot in the flatlands in spring and decide to move on up, either find a camp in the middle elevations or be prepared for chilly morning and nights

Fall may come to the mountains before you expect it. It was never long after Labor Day on the mountain where I worked that I found myself sleeping under my down comforter and wearing a jacket the first few hours of every morning. You may want a decrease in elevation before the official beginning of autumn.

#3 The weather can change quickly in the mountains, so be prepared with appropriate gear. If you store your winter gear away from your rig, but sure to pack a warm hat, warm socks, and decent jacket before you go up the mountain, even in the heart of summer. Take sturdy shoes to protect your feet if the weather turns cold and/or wet. If you have room, it’s not a bad idea to pack your Mr. Buddy heater too.

At the Rio Grande Gorge outside of Taos, NM (elevation 6, 969 feet) I’ve literally seen the weather change from sunny and hot to cloudy with lightning and thunder to rain and hail to rainbows and sunshine, all accompanied by a temperature drop of 20 degrees in less than an hour. Of course, these are not usual weather conditions, but proof that such changes can happen fast.

I seldom got my speedometer above 25 mph on this curvy California mountain road.

#4 Get yourself a good paper map. Don’t depend on GPS or your vehicle’s navigation system which can be entirely useless in remote, high elevation locations. If you get your directions online, be sure you can access then if you lose phone service. Your best bet is mapping out your route on your paper map before heading up.

#5 You might not have cell phone service either. Be prepared to live without cell phone service. Make all your calls and send texts before you start heading up the mountain. Warn anyone who might worry about you that you might not have cell phone service for a while.

#6 If you’re not accustomed to driving on winding, curving, twisting, mountain roads, plan to drive slowly. It takes a lot longer to drive a mountain mile than it takes to drive a mile on a flat stretch of road. The first summer I worked as a camp host, I picked up my mail 25 miles from the campground where I lived. Google Maps said it would take me 45 minutes to drive there, but it took me at least an hour.

This road outside Santa Fe, NM takes folks up up up the mountain.

#7 If you look in your review mirror and see a line of cars and trucks behind you, pull off in the next turn out and let the other vehicles pass. Folks accustomed to driving in the mountains may be able to drive on those roads faster than you can. That’s ok, but save the people behind you lots of frustration by letting them leave you in the dust.

#8 Be aware of bears. While you don’t want to succumb to bearanoia, if you’re boondocking in areas bears are known to frequent, you should take precautions so you don’t attract them to your camp.

In the book Bear Aware, author Bill Schneider offers an entire chapter detailing camping in bear country. The most important tip is to check potential campsites for signs of bears before you set up camp.

If you can see fresh sign [of bears] move on to another site with no signs of bear activity.

The second most important tip is to separate your sleeping and cooking areas.

The sleeping area and the cooking area must be separated by at least 100 yards.

Also, be prepared to “hang everything that has any food smell” or store those items in bear canisters.

If you’re unsure if the area where you want to boondock has issues with bears, visit the local ranger station to find out about bear activity before you choose your camping spot.

#9 Watch out for other mountain critters too.  You probably won’t see a mountain lion, but be prepared to react appropriately if you do. The Mountain Lion Foundation says to do the following if you meet a mountain lion:

  • Seem as large as possible.
  • Make noise.
  • Act defiant, not afraid.
  • Slowly create distance.
  • Protect yourself.

Again, I recommend you read the entire article before you need the information.

Where I worked in the mountains, we were more likely to see a timber rattler than a bear. To prevent a nasty bite (and a trip to an emergency room that may be more than an hour away), watch where you put your hands and feet. Don’t put any body part in a crack or crevice or under anything without first visually inspecting the area. If you see any snake, give it a wide berth so it can escape without feeling like it has to go on the defensive. For more information on how to avoid a snakebite or what to do if a rattlesnake does strike you, see this article from Denver Health.

The Man and I saw these wild horses just off the highway in Colorado at about 8,000 feet.

The part of the National Forest where I worked is open range, so people driving there have to watch for half wild mountain cows. I don’t know how common open range is in other mountain locations, but city folks are often quite surprised when they see cows on the road on their way up the mountain. If you see cows on a mountain road you’re driving on, slow down and give them plenty of room; sometimes cows bolt when they get nervous. The same holds true for wild horses, deer, elk, and moose, so be alert for large animals hanging out along mountain roads.

#10 Stock up on food, supplies, and fuel for your rig before you head up the mountain. Many mountain towns are secluded, and may not have the supplies you need. On the mountain where I worked, there was no diesel, none of the special fuel tiny backpacking stoves require, and no fresh vegetables for nearly 40 miles. If you are able to find what you’re looking for, you are going to pay a premium for items that had to be trucked up thousands of feet. In mountain towns, I’ve paid too much for ice ($4 for a seven pound bag), one-pound propane canisters ($6.95 for what costs under $4 bucks at most any Wal-Mart), and water ($3-$4 a gallon). You’re better off getting everything you need while you’re still in civilization.

There’s no way to imagine or prepare for every situation one might find oneself in while at a high altitude. In life we run into situations that could lead to harm, whether we’re in the city or the wilderness. I hope these tips help you plan for your health and safety when you leave the flatlands and venture up to higher elevations.

Remember, Blaize Sun can’t prepare you for or protect you from every danger you might encounter in the mountains. You are responsible for our own self. Research the problems you might encounter in the area you plan to camp in before you get there. If applicable, call the Forest Service ranger station responsible for the place you want to camp and ask about hazards in the area. Think before you act. If something you’re about to do seems potentially dangerous, don’t do it!

I took the photos in this post.

How to Stay Safe and Healthy in the Forest

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  Let’s face it: a lot of us boondockers are city kids who’ve found ourselves spending a lot of time in the woods now that we’re living in our vans (or motorhomes or truck campers or cars or whatever). The forest can be a worrisome place for folks who didn’t camp much during our formative years. While I don’t sit around worrying about treachery at every turn, I do believe in taking precautions to keep myself and my belongings safe. Sometimes it’s easy to let our guard down when we’re surrounded by the beauty of nature, but vigilance is important, especially for folks out on their own.

Whether you’re camping in a tent or a motorhome or something in-between, you want to stay safe and healthy during your time in the forest. These tips can help you if you’re spending just a weekend out in the trees or moving from forest to forest while living nomadically.

#1 Don’t leave your belongings lying around. You may be honest, but your neighbors may not be. Whether you’re in a campground or boondocking in the wilderness, it’s a good idea to put valuables away when you leave your camp. If you’d be sad if an item were stolen or if you can’t afford to replace it, lock it up before you go.

If I’m camping somewhere for more than one night, I’ll often set up a tent to use as my storage shed. If I leave camp, I can easily stow my stove, propane tank, and tables in the tent. It’s quicker than packing everything into the van, and while it won’t stop a determined thief, it will slow down someone who can’t resist easy pickings.

#2 Don’t open your door to strangers. Just because you’re out of the city doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be cautious about who you let into your living space. If a stranger knocks, talk through a window. While I believe most people in the world are good at heart, don’t let a bad apple into your rig by mistake.

#3 Make sure your campfire is dead out when you don’t want to supervise it anymore. Going on a hike? The fire needs to be dead out. Going to bed? The fire needs to be dead out.

If you set the forest on fire, your safety is at stake too. If you’re away from your campsite or asleep when your campfire starts a wildfire, your property and life will be in danger.

The Forest Service gives these tips for making sure your campfire is completely out:

  • First, drown the campfire with water!
  • Next, mix the ashes and embers with soil.
  • Stir the embers after they are covered with water and make sure that everything is wet.
  • Feel the coals, embers, and any partially-burned wood with your hands. Everything (including the rock fire ring) should be cool to the touch. Feel under the rocks to make sure [there are] no embers underneath.
  • When you think you are done, take an extra minute and add more water.
  • Finally, check the entire campsite for possible sparks or embers, because it only takes one to start a forest fire.
  • Remember…if it is too hot to touch, it is too hot to leave.

#4 Keep your pet leashed and under your control or in your rig. If coyotes are in the area, small dogs and cats are at risk of being snatched. If you’re in bear country, even a large dog is no match for an adult Ursus americanus (black bear), much less an Ursus arctos (grizzly bear). Dogs antagonize bears and bears attack dogs. Protect your dog by not letting it run loose.

#5 Speaking of bears, don’t attract them with food and garbage left around your campsite. Keep a clean camp. Food and garbage lying around can attract not just bears, but other critters like flies, rodents, raccoons, and ravens. Of course, you don’t want to tangle with bears, but even smaller animals can create a huge mess by dragging food and garbage all over your campsite. Flies carry disease, and no one wants to get sick while they’re supposed to be enjoying trees and birdsong.

If you’re in a campground, put trash in garbage cans or dumpsters right away. Be sure you close garbage containers securely. If you’re boondocking in a place with no trash containers, tie garbage bags and stow them securely in your rig until you can pack out what you’ve packed in.

If bears are a problem where you’re camping, store all food and trash in bear boxes if provided or use your own bear canister.

#6 Beware of falling branches. It’s nice to park in a shady spot when the summer sun is beating down, but a falling branch can wreak havoc on your rig or tent. Look up before you pick your spot and notice any obviously dangerous tree limbs. Even if no limbs seem to be in danger of falling, remember that a high wind can send branches crashing to the ground with no warning.

A Forest Service website gives tips to keep you and your belongings safe from falling branches. Read all about it before you head off into the woods.

#7 Don’t pick up critters. The forest where I work seasonally posts warnings about plague and hanta virus. Picking up a sick animal greatly increases one’s chance of infection. In most wild places, wild animals won’t let humans get anywhere near them. If a cute little critter lets you pick it up, it’s probably not healthy. Don’t risk your well-being by picking up a creature that might be infectious.

#8 Watch out for snakes. While most snakes aren’t poisonous, you still don’t want to be bitten by one. Even a nonpoisonous snake bite may require medical attention. When a friend of mine  was bitten by a rattler in his own driveway, he ended up spending a couple of nights in the hospital. I certainly don’t have the time or money for anything like that.

For a comprehensive guide to keeping your space free of snakes, see the great article “How to Keep Snakes Away from Your Campsite” on the TakeOutdoors website.

#9 Wash your hands. E. coli doesn’t take a vacation just because you’ve left civilization. If, like me, you don’t have running water in your rig, you can set up a handwashing station in your camp. I use a seven gallon water jug with a spigot so I can control the flow of water and conserve the precious resource. At a bare minimum, wash up after performing elimination functions and before handling food.

#10 Know what creepy crawlies and flying critters you need to protect against. In certain areas, bug bites can be more than a temporary annoyance. Do the local mosquitoes carry the West Nile Virus? Are you at risk from getting Lyme disease from the ticks where you’re camping? Do you need to worry about brown recluse or black widow spiders? If the pests where you’re camping are poisonous or carry disease, you’re going to have to be extra vigilant about protecting yourself.

Ticks are creepy whether or not they carry Lyme disease.  If you find an attached tick during a full-body inspection, you’ll want to remove it immediately. Go to the Centers for Disease Control website to learn the steps for removing a tick. You may want to print out the steps to include in your first aid kit.

The Mobile RVing website has a good article on “How to Control Mosquitoes at Your Campsite.”

The Pronto Pest Management offers “10 Tips to Protect Yourself from Ticks While Camping.”

The USA Today website has an article with tips on “How to Keep Spiders from Campsites.”

There’s no way to imagine or prepare for every single danger one might encounter in the woods. In life we run into situations that could lead to harm, whether we’re in the city or the wilderness. I hope these tips help you plan for your health and safety when you leave the concrete and venture out into nature.

Remember, Blaize Sun can’t prepare you or protect you from every danger you might encounter in the forest. You are responsible for our own self. Research the problems you might encounter in the area you plan to camp in before you get there. Call the local BLM field office or Forest Service ranger station responsible for the place you want to camp and ask about hazards in the area. Think before you act. If something you’re about to do seems potentially dangerous, don’t do it!

I took the photos in this post.

Will We Be Safe?

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Many people ask me and my coworker if they will be safe on the trail. Mostly, people are afraid of bears. For some reason, my reassurance that they’re more likely to see a rattlesnake than a bear on the trail doesn’t seem to comfort most people.

animals, bears, coldMy kinder answer to worried visitors preparing to walk the trail is that 100 screaming children and 35 barking dogs have already been on the trail to scare the bears away. To visitors who arrive earlier in the day, before the multitudes of screaming children and barking dogs have scared the bears, I tell them the bears in the National Forest are hunted, which makes them timid and wary of people. While some visitors are disappointed by the slim chance of seeing a bear, most are relieved.

Some people seem to want to feel as if they are in danger. Maybe they are otherwise lacking excitement in their lives. When the mountain was nearly deserted due to the nearby fire, a group of Germans arrived at the trail. In addition to demanding the hosts at the campground across from the trail tell them when the electricity where they were staying would be back on (never mind that the campground where they were standing never has electricity), they also wanted to know if the animals were angry. Despite the camp hosts’ assurance that the visitors would more than likely be fine, one of the Germans clutched a medium size Maglite to use as a weapon in defense against a potentially angry animal.

The weirdest safety conversation all season was one I overheard my coworker have with the driver of a truck. Neither the driver nor any of his passengers walked the trail. The driver didn’t even park the truck; he just looped through the parking lot to turn around. Before he exited, he stopped to talk to my coworker.

He only had daughters, he said. These boys in the truck were his nephews, he said. He wanted to bring his daughters to see the trees, but would they be safe from mountain lions and bears?

My coworker assured the driver the girls would be safe. My coworker gave him the rap about the bears being timid and rarely spotted near the trail. (Occasionally my coworker sees a bear crossing the road in the early morning or sees the garbage from the parking lot’s trash cans strewn about bear style.) As for mountain lions, my coworker told the man, there’s never been a report of evidence of a mountain lion on or near the trail or parking lot.

After my coworker told the man the trail is safe even for females, the truck full of men drove away.

What was he talking about?  I asked my coworker. Does he really think bears and mountain lions will attack women but not men?

My coworker just shook his head. He didn’t understand the man any better than I had.

Maybe the driver thought the nephews could defend themselves against mountain lions and bears but the daughters could not. I don’t know. I was very confused, and I suspect this mystery will never be solved for me.

Photo courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/animals-bears-cold-grass-214057/.

Horse People

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When I went to bed, the campground was empty.

I woke up at 12:30am, and I really had to pee. I was so groggy as I pulled out my pee bucket and found the toilet paper, but I seemed to be hearing noises in the campground. The noises weren’t right outside the van, but were somewhere within the campground. Once back in bed, I tried to figure out what I was hearing.

I did not hear the sound of a vehicle’s engine, which kind of freaked me out. If there were people in the campground, wouldn’t they have driven in? Could I have slept through a vehicle pulling into the campground? Probably. As groggy as I was when I woke up, I’d probably been sleeping really hard. If the vehicle were on the other side of the campground, I definitely could have slept through its motor running.

But what were the other noises I was hearing? There was a metallic sound, somewhat like the metal lids on the metal trashcans being jostled, but not very loud. I wondered if a bear were getting into the metal trashcans, but I think a bear messing with trashcans would make a lot of noise. I don’t think bears are carefully quiet when helping themselves to midnight garbage snacks.

I could also hear the sounds of some kind of animal(s). I couldn’t decide what kind of animal it might be.

Are the cows back? I wondered. When I’d closed up the van around eight o’clock, there had been no cows in the meadow. I don’t think cows are the type of animal to go exploring in the middle of the night. Besides, I’ve been around cows at night (me in a house or my van, the cows in a pasture or a meadow); I know what kinds of noises cows make. The noises I heard did not sound like cows.

I was back to thinking maybe I heard a bear. I’ve never heard a bear, so maybe the noises I was hearing were bear noises. Maybe it was a very quiet bear, carefully lifting the lids on the trashcans and replacing them gently.

What didn’t make sense about bears eating from the trash cans is that the campground had not been very busy in the last few days. Any bears exploring those trashcans would not find much to eat.

Maybe I had dozed off. Maybe I was dreaming. But suddenly I was wide awake and I swore I’d heard a footstep. But whose footstep? Man or beast? Bear or cow?

I waited to hear a lid lifted from a trash can or one can crash into another. Nothing.

Nighttime in a remote, empty campground can be very disconcerting. It’s so quiet. It’s so dark. I never know who or what is out there.

One of my personal rules of being a camp host is that I’m in the van with the doors locked by nightfall, and I don’t get out of the fan at night to greet strangers. If someone I already talked to and checked-in while the sun was out knocks at at night, I ‘d get out of the van and help them if necessary. But I’m not going to deal with strangers in the dark, especially if my brain is addled with sleep.

I lay in the dark, still and quiet, straining to hear any and every little noise. Then I saw the beam of a flashlight once, twice.

I was pretty sure even a Ninja quiet bear would not have a flashlight, which meant I was dealing with humans. I didn’t know if I preferred humans to bears. What were those people doing out there at nearly one in the morning? Who were they? Did they just want to camp, or were they plotting evil schemes? And what were the weird noises?

Everything must have settled down, and I must have dozed off because the next time I turned on my tiny flashlight with the red beam, it was 2am and all was quiet.

I was awake with the first light of dawn. I dressed and prepared to face whatever havoc had been wreaked on the campground in the night.

The trashcans on my side of the campground had not been tampered with. So far, so good.

I saw a big pickup truck hauling a long livestock trailer on the other side of the campground. I saw bedding spread out on site #6 (but no tent). I saw a dog, and it saw me. I couldn’t tell if it was tethered in any way, but it didn’t run over to meet me, so I left well enough alone. I didn’t see any people moving around, but at the back of site #6, I saw six horses milling about.

Oh! Horses! That was the animal noise I’d heard in the night. I don’t have much horse experience, so I wasn’t surprised I hadn’t identified the sounds I’d heard as coming from horses.

I also figured the metallic sounds must have come from the trailer–the gate opening, the horses unloading.

I did my paperwork so I could turn it into my supervisor later in the day. I swept the restrooms. I cleaned fire rings. I plotted how I would demand payment from the horse people, no mater if they protested that they’d not spent the whole night. They’d woke me (and scared me, no less), and they were going to pay.

Between 6 and 6:30, I looked over to site #6 and saw some people moving around. When I finished with the fire ring I was cleaning, I grabbed my clipboard and walked over, fully intending to write a permit and collect payment.

I noticed a person walking among the horses. The person had long hair; I thought it was a small woman. I also noticed the dog I’d seen earlier was not leashed and was frolicking around the horses. I think I said, Good morning, followed by, The dog does need to be leashed in the National Forest.

The female person did not turn to look at me.

I said, Miss? Miss?

The female person turned to look at me. I saw she was not a small woman, but a young girl, maybe 11, maybe 12. She looked at me in utter confusion.

The dog, I pointed. A leash, I said.

She didn’t utter a word. She seemed to be frozen. She just looked at me with blank eyes of confusion. I think there was something besides confusion on her face, but I didn’t realize it at the time.

To Be Continued

Three Bears (Part 2)

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I’d recently seen my first California bear, and more bear activity was reported in the campground in the next few weeks.

Some young Forest Service employees staying in the campground while investigating predator (weasel) populations in the area left their ice chest outside their truck overnight, even after we (casually) discussed how bears have learned that ice chests harbor good eating. (I’ve been told that if an ice chest musts be left in a vehicle, it should be covered so bears can’t identify it. Bears have broken into cars to get to ice chests inside. The safest way to store food in bear country is probably in a bear canister.)

The Forest Service employees reported they’d heard bear-type noises in the night, so the woman left her tent to investigate. By the time she’d exited the tent, the bear had run away , and everything in the campsite looked fine. However, when they got to the area where they were performing their investigation and opened the ice chest to pull out the raw chicken used to entice the weasels, they found the cooler empty! The bear in the campground had eaten six chicken halves, then quietly closed the lid of the cooler and scurried off before the woman made it out of her tent.

One morning right before I was laid off, a couple reported a bear had been in the area near their tent the night before. They heard the bear trying to get into the (bear-proof) garbage cans, then rolling logs around. By that time, summer had moved into fall, and the bear must have been hungry in preparation for its long winter nap.

I guess I went to bed too early or slept too deeply or maybe just didn’t leave enticing food lying around, because I never heard any bear activity in the night.

I saw bears #2 and #3 on the same evening. I was driving the company truck to the parking lot to retrieve the self-pay envelopes from the iron ranger. I left before dark, but the sunlight was quickly fading as I twisted and turned through the mountain road curves.

Suddenly an animal was crossing the road not too far ahead of me. What was it? It was too large to be a coyote or a wolf. Was it a mountain lion? Then it was fully out in the road, and I realized it was a bear. A bear!

I’d stopped the truck in the middle of my lane (traffic wasn’t really a concern at that time of night at that time of year) and watched it amble across the road. A bear! I was hooting and hollering and pounding the steering wheel. A bear!

This bear was much better looking than the Tom Waits song bear. This bear was black, with shiny, smooth fur. It was smaller than the other bear and seemed to have more energy. I watched it cross to the other side of the highway and disappear into the trees.

I saw the last bear on my way back to the campground. It was almost dark by that time, and the bear was little more than two glowing eyes and the shadow of ears in the trees next to the highway.

I got my wish. I saw bears, from a distance and in relative safety. All of them, even the one with the shabby coat, were awesome to behold.

To read more of my stories about bears, go here: http://www.rubbertrampartist.com/2015/04/15/my-first-bear/, here: http://www.rubbertrampartist.com/2015/05/28/bearanoia/, and here: http://www.rubbertrampartist.com/2015/05/11/kids-and-bears/.

Image courtesy of https://pixabay.com/en/black-bear-portrait-head-face-1019046/.

Three Bears (Part 1)

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I spent part of the spring and the whole summer in the National Forest, but I didn’t see a bear until it was almost time to leave.

I don’t know why bears didn’t come into my campground. I don’t know where they were hiding, but I didn’t see any until September, after I moved back to the larger campground.

I didn’t see (or hear) the bear who scratched on the back of a toy hauler, but the campers told me all about it the next morning. They’d awoken around midnight to the sound of scratching on the their RV. At first the woman thought their dog was making the noise, but that proved to not be the case. When the man when out to investigate, he found a bear trying to open the back ramp door. The couple had cooked in the kitchen inside the RV, and the bear was probably enticed by the lingering food odors. The bear was smart enough to figure out which part of the trailer opened, but was not (yet) smart enough to figure out how to open the latches keeping the door closed. The man chased the bear away by shouting at it, which worked because the bears in the area are very timid and afraid of people.

The attempted bear invasion happened on Thursday night. I scared several campers over the weekend when I told them about the bear in the campground. As I told a group of (so very) young women, I wasn’t trying to scare them. I just wanted them to have as much information as possible to stay safe.

Here are my bear safety tips:

#1 Keep all food in bear-proof boxes or in a vehicle with locked doors and closed windows. No food in tents!

(If you’re back country camping in bear territory, you really need to keep you food in a bear canister.)

#2 If a bear is in your campsite, chase it away. Make yourself as big as possible. Yell at it. Make a lot of noise. Throw rocks at the bear if you have to. Let it know it’s in your territory.

#3 If the bear already has your food, don’t try to take the food back.

#4 Don’t run from a bear! The bear might chase you, and the bear is faster than you are.

Bears can run more than 60 kilometers [37 miles] an hour…more than twice as fast as we can run, and they can do it up hills, down hills or along a slope.

#5 Don’t think climbing a tree is going to save you.

Despite all their timidness on the ground, black bears seem to feel more courageous in trees. Bears sometimes kill each other by throwing their opponents out of trees. The bear below has the advantage because the bear above cannot easily hang on and face downward to fight back.

On my next day off, I planned to go to the post office/WiFi spot nine miles away to pick up my mail and catch up on my internet work. I planned to leave as soon as the sun was up so I could get an early start.

When I tried to start the van–disaster! The battery was dead.

I saw some campers had arrived during the night, but no one was stirring on the campsite. I decided to make the two minute walk to the highway and flag down a driver and ask for a jump start.

The highway was slow around 7am on that Tuesday. (By “slow” I mean no vehicles whatsoever.) I paced as I waited to hear an engine coming around the curve.

I glanced over to the north and saw movement, something headed in my direction.

My brain fills in the blanks of the world around it in strange ways. I swear, my  first fleeting thought was to wonder whay that man was wearing that crappy bear suit and walking on the side of the road.

Then I said out loud, Oh shit! That’s a bear!

The bear was brown in color (although in California, all wild bears are technically black bears, no matter the color of their fur). The bear looked like it was having a rough morning, a rough life. I know I’m anthropomorphizing here, but the bear looked tired and possibly hung over. The bear looked like a bear in a Tom Waits song (if Tom Waits sang about bears).

The bear’s coat looked shabby and dull, as if it had been worn too long or retrieved from a dusty attic, or maybe picked out of a free box on the outskirts of skid row. The bear was lumbering along slowly, on all fours, on the dege of the road, as if it just didn’t have the energy to climb the hill into the forest and pick its way through the trees.

Bears don’t like crashing through bushes any more than people do, and are often found on trails, especially early in the morning, near dusk and at night. – Linda Masterson in Living with Bears (pg 177)

The bear was about as big as a medium-size man, which added to my snap conclusion that I was seeing a worker from a down-and-out carnival too tired to remove his shoddy costume at the end of a long night.

But then I realized I was actually seeing a bear, a bear that was walking toward me, and I felt a little panicked.

The bear was maybe 100 yards from me. (I’m really bad at estimating distances, so I’m not sure.) It was moving toward me, albeit quite slowly.

I decided I did not want the bear to think I was trying to invade its territory, so I scurried across the road and into the large driveway leading into the campground. Once i crossed the street, I could no longer see the bear, but after only a few moments, I heard crashing through the trees. I walked back to the edge of the driveway and peered down the road. The bear was gone.

That was my first California bear sighting, but it wasn’t my last bear experience.


Images courtesy of https://pixabay.com/en/black-bear-walking-wildlife-nature-1901957/and https://pixabay.com/en/bear-cubs-animal-black-tree-branch-50137/.

Bearanoia

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I wrote the following words in the middle of the night of May 22, 2015.

I shouldn’t have had that coffee. And I certainly shouldn’t have had the Dr. Pepper on top of it.

Sure, I had the coffee before 9am, and I drank the last of the Dr. Pepper by 5pm, but yes, I am so sensitive that I’m awake at 1am.

I read until 10pm, and then I did sleep some–fitfully–but now I’m wide awake. I finally turn on the Luci light and grab my notebook. I can’t lie in the dark another moment.

Why are noises so much louder in the dark?

Not that there’s much noise out here in the forest at 1am. Mostly I hear the popping and thumping of the van as it cools in the night air, but there are also sporadic metallic pings as water (actual raindrops or just the moisture of the fog dripping from the trees, I don’t know), hits the roof of the van. Farther off, there’s a steady dripping sound; I don’t know what or where it is, but it reverberates in the silence.

Black Bear, Eating, Wildlife, Nature, Big, Fur, HabitatDo I hear a bear, or is that the grumble and groan of my own belly? I honestly can’t tell in the quiet dark.

Yesterday when I got home from Little Babylon, night was falling, fog was settling in, and chill was wrapping around, so I cooked in the van. I left the doors open while I did it. Has the odor of food dissipated? Can the bear(s) smell the airborne molecules of my dinner? Will a bear try to rip a van door off in the night to get food that’s now in me?

Bear or belly?

Are those bear footsteps I hear? (What do bear footsteps sound like?)

I’m wearing the shirt I wore to cook in, which I just found out is a no-no in bear country. But if I took it of, it would still be in the van with me, still smelling of tofu and brown rice and peas. (What kind of hippie bear wants to eat tofu and brown rice and peas?) It’s not like I can lock my cooking clothes in the trunk. (No trunk in this van.) But if I’m wearing the cooking clothes, will the bear(s) attack me when it/they rip off my door, lured by the lingering scent of dinner caught in the fabric?

Shit! The paper cup I was drinking Dr. Pepper out of? It’s up front, on the floor next to the driver’s seat. I forgot to throw it away in town. I meant to throw it away as soon as I got to the campground, but I forgot about it again. Bears may not want tofu and brown rice and peas, but they sure as shootin’ want some Dr. Pepper and can probably smell the sticky sweet remnants clinging to the sides of the cup.

Should I get out of the van and walk through the foggy, drippy dark to deposit the cup in the trash can? That seems riskier than staying put.

Trash cans. The trash cans out here are not bear-proof, so it seems easier for a hungry bear to go for a trash can smorgasbord instead of attacking my van which harbors nothing but the faint smell of food. Attacking the trash cans would be so much easier. A trash can in the (bear) hand is worth two girls in a van…

My friend who communicates with angels would say that all this attention on bears is going to make the angels think I want a lesson, and they’ll send a bear my way. I actually address the angels aloud, ask for protection against bears, say I don’t need a lesson, no thank you.

Should I turn on the radio? A classic rock station comes through clear way out here in the trees. Music would mask and distract me from every little noise, but if a bear is indeed snuffling around out there, maybe I do want to hear it.

Don’t think about bears.

Don’t think about bears.

Don’t think about bears.

I locate my whistle. Bears don’t like loud noises. Right? I’d wear the whistle around my neck, but because it’s plastic, the circle used to attach it to things broke when I had it on my key ring in the city. Why didn’t I get a metal whistle before I came out here? Where can I put this whistle so I can find it immediately in the dark?

2:20am

I heard that bears are most active at 4am. Are bears just now waking up, yawning and stretching, thinking about where to get breakfast? I think of the Berenstain Bears and the super annoying cartoon bears on the Charmin commercials. (Who thought it would work to have cartoon bears sell toilet paper? I guess we’re supposed to get the reference to bears shitting in the woods, but as far as I know, bears don’t wipe their asses. Why would I trust a bear to tell me what toilet paper I should buy?) However, if I do see a bear tonight (or any other night in the woods), it’s not likely to be cartoon cute or friendly.

I just want to see a bear from a safe distance. I just want to see one way over there. I do not want to see a bear ripping a door off my van so it can lick the dried Dr. Pepper from the sides of a Burger King cup. I do not want to see a bear eating my shirt.

I just want to sleep. Sleep. Sleep. I just want to close my eyes and sleep.

Folks camping in bear country where there are no bear boxes could use a bear canister for added piece of mind and a better night’s sleep.

Image courtesy of https://pixabay.com/en/black-bear-eating-wildlife-nature-1972228/.

 

 

Kids and Bears

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I was walking towards the restrooms when I saw what looked like a medium-size bus pull in. I figured some folks had converted it into their traveling vehicle, but was a little miffed when they drove past my wave.

After I finished my…business…in the restroom, I hopped in the golf cart and drove over to see what the folks were up to.

A man and two little boys (twins, I think) were outside the bus when I pulled up. I said good morning and asked the man if they planned to camp. He said no, they’d hoped to camp in the area the night before, but hadn’t made it far enough. He said he just wanted to get some water and check the motor, that they’d probably be gone in about an hour. I told him they should make themselves at home, but before I left, I asked him if his RV was a converted city bus. He said it had been the shuttle bus at a VA complex (he called it a “putt-putt bus”). He’d bought it at auction for $5,000, and it only had 4,500 miles on it.

The boys (who were probably about six years old) were running around and came up and told me hi. The dad told me one was named for the mountains, (Cody, as in Cody, Wyoming) and the other was named for the ocean (Kai).

This is the little buildings with restrooms I was cleaning when the boys asked me if I wanted to see the bear tracks. The tracks were in the snow visible on the left of this photo
The tracks were right there, in the snow.

I went about my chores dusting and sweeping restrooms, starting in the front and working my way back. As I was just starting on the restrooms right across from where the bus/RV was parked, Cody and Kai ran up to me.

We found bear tracks, one of them told me.

That’s cool, I said. Did you see any bear poop? I thought a mention of poop would get me at least a giggle, but these kids were serious. No, they had not seen any bear poop. They had not seen the bear either, just the tracks.

Then they asked if I wanted to see the bear tracks.

Yes! I said. (I was on my best work behavior, and I did not use any expletives to express my excitement.)

I thought we were going to make some big trek back into the trees, but they took me right around the corner, next to the little building housing the restrooms.

The tracks were right there, in the snow.

IMG_2892

The snow had melted by the time I got this photo, so the print on the left isn’t as perfect as when I first saw it.

There were two prints. They looked just like the prints one sees on those charts of wild animal tracks. They were so perfect; at first I thought maybe those kids were fucking with me. Did they have some sort of bear print outline toy in the bus/RV? Had they made the bear prints in the snow? But I didn’t get the feeling they were trying to mess with me.

The prints went that way, one of the boys told me, as he pointed off to the left.

Where do you think the bear was going? I asked.

One boy shook his head, as if he had no idea, but his brother piped in with He was looking for people to eat!

I didn’t like the sound of that, as I was the only people in that campground the night before. If that bear had been looking for people to eat, that bear had been looking for me.

Do you think bears just go around killing people? I asked, and they both solemnly said yes. I told them bears would only hurt people if they felt threatened, and one of the boys asked what “threatened” meant.

As I was explaining what might happen if one scared a bear, one of the boys asked, What about a wolverine? Then one of them pointed out a chipmunk, and they both took off after it.

Here's my footprint next to the bear print, for comparison.

Here’s my footprint next to the bear print, for comparison.

I swept two restrooms, all the while wishing I had my camera to take a photo of the bear tracks. I wasn’t sure how long it would take for the snow to melt, so I jumped in the golf cart, zoomed to the van, grabbed my camera, zoomed back to the tracks, and got a few photos.

When the dad walked over to the restroom area to get water from the nearby spigot, I told him his boys had shown me the bear tracks. He said he thought it was just a small bear, and I said I wanted to see one from a distance, not too close. He told me a bear had once jumped on him.

I looked at him like he was crazy, and said, What did you do?

He said, I froze!

He told me that when he was 11 or 12, he tried to hand feed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to a bear. He said he’d grown up in the mountains and had never been taught to fear wild animals. So he tried to feed a sandwich to a bear and the bear jumped him.

Was the whole family fucking with me?

The Bear Tracker website says,

Black bears are the smallest American bears, and the most common. They are the only bears found in the wild in California. Although the grizzly bear is the state mammal, it has been extinct in California since 1922.

IMG_2890     IMG_2891

All photos taken by me.

My First Bear

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Bear, Bear Head, Artistic, Portrait, Head, AnimalWhen I was in college, my friend BH tried to teach me to smoke cigarettes. I was having trouble inhaling. He told me to imagine I’d seen a bear. He demonstrated the sharp, shallow intake of breath that seeing a bear would generated, then followed the inhalation of breath with the words, “I saw a bear!” I guess the “I saw a bear!” part was supposed to get me in the proper state of mind to breathe in the cigarette smoke correctly. I don’t know. I never did learn to smoke cigarettes (thank goodness!) but I did find out many years later that seeing a bear did indeed make me gasp.

Between Arroyo Seco and the Taos Ski Valley, there are several free camp grounds along the Rio Hondo.

I pulled into one of the camping spots late one afternoon. I had maybe a couple of hours of daylight left in which to prepare and eat dinner.

I’d managed to back my van into a spot so that in the morning (and by “morning,” I mean around 4am), I could pull straight out onto the gravel entrance/exit and then onto the highway.

Across the highway from where I was parked, trees had been removed to make room for a large electrical transformer. This configuration made for a break in the forest and a sort of flat open area around the transformer. I was standing near the front of my van, texting Nolagirl when movement across the highway caught my eye. I looked up and saw a very large creature lumbering past the electrical transformer and into the trees.

“That’s a weird fucking horse,” was my first thought. My second thought (after a quick inhalation of breath), was, “that was a BEAR!”

The bear didn’t actually look anything like a horse. “Horse” is just what my brain told me until it could make sense of what it had actually seen.

(Gasp!) I saw a bear!

My immediate first reaction was to want to follow it. It was so cool, so wild, so interesting. I wanted to know more about it.

My second reaction (which occurred about two seconds after thinking I wanted to follow it) was me asking myself, Are you out of your fucking mind?!?!? Following a bear is a REALLY bad idea, so I didn’t do it.

I  wanted to watch the bear from a really safe distance, but it was already out of sight. The bear was not going to be my entertainment for the evening.

I grew up watching movies and TV shows  like Gentle Ben and Grizzly Adams where bears and humans are pals. Some part of me wanted to believe that I too could befriend a bear. I’m glad my logical side prevailed and kept me on my side of the road.

Image courtesy of https://pixabay.com/en/bear-bear-head-artistic-portrait-1279112/.