I love trail running! Since my move to Yosemite in 2010, I get to run in one of the most beautiful, scenic mountain ranges in the world. Not only does Yosemite National Park offer many trails, but the National Forest surrounding the park offers equal prospects for trail running – most times without the crowds that I encounter in Yosemite Valley during the summer season. The National Forest also offers opportunities to encounter wildlife not tamed by over four million visitors that now visit Yosemite each year. With solo wilderness backcountry trail running, there is a responsibility of protecting oneself in the event of an encounter with large animals such as mountain lions and bears.
Recently, my girlfriend Shauna introduced me to an amazing grove of sequoias near her house. The Nelder Grove is just outside the southern entrance to Yosemite and is managed by the US National Forest Service. It has quickly become one of my favorite places to photograph, cross-bike ride, and trail run. It has a short loop trail with several amazing sequoias, including the Bull Buck Tree – one of the largest sequoias in the grove. A longer, three-plus mile trail takes one up to a smaller grove at the top of a ridge and is more secluded than the loop.
Back in July, I decided to do my first solo trail run on the longer trail to try and beat the triple-digit heat occurring in Oakhurst; hoping the shaded trail and higher elevation (5000’ – 6000’) would bring some relief. This proved to be true when I emerged from my car at the trailhead. After some stretching, I took off on the trail – headed for the upper sequoia grove. I quickly noticed the silence and solitude offered by being on this trail – on a weekend in the middle of the summer. It didn’t take long before I was enjoying my run, getting into a rhythmic groove as I was reaching the first mile.
Suddenly, from my right side, my silence and solitude quickly vanished with a lumbering noise approaching me; a mostly breathy “rah, rah, rah, rah!!”. I looked to my right and on the uphill side of the trail, running right toward me, was a rather large mama black bear with two cubs in tow. The cubs quickly jumped and scaled up the nearest pine while mom continued her charge right at me.
This was one of those moments that I knew was a possibility yet, had never actually prepared for really happening – a mama bear with cubs, protecting her young by charging at a perceived threat. I’ve read many times about what to do in this situation: Stop, make yourself look as big as possible, and make as loud a noise as possible, and if there’s anything to throw, pick it up and throw it at the bear.
My first instinct was to run faster. With something 300 – 500 pounds faced squarely upon you, threatening harm, wouldn’t you? I resisted that instinct and stopped. I looked around for something to pick up and throw. Nothing was nearby me unless I ran to get it – probably not a good idea with a sprinting bear coming at me. So, I got past my fear, looked directly at the approaching bear, put my arms over my head to look big, and began to roar as loud as I possibly could. Mind you; this was all happening in the span of about 5 seconds.
There was a moment after I started, mama bear still charging me, where I thought, “This might be it. This creature might cause some pretty bad damage to me…or worse!” I kept up with the roaring and with less than ten feet to spare, the bear stopped at the top of the uphill berm of the trail – looking right at me with her ears straight up, eyes intently looking into mine.
This bear was wild. Not like any bears I’ve seen in Yosemite Valley. First, it didn’t have the tell-tale ear tag that nearly all bears in Yosemite Valley have.
Secondly, most Yosemite bears have become accustomed to people and vehicles, and do not seem to be as affected by human presence. I remember once seeing a mother bear and two cubs walking towards me to El Capitan Meadow one evening. Just before crossing Northside Drive to get into the meadow proper, cars began to stop, people getting out of their cars in the middle of the road to photograph or video these bears – creating what Yosemite locals call a ‘bear jam’. This was my first witness to the rather normal summer event. I noticed mama bear quickly turned her cubs around and headed back into the forested region near the base of El Capitan. I felt no fear from my photographic position in the meadow – a position that the three bears were aiming for. I think I knew they’d turn back, so continued with my evening shoot.
Many times I’ve witnessed Yosemite bears crossing roads, innocuously turning logs in the forest, running through North Pines campground being chased by a camper who’s yelling, “Go Bear…Go!”. I’ve come to view these large mammals as mostly harmless; certainly appearing to not be interested in taking a bite out of or swatting any humans with their ginormous paws and sharp claws.
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But this was different. Standing eye to eye with this bear was humbling. She could have ripped me to shreds if she wanted. I was utterly defenseless, except for my wits. I looked her square in the eyes and roared like I’ve never done before; like I was going to rip her to shreds if she came closer (at least that was the role I was playing).
It worked! She turned around and ran back to where she came from, her cubs coming down from their safe trees and running behind her. She continued to run until about 100 yards from me where she turned, looked at me, and then continued to lumber away. Let me remind you – I was still yelling.
Weirdly enough, perhaps with a bit of “I beat her”, I continued up the trail with my run, running a few seconds faster than previously; mostly from adrenaline and less from fear of bears. Since my run was not a loop, I had to revisit the place of the incident. As I ran past, I made several loud grunt noises; as if to state that I was back and to not mess with me. This was clearly an attempt at putting myself at ease, as I did NOT want to have another charging bear face-off. Luckily, this time it was just me on the trail with a handful of gray squirrels and chipmunks scrambling up trees nearby.
I learned two valuable lessons from my bear encounter. First, all the preparation for the remote possibility of an encounter with mountain lions and bears is very much worth the effort. Second, and most importantly, believing in myself enough to stand my ground in the face of imminent danger was a life lesson that mama bear indirectly gave to me. There might be times in my future where a challenging event may come again. I believe that this encounter has prepared me and will help remind me to stand my ground and be completely present with whatever situation I am presented with. Being confident in the face of adversity is a life lesson we all must learn and five hundred pounds of charging, life-threatening, female-protecting bear energy reminded me of this. Thank you mama bear!!