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Welcome to Bear Country

Solo camping in the Sierras' Little Lakes, a 6.5-hour drive north of S.D.

Although I had only been home a month, I had irrationally hoped to get my ideal big girl job and within a few months be settled in my big girl apartment. Since I was nowhere near that goal and was feeling very low, I opted for a camping trip near Bishop.

I packed a few essentials and off we went on the six-hour drive north, making a brief stop at the end to get my overnight permit at the ranger station.

The turn on Tom’s Place opened onto a fresh scene: tall alpine trees and a small river running parallel to the road. There was a slight chill as the windy road took us higher up in elevation. Smelling the freedom, Maya popped her head out the window, her nose out with pure puppy dog joy.

Bear Country prep

I quickly put on my socks and hiking shoes. Then the battle began. First, I had to put my food into the newly purchased bear canister. Since this was the heart of bear country, the canister is required for both human and pup food. I rushed out of the sports shop and barely paid any attention to the instructions the guy tried to give me. It was something along the lines of “Push down and twist”.

At the time, I thought it was pretty self-explanatory. After all, bears don’t have opposable thumbs. How hard could it be?

I stood there in the parking lot looking at the round canister. It was worse than childproof medicine containers. After another minute of examining it, I pushed the middle and twisted the lid. Yay for thumbs. The lid was free! With dinner and snacks in the container, another battle of sticking the rather large container into my backpack ensued. It took a few moments of wrestling my bright orange sleeping bag and manipulating the fabric to accommodate another item, but I won that too.

Little Lakes Trail

Maya and I hit the trail. It was off-leash friendly, so once we were clear of the parking lot, Maya was free to run. The name reflects the trail: “Little Lakes”.

A well-worn dirt path winds around several lakes of different sizes. It's welcoming enough for novice hikers, but not overly populated to leave those of more experience annoyed. The tall, rocky-grey Blue Mountains still contain thick sheets of snow despite being in the middle of July.

Maya and I veered off the path to look over one of the rocky ledges above Long Lake.

Photo-op along the trail.

After all this time, Maya knows the routine. Although some would say as a dog she lacks such insight, she understands that a picture is always necessary. She has developed the habit of finding the highest rock nearest the edge and standing on it looking pensively at the view. She awaits patiently as I set up our friend Tripod and snap a few pictures to ensure the right angle. I set the timer, run to the spot, pose, and wait for the click. It’s our thing.

While Maya sniffed around the trees, I stood there looking at the valley. The tall mountain peaks and the alpine forest reflected perfectly on the tranquil water. The warm sun and slight glacier breeze made it a perfect hiking day.

Camping (with instructions)

Settling at Chickenfoot Lake, I set up camp near the lake. Fifty feet away from water is a requirement of camping. Not quite adept at visually calculating any sort of distance, I hoped for the best, figuring that a ranger would educate me if I was in violation.

The sun had begun to set and it got chilly. Maya frolicked in the water and sniffed around within her usual range, while I set up camp. After another brief battle with the bear canister, I succeeded in rescuing my dinner and began to cook my Tap Ramen in my handy-dandy Jet Boil Mini-Mo. The creator of that device is my hero.

The ranger had provided me with an education pamphlet on how to set up camp. Silliness, I thought, and didn’t pay much attention to it. But as I sat there looking at the emerging but somehow ominous full moon, I read what was given to me.

A triangle diagram encouraged campers to put the tent at one point, bear canister at another, and other food associated camping supplies in a third area.

Being a big fan of MacGyver and Swiss Family Robinson, I opted to place the bear canister on a leeward rocky ledge and then add rocks on top. Should a bear feel so inclined to nosey his way into my little camp and try to devour my snacks, I would hear him and be prepared. Snuggly into a tree, I put my other supplies in a plastic bag and hung it appropriately.

With the moon brightly shining over us and the air far too cold, Maya and I tucked ourselves comfortably into the tent.

As I did anytime I was free camping, I ensured that my knife and taser were in a quick grab position. I imagined various bear attack scenarios and designed exit strategies accordingly. Confident that Maya and I would be able to survive, I fell asleep to the whistle of the wind in the middle of a chapter of The Sun Also Rises.

Regardless of how easy it is for me to sleep almost anywhere, my brain still adjusts to my surroundings. As intuition deems, I wake up periodically to use my senses ensuring I am still safe.

This night was no different…. I woke up around 2 a.m. But this time, something was amiss. Maya was fast asleep at my feet. Normally she's quick to alert me of noises. But not tonight.

I heard something but I couldn’t identify it. Was it just the wind dancing in the trees and playfully throwing water against the rocky edges of the lake?

Nope. Something else.

Then I heard it. In the direction of the bear canister, something hit the ground.

Uh-oh.

Whatever had dropped the canister from the rock was rolling it around.

Wide awake, my ears were listening for every single movement of whatever creature was out there. I held my breath. Best guess was a bear. I really really wanted to peak my head out with my camera. It would be such a beautiful picture: the bear next to the lake under the full moon. But of course practical me knew better. I remained still. Maya continued to sleep. I wondered if a barking dog would frighten or challenge the bear. I should have asked the ranger.

Soon the creature got bored. I breathed again.

Until I heard the footsteps in front of my tent. I snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag while envisioning and mentally preparing for my bear battle. Another few footsteps and then…

Silence.

I listened for a few more minutes until my adrenaline and curiosity ceased. I opened my tent and peered outside. The moon hung in the sky while the stars twinkled.

Peace.

I fell back asleep and awoke to the dawn light. Maya woke up and we shimmied out of the tent.

Wondering if perhaps it was just a dream or my wild imagination, I walked over to the bear canister.

It wasn’t a dream; the canister clearly had been tampered with. Yesterday it was safely in a box. Now it had scratch marks. Welcome to Bear Country.

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Maya looking out over Long Lake, two miles from the Little Lakes trailhead.
Maya looking out over Long Lake, two miles from the Little Lakes trailhead.

Although I had only been home a month, I had irrationally hoped to get my ideal big girl job and within a few months be settled in my big girl apartment. Since I was nowhere near that goal and was feeling very low, I opted for a camping trip near Bishop.

I packed a few essentials and off we went on the six-hour drive north, making a brief stop at the end to get my overnight permit at the ranger station.

The turn on Tom’s Place opened onto a fresh scene: tall alpine trees and a small river running parallel to the road. There was a slight chill as the windy road took us higher up in elevation. Smelling the freedom, Maya popped her head out the window, her nose out with pure puppy dog joy.

Bear Country prep

I quickly put on my socks and hiking shoes. Then the battle began. First, I had to put my food into the newly purchased bear canister. Since this was the heart of bear country, the canister is required for both human and pup food. I rushed out of the sports shop and barely paid any attention to the instructions the guy tried to give me. It was something along the lines of “Push down and twist”.

At the time, I thought it was pretty self-explanatory. After all, bears don’t have opposable thumbs. How hard could it be?

I stood there in the parking lot looking at the round canister. It was worse than childproof medicine containers. After another minute of examining it, I pushed the middle and twisted the lid. Yay for thumbs. The lid was free! With dinner and snacks in the container, another battle of sticking the rather large container into my backpack ensued. It took a few moments of wrestling my bright orange sleeping bag and manipulating the fabric to accommodate another item, but I won that too.

Little Lakes Trail

Maya and I hit the trail. It was off-leash friendly, so once we were clear of the parking lot, Maya was free to run. The name reflects the trail: “Little Lakes”.

A well-worn dirt path winds around several lakes of different sizes. It's welcoming enough for novice hikers, but not overly populated to leave those of more experience annoyed. The tall, rocky-grey Blue Mountains still contain thick sheets of snow despite being in the middle of July.

Maya and I veered off the path to look over one of the rocky ledges above Long Lake.

Photo-op along the trail.

After all this time, Maya knows the routine. Although some would say as a dog she lacks such insight, she understands that a picture is always necessary. She has developed the habit of finding the highest rock nearest the edge and standing on it looking pensively at the view. She awaits patiently as I set up our friend Tripod and snap a few pictures to ensure the right angle. I set the timer, run to the spot, pose, and wait for the click. It’s our thing.

While Maya sniffed around the trees, I stood there looking at the valley. The tall mountain peaks and the alpine forest reflected perfectly on the tranquil water. The warm sun and slight glacier breeze made it a perfect hiking day.

Camping (with instructions)

Settling at Chickenfoot Lake, I set up camp near the lake. Fifty feet away from water is a requirement of camping. Not quite adept at visually calculating any sort of distance, I hoped for the best, figuring that a ranger would educate me if I was in violation.

The sun had begun to set and it got chilly. Maya frolicked in the water and sniffed around within her usual range, while I set up camp. After another brief battle with the bear canister, I succeeded in rescuing my dinner and began to cook my Tap Ramen in my handy-dandy Jet Boil Mini-Mo. The creator of that device is my hero.

The ranger had provided me with an education pamphlet on how to set up camp. Silliness, I thought, and didn’t pay much attention to it. But as I sat there looking at the emerging but somehow ominous full moon, I read what was given to me.

A triangle diagram encouraged campers to put the tent at one point, bear canister at another, and other food associated camping supplies in a third area.

Being a big fan of MacGyver and Swiss Family Robinson, I opted to place the bear canister on a leeward rocky ledge and then add rocks on top. Should a bear feel so inclined to nosey his way into my little camp and try to devour my snacks, I would hear him and be prepared. Snuggly into a tree, I put my other supplies in a plastic bag and hung it appropriately.

With the moon brightly shining over us and the air far too cold, Maya and I tucked ourselves comfortably into the tent.

As I did anytime I was free camping, I ensured that my knife and taser were in a quick grab position. I imagined various bear attack scenarios and designed exit strategies accordingly. Confident that Maya and I would be able to survive, I fell asleep to the whistle of the wind in the middle of a chapter of The Sun Also Rises.

Regardless of how easy it is for me to sleep almost anywhere, my brain still adjusts to my surroundings. As intuition deems, I wake up periodically to use my senses ensuring I am still safe.

This night was no different…. I woke up around 2 a.m. But this time, something was amiss. Maya was fast asleep at my feet. Normally she's quick to alert me of noises. But not tonight.

I heard something but I couldn’t identify it. Was it just the wind dancing in the trees and playfully throwing water against the rocky edges of the lake?

Nope. Something else.

Then I heard it. In the direction of the bear canister, something hit the ground.

Uh-oh.

Whatever had dropped the canister from the rock was rolling it around.

Wide awake, my ears were listening for every single movement of whatever creature was out there. I held my breath. Best guess was a bear. I really really wanted to peak my head out with my camera. It would be such a beautiful picture: the bear next to the lake under the full moon. But of course practical me knew better. I remained still. Maya continued to sleep. I wondered if a barking dog would frighten or challenge the bear. I should have asked the ranger.

Soon the creature got bored. I breathed again.

Until I heard the footsteps in front of my tent. I snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag while envisioning and mentally preparing for my bear battle. Another few footsteps and then…

Silence.

I listened for a few more minutes until my adrenaline and curiosity ceased. I opened my tent and peered outside. The moon hung in the sky while the stars twinkled.

Peace.

I fell back asleep and awoke to the dawn light. Maya woke up and we shimmied out of the tent.

Wondering if perhaps it was just a dream or my wild imagination, I walked over to the bear canister.

It wasn’t a dream; the canister clearly had been tampered with. Yesterday it was safely in a box. Now it had scratch marks. Welcome to Bear Country.

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