Bear Encounters of a Close Kind in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, by Paul Richins, Jr. (new 1/6/04)
I had not hiked down into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne before but was anxious to explore the area and photograph the powerful cataracts of the Tuolumne River during the high water of spring runoff. Years earlier, Gene Leach had suggested hiking through the canyon but we never got around to completing this outstanding adventure together. Remembering Gene's suggestion, I also wanted to check out the trip for possible inclusion in a guidebook I was writing titled, Trekking California.
I left my downtown Sacramento office a little early on Friday, June 21, 2003, and drove to the trailhead near the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center. I quickly packed a light overnight pack (sleeping bag and pad; no-stove, a cold dinner, breakfast, and lunch; camera gear and tripod). I set out as the sun was setting and intended to walk by headlamp for 4-5 miles. My plan was to camp a mile or so short of Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp (to avoid the concentration of black bears in the area), and then rise early in the morning to hike the remaining 2-3 miles to photograph California Falls, LeConte Falls, and Waterwheel Falls in the early-morning light.
Glen Aulin, meaning beautiful valley, is a wonderful summer High Sierra Camp in Yosemite National Park with eight tent-cabins, a dining tent, and a solar shower. It is an easy hike of 5.8-trail miles from the Tioga Pass Road in Tuolumne Meadows. Glen Aulin has been popular with families and hikers for many years.
As I walked through Tuolumne Meadows, the largest alpine meadow in the Sierra Nevada, and over the bridge that spans the river, I passed Lambert Dome and several bucks and does browsing in the expansive meadow. Across the lush grasslands to the south, Cockscomb, Echo Peaks, and Cathedral Peak were immersed in rich alpenglow colors of red, pink and purple as the sun set below the horizon of the California Coast Range, far to the west. The warm colors of the evening light were gradually turning to the black of night. I switched on my LED headlamp to continue along the Pacific Crest Trail. The air was cool, and my energy and spirits were high. The stars were bright with the moon providing added light on the forest. Lost in my thoughts and enjoying the solitude of the night, I soon came to a bridge crossing the Tuolumne River above Glen Aulin. In my enthusiasm, I had nearly reached Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp before realizing it and before I was ready to stop for the night. I made my way along the rough glaciated granite trail past thundering Tuolumne Falls and White Cascade.
I crossed another bridge and passed the outpost at Glen Aulin. I was now becoming tired so, against my better judgment, stopped for the night a quarter mile beyond Glen Aulin. I was hesitant to camp so close to an area frequented by so many campers because of the old axiom, "where hikers and campers congregate year after year you can be assured that brownies are not far away".
I picked a spot to lay out my sleeping bag and pad between the river and trail. A lovely spot, at least what I could see of it. I selected a small level area where a thin layer of decomposed granite sand had been deposited in a shallow depression amongst the granite bedrock: an area just large enough for a single sleeping bag. There were no convenient trees to hang my food, so I figured, what the heck, I will place the food in two small nylon stuff sacks next to my head and placed several stones on them. I rationalized that if a bear happened along and began to sniff my food, I surely would hear the bear, wake up, and scare the beast away saving my small stash of food.
I did not have much food: several bagels, cheese, an apple, banana, 6-ounce can of salmon, and an energy bar. This was my dinner for the night, and breakfast and lunch for the following day. This had to hold me for the 3-mile hike down into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne to photograph the magnificent waterfalls in the morning and the 9-10 mile return hike back to the car that afternoon. I ate a bagel with canned salmon and an apple for dinner, and went to bed around 10:30. I was optimistic, and blissfully ignorant, that my small supply of food would not attract any furry beasts.
Being tired from the 6-mile hike, I quickly dozed off. I could not have been lying down for more than 10 minutes, and as I drifted in and out of semiconscious sleep. Suddenly, I heard the tale-tell sound of nylon being pulled across granite near my head. Was I dreaming or was a bear actually stealing my food? What was going on? There had not been any sounds of an animal up to that point? I had not smelled or head the bear approach? All these thoughts and more raced through my groggy mind.
I jumped up with a start, turned on my headlamp and shined it in the direction of the animals escape route, and made the noise of a wild man. No sign of anything but the largest of my two food bags were gone. I could not believe it. I looked two and three times and sure enough the food bag was gone. I searched down to the river and up to the trail looking for the food bag or anything that might have dropped out: maybe my pocket knife, food wrappings, an M&M or two. I looked for any sign but I could not find a clue.
I went back to my sleeping bag and lay back down. I quickly got back up to look for a tree to hang the remaining little food sack. I now only had a banana and nutritional energy bar to last me for the following day's adventure but I treasured what remained. I could not find a tree. Surely the bear would not come back, I reasoned. I went to search the area for the stolen food bag a second time. Not 35 feet away, coming up from the river, were 3 pairs of eyes staring into my headlamp. They were heading my way for a second helping. Admittedly, for 3 bears, they had not gotten much from the first bag: 8 ounces of cheese, 2 bagels, an apple, M&Ms, and almonds.
A mother bear and her cubs looking for more food was unsettling. I chased the three bears away following them down to the river and beneath a steep cliff hoping to find my stuff sack but to no avail. I returned to my sleeping bag and immediately packed up. I headed down the trail into the Grand Canyon toward the waterfalls I had planned to photograph the following morning. I wanted to put some distance between myself and Glen Aulin High Camp and its concentrated bear population. With adrenaline rushing through my system, I set out at a fast pace to vacate the area. After 15 minutes of brisk hiking I thought I was getting away from bear country. As I passed through a meadow, just off the trail to my right were 3 pairs of eyes peering at me through the darkness. These bears were as surprised to see me as I was to see them. But then again, after what I just experienced, why should I be surprised to see more beady-eyed bears staring at me. It was nearing midnight and I was still in bear country on the run.
The trail soon traversed a large wet meadow choked with fallen dead trees. It was quite a challenge traversing this obstacle course on dozens of slippery fallen snags bridging side streams, marshes, and mud holes by headlamp.
I hiked on to California Falls found a tree and threw out my pad and down sleeping bag. I hoisted my remaining nylon stuff sack containing a banana and small energy bar up into a little tree and went to sleep. Well, I sort of slept. Even though I did not go to bed the second time until well past midnight, the night seemed to drag by, never coming to an end. I would wake up every fifteen minutes to check my measly food provisions hanging in the tree above me. Of course, what difference would it have made if I lost a banana and candy bar to the bears: they did not contain enough nutritional value to make much of a difference. To make matters worse the ground where I placed my sleeping pad and bag seemed to tremble under the thundering force of the cascading California Falls. This, in conjunction with the episode from earlier that night was not conducive to a relaxing night's sleep but fortunately there were no more encounters with bruins. It seemed that the morning light would never come. Finally, dawn arrived and I was up and about.
That morning I had a successful and enjoyable time photographing the spectacular falls of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. I continued shooting the three falls until noon and then headed back Glen Aulin and Tuolumne Meadows. Needless to say I was famished by the time I got back to the car after hiking about 9-10 miles that day. I contemplated asking several hikers I passed along the trail for a bite to eat but did not want to be placed in the awkward position of explaining how I ended up in such an inept predicament. I stopped at the Tuolumne Meadow Café to quench my appetite with a double burger. Even as hungry as I was, the food was not memorable.
Back at home the photographs turned out to be stunning and a trek through the Grand Canyon, Cold Canyon, Matterhorn Canyon, Rodgers Canyon, and past Benson Lake and Rodgers Lake in the high country above the Tuolumne River was included in Trekking California.
A Side Note: I usually take my small dog, Prince, on my backpacking and backcountry ski excursions. He is a good companion and acts as an excellent watchdog deterring deer and bears away from camp. This whole episode would have been easily avoided if he had joined me. However, I could not take him as the National Park Service prohibits dogs in National Parks.
Lesson Learned: What I did was stupid and should not be repeated. What I should have done was taken a bear-proof food canister but since I wanted to move quickly and keep my pack weight down, I left it at home. The hard-sided bear canisters are heavy weighing 3+ pounds. I believe the Forest Service and National Park Service has recently approved a new type of lightweight canister called the Ursack. Check it out and see if it has been approved for use. It weighs around a pound and is a great alternative to the much heaver canisters.