Monday, August 06, 2012

Hiking with a Bear

No, I did not take this picture. I was too terrified to take any photos. This is a web image.

Trouble Was "Bruin" in the City of Mammoth Lakes

By Diana L. Chapman

   Walking along a trail -- less than a block away from a local clutch of gas stations and eateries in the city of Mammoth Lakes-- my husband and I chatted about my daily doctor ordered exercise.
   The sun belted out warm rays stirring up the peppery scents of sage. A cool wind sagged as the heat began to bear down on us. My eyes shifted down to a small gully gushing with scrub as stunning, almighty mountains towered nearby.
   Beautiful. Breathtaking. Vibrantly bold.
    And then: I spotted a large tree branch. I blinked. My mind refocused.
   No. My mind telegraphed: Bear. Big, big, big bear. Ears, round head, large claws.
   It was sitting silently back in the fold of thickets on his rump. This was nothing like the juvenile we spotted the other day running across a main city street and high-tailing it across a municipal golf course. This guy was no tot. He (if it was a he) was a giant. While he sat stoically, a group of kids biked right by him. They didn't notice.  
   The bear didn't budge.
   Then a man jogged by. He didn't notice either. And, the bear didn't budge.
   I tugged my husband, Jim's T-shirt pulling down hard, and quietly murmured "bear" since it appeared about 25 feet away.This calm demeanor coming from me was surprising considering that since I was a child I had nightly dreams shredded by recurring bear attacks chasing not only me, but my family down trails or relentlessly breaking into our homes with snapping teeth and trying to eat anyone and everything inside.
   "Walk slowly," I said to Jim quietly. "Let's go back to the car," about three walking minutes away.
   I didn't look back. I knew if I did I'd either scream or run -- two major taboos when bumping into bears. (I believe the only reason for my temporary sanity was our nearby SUV).
   Once we arrived at the car and felt a bit safer, we asked a jogger, a local, if he saw it.
   "No, I didn't," he said with disappointment. "Oh, too bad I missed it. Don't worry. It won't hurt you. You can continue your walk. Really. It's safe."
   But all those nightmares since I was a little kid ganged up on me, one after another like a severe case of a dominoes collapsing. They also got the best of Jim since he's listened to story after story for more than 20 years. He didn't especially like the dreams where we're running up higher and higher in a house to get away from bruins chasing us with biting claws and snapping teeth to slice and dice us for dinner.
   Still chicken, we drove to the other side of town to pick up the flat, urban trail. Just to be sure, I asked another woman with a small, scruffy white dog: "Have you see any bears today?"
   "No," she said nonchalantly, "but you know what to do if you see one? Just slowly retreat."
   Ah-hah. So perhaps we did something right.
   The woman adds these black bears won't hurt anyone. They are typically docile (although there occasionally is a rogue bear that has attacked) but nothing like their terrorizing counterparts -- the grizzlies that once roamed the state from one end to another until we killed them all, the last one apparently around 1922, according to
   Despite that grizzlies are California's state animal, their carnivorous ways collided directly with ranchers who wanted to protect livestock and pioneers who weren't exactly keen on letting the Ursus arctos horribilis make them a morning snack. Known as relentless predators (and that does not stop at humans), grizzlies can be identified by the large humps on their shoulders -- who will stop at nothing to kill.
   Ursus americanus californiensis -- California black bears -- rarely attack and according to some, if they do it's more out of hunger, then territory. (That didn't make me feel better, by the way.)
   By the time a third local told me that we were safe and not to worry, somehow I began to feel like a ridiculous city slicker.
   If one lives in the mountains, locals told me, then you must get use to the territory and that means living with bears -- and following the dos and don'ts -- such as making sure trash cans are bear-proofed and not leaving pet food outside or treats in cars where bears can tear their the tops off like a sardine can.
   The bear stories went on all week long.
   While I was in line at a coffee house,  one barista complained about the bears. "It's just terrible," she said to a customer. "The other night, my neighbor said trash was strewn all over her neighborhood."
   "Oh, my husband is so angry," said another store clerk to a customer, "They ate all his tomatoes!"
   No one, however, seemed a tad scared, except for me.
   Even the folks one door down from our rented condo asked if we heard the bear who was diving into the outdoor metal trash container at night in search of food. (We didn't).
   They weren't scared, they said, but added some idiot -- despite numerous reminders to close the lids with its bear proof lock -- left it wide open. Because of our mistakes, officials sometimes kill marauding bears who cause continual problems and lose a sense of boundaries with humans.
   While I watch TV news and all the intense drama swirling around about the bears coming down the mountains to Glendale and Monrovia taking dips in swimming pools, falling asleep in neighboring trees or having a yearning for meatballs, I can't help but think that we may need to take a lesson from our Mammoth Lakes cousins and two Monrovia girls and learn to live with them.
   In May, Valerie and Rachel Gasparini watched a bear -- they called him Larry -- slip into their pool and swim around for five minutes. They called their parents and videotaped him from the safety of their home.
   But they didn't call the police or any other officials.
   "It wasn't making a ruckus or it wasn't like destroying things in our backyard, so we didn't really feel the need to call anybody," Valerie explained to a Channel 5 News reporter.
   Despite my fears, I like the idea of living with them -- so much better than having to kill them -- something two kids and Mammoth folks seem to get.