"And this is a bear claw," said
the Ranger passing around a specimen. "They're non retractable
and real, real sharp. Please keep it in that jar, we don't
want anyone cutting themselves on it now." As I looked at
the two plus inches of claw and the large bear skull the
Ranger was holding a primeval fear stirred deep inside me.
What were we doing thinking of camping out with toddlers
in bear country.
The Ranger continued his "Bear
Facts" porch talk, addressing a small group of people
gathered outside the Sequoia National Park Visitors Centre.
He gently stroked the bear skull, "Now, these animals have
the most incredibly sensitive sense of smell; they can sniff
out cooking odors on your clothes at a few hundred metres
with the wind in the right direction, so to stay safe you
need to keep a really clean camp. And if you meet a bear
remember not to run cos I guarantee they can run faster
than you. And there's no point climbing trees to escape
cos with claws like that climbing is no problem for a hungry
bear. Best thing is to avoid disturbing them in the first
place. But if you do encounter one, stay calm, stand your
ground, talk to them to let them know you're human, then
back off real slow." He seemed to take pleasure in conveying
these few well chosen facts about bears while watching the
growing sense of fear in his audience. "You know most won't
charge or attack as long as you don't threaten them."
The Ranger was a small young man,
easy prey for a bear but without enough flesh to be worth
attacking. He was dressed just like the Ranger I knew from
Yogi Bear cartoons, shirt and slacks pressed with military
creases, hat pressed tight on his head but with the addition
of mirror shades hiding nervous eyes. He looked like the
kind of guy that got bullied at school, turned to nature
and found a disturbing affinity with things that scare people.
"So folks," he concluded, "please
remember those claws are pretty good for opening up cars
too. We've had twenty one cars broken into here this season
so don't forget to use those bear lockers now. Now, does
anyone have any questions?" He stood stiffly, smiled without
showing his teeth and scanned the group for movement much
as you might scan the horizon for a bear. A worried looking
woman twitched. He nodded at her "Yes Ma'am."
"Where abouts are we likely to find bears?" she asked.
"Oh you don't need to worry about that ma'am," he replied,
"They'll find you."
"Daddy, Daddy, want the Disney CD
on. Can we have the Disney CD on?" asked Cameron as we set
off in the car to find a campsite. The CD worked like a
charm and the boys fell silent for a while as we all went
on a musical tour of the magic kingdom. But something was
"Not all bears are bad are they Dad?" he said as the CD
"How do you mean?" I asked.
"Well, the bear cessities bear was nice. And Winnie the
Pooh only ate honey. And Coda ate fish and my teddy is really
cuddly and hasn't got any sharp claws," he replied obviously
struggling to reconcile his Disney reality with the briefing
he'd just had from the Ranger.
I tried to help clarify things. "Yes, you're right Matthew.
Bears aren't bad, they're just bears and Disney ones are
quite cute and cuddly aren't they? But the wild ones we
may see here are big, strong and powerful and can hurt people.
They're wild and we have to respect them and try not to
"Will they attack us?" he asked quietly.
I tried to sound confident. "No. Not if we do what the Ranger
says, store our food properly and leave them in peace. But
if one does attack we know what to do, don't we?" Both Cameron
and Matthew listened attentively for a change as if they
understood the importance of remembering the instructions
I was about to give. "We stand still, make ourselves look
big, talk loudly and move away very slowly. And remember
no running, screaming or going off on your own. You stay
with me and mum and if you see a bear call for help. Do
you understand?" The boys nodded quietly while I did my
best to conceal my own runaway fears; of Cameron running
wildly around disturbing a protective mother and her cubs,
of a curious black bear crashing into the tent at night
and pawing Matthew, of a hungry bear breaking into the car
to get that bit of banana Cameron smeared down the back
of his car seat, of us all bumping into a grizzly on a trail
and me not having enough arms to pick up both the boys.
I was starting to go off the idea of hiking or camping in
We set up camp at a campground in
the heart of the Kings Canyon National Park, in a peaceful
sequoia grove in the High Sierra. Golden mantled squirrels
scuttled excitedly around us as we pitched our new tent
on the needle covered floor. It was six weeks since we last
camped out and the boys were keen to road test our new home,
shattering the peace of the ancient forest with the squeals
of young boys bouncing on airbeds.
Three tents and a bear locker....
but where are the three bears
Meanwhile Kirstie was busy emptying
the car after another bear warning from the local Camp Host.
"According to the host here we have to put all food and
anything that smells into this locker," said Kirstie as
she trundled back and forth from the car to a large bear
proof metal box. "She said if we have any kind of emergency
we should call 911 from the phonebox but apparently a bear
is not classed as an emergency." The heavy door of the bear
locker crashed noisily closed as she began another trip.
"Apparently a bear broke into a car after smelling a single
tic-tac so we've got to be sure absolutely everything that
smells goes in the locker; deodorant, soap, insect repellent,
that little packet of sweets you hid in the glove compartment,
even the kids' car seats have to come out." And while Kirstie
searched for every last one of the jelly beans Cameron spread
around the car, I tried to light a fire to cook dinner.
I got a copy of USA Today from the car and unravelled the
pages to make a fire starter. A small headline caught my
eye, 'Couple killed by grizzly.' I read and reread two brief
paragraphs that told the sad story of a couple killed in
their tent by a grizzly bear while sleeping in backcountry
Alaska. I passed the paper to Kirstie. "Better make sure
you get all those jelly beans eh?" I joked nervously, "and
then we'll go over our 'what to do if we hear a bear in
the night' routine shall we?"
I've always enjoyed the drama of
camping in wild places; of waiting for sleep trying to make
sense of every strange munch, rustle or movement; of waking
suddenly and straining to reveal strange shadows as familiar
objects; of lying immobilised and vulnerable in a sleeping
bag and trying to reason with a runaway imagination. But
then I've mostly camped in pretty safe places where worst
case meant a rat sniffing the food bag or cows munching
at guy ropes. But this felt different, amongst snakes, bears,
wolves and cougars, with no base of personal experience
to help assess the risks or likelihood of an encounter,
oh and with two kids and a pregnant wife. There's no doubt
that bears are an issue here but how much of a risk they
are is harder to assess. I reckon we probably threaten the
survival of their species more than they threaten us and
it's probably healthy for us to feel a little bit like prey
rather than predator every once in a while. Besides, if
you want to experience the great outdoors, nature and wild
places then you need to get out of your motel room, into
your tent and have the experience. And with plenty of other
campers, a camp host and rangers around I figured it couldn't
really be that dangerous.
A chipmunk and two birds boldly
pecked at the bits of bread and sausage lying amongst the
pine needles. "Stop messing and pick up those bits of food,"
shouted Kirstie at the boys as we cleared up after dinner.
"If you leave any out the bear will come and eat you." The
boys were unusually obedient. She turned to me. "Now what
shall we do about our clothes? It says here don't sleep
in the clothes that you cooked in as the odours may attract
bears." She passed me a leaflet about safe camping in bear
country. "It also says, keep your pepper spray and torch
by your side in case of attack during the night."
I laughed, "We're bear food
aren't we? No clean clothes and no pepper spray. We'll have
An hour later and Kirstie and I
lay in the tent, the boys fast asleep in their sleeping
bags beside us. We went over procedure one last time. "OK,
the torches are there with the car keys and the boxes of
K-nex are next to them. If you hear anything wake me. We'll
get out of our sleeping bags, unlock the car, talk to the
bear, bang the boxes of K-nex together, grab the kids, make
a break for the car and go call for help." As the sun went
down and the kids snored quietly we lay, listened for bears,
waited for the bogey man and prayed our plan was good enough.
The only bear we've met so far has been in a refuge...