Yosemite, part 2

(Continued from “Bears“)

[Note: we did not have a camera on our trip. All photos are borrowed from other sites]

Map showing the trails referenced in this story, clockwise from the top

Our first day of hiking is almost all uphill, on the heavily-traveled trail from Tuolumne Meadows to Vogelsang Camp. When I say heavily-traveled, I mean, we might as well have been on a city boulevard; there are always at least a few other hikers in sight, as this is a popular loop heading back to Yosemite Valley. But it’s only the first day; acclimating to the uphill climb, and the altitude, is enough challenge that solitude is not a priority.

And then, there’s weather. Clouds of white stuff coming down from the sky. Snow, at Midsummer?? No, it’s not that cold. More like hail, maybe? Sort of, but as the little pellets strike us, it’s more like tiny snowballs than ice. So, later, we learn that this is a rare phenomenon known locally as “popcorn snow.”

The popcorn storm is over in less than an hour.

Vogelsang Camp is also pretty crowded, maybe 30 tents, but at least it’s off the highway—and everyone here is woods-wise enough to know how to store their food. No bear encounters.

Day two: the weather is fair, and we head away from the main thoroughfare. Here, the high Sierra scenery really comes into its own. (The stock photo at the top of the page is from someplace along here, near Vogelsang Lake). Most of the traffic has taken the route straight down toward the Valley, so we are now in real wilderness, with only an occasional fellow-traveler showing up. And with the next junction, crossing the south-west flank of Mt. Florence, we are truly alone.

But for the trail itself, it seems a virgin wilderness. Over the next six days, we circle the pristine valley drained by the upper reaches of the Merced River (purple oval on the map). South on the hillside trail, then return downstream on the creekside trail. That whole time, we saw only one other couple. Total bliss!

Of course, throughout this loop, there are no bear encounters. Humans are so rare here, the bears are not accustomed to us, and avoid us. We have no worries of a camp site raid.

Our last night, we arrive at the Lake Merced campground. It’s the first official campground we’ve seen in a week, but it’s still completely deserted; we are the only campers here. The only sign that humans have been here is the standard park service picnic table. (This is a far cry from the present-day version of the campground, which apparently has semi-permanent tents, to meet the high demand for campsites!)

Lake Merced campground, present day.
The tents, the rock-lined path, and bear-resistant boxes are all new.

We’ve planned the food supply with great precision. We have enough oatmeal and trail mix left for the one day it will take us to hike down to Yosemite Valley. As we prepare dinner, I say, let’s do something special for our last breakfast. Instead of plain oatmeal, we can grill the oats tonight and have granola. (I’ve actually packed the ingredients with this option in mind—hard to believe, but I actually did make my own granola in those days). So we do that, roasting the last of the oatmeal over the coals, then mixing in the last of the powdered milk and some trail mix, and leaving it on the table to cool. Of course we don’t worry about bears, because we’re still in the back country, where bears avoid humans. (So we thought).

I don’t remember what woke me up. Maybe I heard a noise (after a week of absolute pristine nature, with nothing artificial, any small noise becomes extremely meaningful). Or maybe it was just time to get up and empty my bladder. I open the tent, and see that it’s just beginning to get light; no color in the sky yet, but not quite black, either. I stand up in front of the tent and look across to our picnic table, and see the bear. His nose is moving toward the table, as he has obviously detected the granola. And his eyes flick toward me, the new factor in the picture. (Picture the tent, the table, and the bear in a triangle formation, about 25 feet apart).

I shout, “Hey bear, get outta here!” and wave my arms. He considers me a moment, then resumes a slow walk towards the table. At this point I register the size of the bear. Not, fortunately, a full-sized black bear (they can run up to about 600 lbs.); but about half-grown, about the same size as me. Not, of course, that that would make us equally matched in a fight.

Gretchen is now awake, of course, and peers out of the tent anxiously.

I should be able to intimidate this bear, I think. And I must save our food supply! I reach for my walking stick and wave it at the bear. He is not impressed, and takes another step toward the table.

Then I remember something I must have read sometime in my childhood. Bears are tough, but their noses are very sensitive. I step forward, reach out with the walking stick, and tap the bear authoritatively (not punitively) directly on the nose. That does the trick! He turns around and shambles away.

Gretchen cries out in amazement. “Oh, Alan, that was crazy! How did you do that? You could have been killed!”… something to that effect.

Breakfast never tasted better.

A short way down the trail, we meet a park ranger. I casually mention the bear. He says, “yeah, that guy is a yearling—this is his first season foraging for himself, and he doesn’t quite have the know-how yet. He was circling the whole lake last night, and got chased out of every camp. You must have been the last one he hit. I guess he was pretty hungry by then.” That explains why he didn’t scare off too easily, I guess.

Beyond that point, we hit the main trail down to Yosemite Valley, with hordes of day-hikers, and the magic was over. Only this memory remains.

One thought on “Yosemite, part 2

  1. What a good story! I had never heard that wisdom about bears and their noses. But I have fond memories of Yosemite. My favorite place to backpack was the 10 Lakes area, and I once got lost up there for 2 days cross-country hiking with 2 friends, Tom and Margo, when a surprise snow storm separated us from the group leader., billy goat Daan. We were young (mid-20’s) and so naive and unprepared. I had managed to forget my hiking boots and hit the trail in my tennis shoes inside Tom’s loafers! Only Daan had a map! No bear encounters but we did get quite cold, wet, and low on food. The rescue helicopters ordered by Daan after he tried unsuccessfully to find us were just about to take off when we found our way back to our car after a number of wrong turns and one very miserable night camping without the benefit of our tent, carried by Daan. Nearly every hour of that adventure is seared in my memory. Never took a backpacking trip again without a map, proper shoes, and better communication with the leader! 😀


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