Garrett Harris 9:48 p.m., May 23
After a year of San Diego coastal fog, pollution, traffic noise and the night sky obscured by light pollution, I anxiously anticipate a week in the solitude of the wilderness. A brilliant blue sky by day, only the sound of the wind in the pine trees, the scent of sage and a night sky at night with stars so close you feel as if you can reach out to touch them.
An old fashion “just-the-four-of-us” backpacking trip to the California Sierra Nevada Mountains includes my wife and I with our twenty-something daughter and late-teen son. We are planning five nights of star gazing, day hikes, hanging out at Thousand Island Lake where we have camped several times before.
Now I will admit that for backpackers Thousand Island Lake in August is sort of like Carlsbad State Beach on the Fourth of July. Yes, the lake is located at the foot of majestic Banner Peak at about 10,000 feet, strikingly beautiful and about half way between Mammoth Lakes and Tuolumne Meadows. However, this also means it is only nine miles from Devils Postpile; fifteen miles from the condos and chair lifts of Mammoth Mountain, and on the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails. Therefore, Thousand Island Lake attracts large numbers of backpackers.
After the nine-mile death march that included 4,000 feet of elevation gain in order to get to Thousand Island Lake, we find a great camp site about 150 yards from the lake shore, on top of a rock outcropping with a great combination of trees for shade, boulders for privacy and breathtaking views. Banner Peak with its snow covered peak at 12,900 feet at the south end of the lake shimmers and reflects its image in the lake. This is truly a beautiful place.
End of day one and time for sleep. The 19-year old son spreads 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 opens one eye and sees four furry feet on the boulder. “Am I dreaming or is this real?” The feet belonging to a two-year old bear cub leave the boulder and land with a soft thud between his sleeping bag and his mom’s tent. “My God in heaven, was that a bear?” “Ya, I thought I was dreaming.” Bear experience #1.
Night two, the twenty-something daughter, woke up to see the same cub walking past her tent. While she reaches for her camera for that once-in-a-lifetime picture, the bear turns and wanders out of camp. Damn, missed photo opportunity. Bear experience #2.
Before I continue, I must give you bit of history. Our first visit to Thousand Island Lake was when the kids were 12 and 9. The first trip when the kids carried their own packs. It was also our first bear encounter when a cub fell out of tree trying to snag the bag with our food hanging from a limb. Today, we use the Forrest Service approve “bear-proof” canisters. My wife requires these be so stored a minimum of thirty yards from camp. No food, tooth paste, dishes, sun screen, soap or anything with a scent or flavor is allowed anywhere close to where we sleep.
Yet, with all of these precautions, the bears of Thousand Island Lake prowl all the campsites at night looking for stupid backpackers and an easy snack. While day hiking around the lake we find several bear prints nearly fourteen inches long and bear scat (this is poop for all you flat-landers) filled with Safeway bags and Power Bar wrappers. One of the backcountry rangers tells us the mamma bear has been named Bruinetta. She has two cubs in their second summer.
We day hike, take lots of pictures, read books and play cards. On our fourth day, a group of hikers come dragging along the trail to take the camp site between our camp up in the rocks and the lake below us. Looks like maybe three or four adults and maybe five or six kids. I feel like they are invading my privacy. But what can you do? Free county. Big wilderness. Yet they camp fifty yards from me and between us and the lake.
I am sleeping under the stars about thirty yards up the hill from my family ----- For all you ladies who are wondering why I am thirty yards away from my loved ones, let me explain it this way. As a guy passes his 50th birthday, his bladder calls to be vacated every few hours. Which you already know if you are a guy over 50 or sleep with one. Anyway, when night time temps are in the 40s, it is no fun to get out of a warm sleeping bag and then walk thirty yards for some privacy. Therefore, you merely sleep thirty yards away to simplify the process.
Anyway, not sure you wanted to know all that. But I felt the need to justify the distance from the family I should be protecting. Now, back to the story.
As I roll over tying to get comfortable, I glance up and see the mamma bear (and she really is bigggg) strolling down the hill intent to go right past my sleeping bag through our camp and on to the lake. I yell at her and she makes an arc around our camp rather than walking through. A couple of minutes later, I hear the sounds of yelling and screaming from the campers below us on the shore of the lake. Bruinetta is looking for a snack.
I guess I fell back asleep. Then next thing I know, wife and daughter wake me up to make sure I am ok. “Did you hear the noise?” “Ya, no biggie. I saw the mother bear when she went through here. Guess she raided the camp below.” “Did you hear the gun shots?” “What guns?”
It seems that mamma bear raided the camp below and scared the campers so badly that somebody fired three shots. Nothing I can do about it. So we go back to the sleeping bags.
As I begin to doze off to sleep, I hear the sound of someone chopping wood (totally against national park rules). After almost thirty minutes of chopping, I hear my teenage son yell, “Hey, we are trying to sleep up here. Stop chopping wood.” Maybe it is time I join the others and keep my wife and kids from confronting the guy with the gun.
We spend the next hour sitting on our rocky perch watching the panicked campers below standing around their “white-man’s fire” jumping at every sound in the night. What do we do next? Everyone in our camp goes back to bed after I promise to call the cavalry at first light. Bear encounter #3.
As the sky lightens, I grab the satellite cell phone I carry for emergencies and call the rangers to report the events of the previous evening. After speaking to dispatch, I wander around and discover the shredded backpack that Bruinetta” had stolen from our neighbors. The area is littered with candy and jerky wrappers—the careless gunslinger had not stored their food properly and “Bruinetta” had a snack.
During breakfast three teenagers come into our camp from below to “apologize” for the noise. We learn that they are from Texas, have little wilderness experience and were in a panic. We try to politely explain some of the rules of wilderness travel. We also learned that the weapon was a Glock 9mm and they had chopped down a live tree for the bonfire. Holly shit, backpackers packing heat with their granola.
As we are talking, a young, female ranger comes strolling into camp asking, “Are you Fred, they guy who called us?” Nuts, now the neighbors know that I am the one who turned them in. Great. She sends our visitors back to their camp telling them she will be down in few minutes. After taking our report, the young ranger wanders down the hill to our neighbors to help them understand wilderness and bear etiquette.
To leave or not leave? The gun-slinging party appears to be staying another night. The question is in our minds. What to do? We see the ranger at mid-day on the trail while returning from a day hike. We ask her opinion. She tells us the Texans are nervous, out of their element, yet within their rights to fire a weapon if they felt they were in eminent danger. She also explained that she had given them some hints on how to deal with a curious bear and mentioned they would be more comfortable if we stayed in our camp. So we stayed.
The sun sets, the stars are brilliant and the moon is just starting to come up. The camp below us erupts in bedlam. Pots banging on pans. Whistles are blown. Flashlights and headlamps illuminate Bruinetta while rocks are launched in her direction. They chase her almost 200 yards along the shoreline. We stand on the rocks and cheer. Good job. No gun fire. Yea. No guns.
I spend the hour after my crowd crawls into their sleeping bags watching the reflection of the moon in the lake, the soft glow of snow on the peak and attempting to glimpse a shooting star.
Bruinetta and her cubs provided the excitement. However, 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 (site in the photo), gazing at the reflection of Banner Peak in the lake or feeling the energy of the moon shining on the mountain were the joyous moments of this trip. These are the reasons we journey to the wilderness. The sounds of nature, the sights of nature, the smells of nature, the taste of Kathy’s gourmet backpacker cuisine with fresh mountain water, and the laughter while playing “Wollman Rules” full-contact UNO are why we go to the wilderness.
Experience the wilderness. Energize yourself with sights, sounds and smells of the simple life. Challenge your body with a long walk. But stay in your comfort zone. Leave the guns at home. Please.