After a year of San Diego pollution and traffic noise, I anxiously anticipated a week in the wilderness — the brilliant blue sky, the sound of the wind in the pine trees, the scent of sage, and a night sky with stars so close you feel as if you could touch them.
Our traditional just-the-four-of-us backpacking trip to the Sierra Nevada mountains included me, my wife, our 20-something daughter, and our teenaged son. We planned on five nights of stargazing, day hikes, and hanging out at Thousand Island Lake, where we have camped several times before.
After the nine-mile death march — with a 4000-foot elevation gain to get to the lake — we found a great campsite about 150 yards from the lake shore on top of a rocky outcropping, complete with trees for shade, boulders for privacy, and a breathtaking view. Banner Peak’s snow-covered top was reflected in the lake.
It was the end of day one and time for sleep. Our 19-year-old son spread his sleeping bag on the ground next to a large boulder with a great view of the celestial light show. In the middle of the night, he opened one eye and saw four furry feet on the boulder. Am I dreaming, or is this real? The feet, belonging to a two-year-old bear cub, left the boulder and landed with a soft thud between his sleeping bag and his mom’s tent. “My God in heaven, was that a bear?” yelled Mom. “Yeah,” said the son. “I thought I was dreaming.” Bear experience number one.
On night two, the 20-something daughter woke up to see the same cub walking past her tent. When she reached for her camera for that once-in-a-lifetime picture, the bear turned and wandered out of camp. Bear experience number two.
No food, toothpaste, sunscreen, soap, or anything with a scent or flavor was allowed anywhere near our sleeping area, but the bears of Thousand Island Lake prowl all the campsites at night looking for stupid backpackers and an easy snack.
While hiking around the lake we found several bear prints (nearly 14 inches long) and bear scat (that’s poop, for all you flatlanders) filled with Safeway bags and PowerBar wrappers. One of the backcountry rangers told us that the mama bear had been named Bruinetta. She had two cubs in their second summer.
We hiked, took lots of pictures, read books, and played cards. On our fourth day, a group of hikers took a campsite between our camp up in the rocks and the lake below. There were maybe three or four adults and about six kids. I felt as if they were invading my privacy. Big wilderness, yet they camp 50 yards from me and between us and the lake. But what can you do? Free country.
That night, as we were falling asleep under the stars, I glanced up and saw the mama bear (and she really was big) strolling down the hill toward the lake. A couple of minutes later, I heard yelling and screaming from the campers below us. Bruinetta was looking for a snack.
I guess I fell back to sleep. Then next thing I knew, my wife and daughter were waking me: “Did you hear the gun shots?” Apparently mama bear scared the campers so badly that somebody fired three shots. Bear encounter number three.
As the sky lightened, I grabbed the satellite cell phone I carry for emergencies and called the rangers to report the events of the previous evening. After speaking to dispatch, I wandered around and discovered the shredded backpack that Bruinetta had stolen from our neighbors. The area was littered with candy and jerky wrappers — the careless gunslingers did not store their food properly.
During breakfast, three teenagers came into our camp from below to apologize for the night before. We learned that they were from Texas, had little wilderness experience, and were in a panic. We tried to explain some of the rules of wilderness travel. We also learned that the weapon was a Glock 9mm. Backpackers packing heat with their granola!
The gunslinging party appeared to be staying another night. After some debate, we decided to stay as well. The sun set, the stars were brilliant, and the moon was just starting to come up. Then the camp below erupted in bedlam, with pots and pans banging together, whistles blowing — and flashlights and headlamps illuminating the figure of Bruinetta! They chased her almost 200 yards along the shoreline. We stood on the rocks and cheered. Good job. No gunfire.
Bruinetta and her cubs provided excitement, but the joyous moments of the trip were soaking our feet in the lake at Island Pass while watching the tadpoles and frogs swim in the clear water, scrambling over the boulders up to 11,000 feet to reach Lake Catherine, and feeling the energy of the moon shining on the mountain.
Experience the wilderness and energize yourself with the sights, sounds, and smells of the simple life...but leave the guns at home. Please.