The Bears of Kings Canyon

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Mary Beth serving the tribe before putting everything in the “bear box.”

The hand-written notice at the campground registration kiosk is an eyebrow-raiser. It says, “Attention: Bears have been breaking into cars here. DO NOT store food in cars.” Hmm, I thought as I filled in the campsite registration form. Bears actually breaking into cars?… I haven’t heard of that before.

It’s June of 1996 and our family of five is on an extended US road trip, camping out of the car, exploring from town to town, national park to national park. Our three sons are 4, 7, and 9,  grubby on their exteriors, full of curiosity and wonder within. Our little Plymouth van is laden with camping gear, cans of spaghetti and beans, books, maps, and Beanie Babies. Marybeth is the master organizer and ensures that things are kept shipshape. Man, life on the road is fun.

For the past few days we have been in Sequoia National Park, in California’s Sierra Nevada. It’s a mystical experience to be in the presence of the colossal, awesome Sequoia redwood trees. We love hiking amongst them, craning our necks to see into their distant canopies, and with our tiny human hands caressing their trunks to appreciate not just their bulk but their majesty. Huge granite boulders lay strewn about and the air is cool and thick with the scents of white fir, incense cedar, and yellow pine. Marybeth and I agree that it’s worth driving 3,000 miles just to spend an afternoon in this place.

Earlier today we explored the trail to Crescent Meadow, a place that naturalist John Muir called “the gem of the Sierra,” and took in the expansive view from the granite dome of Moro Rock.

But the crew is getting weary; it’s time to find a campsite for the night and this time it’s in Kings Canyon National Park just next door to Sequoia. Thus we find ourselves at the check-in kiosk at busy Dorst Campground.

We’re lucky to get a site this late in the day because this place is popular. We get one of the last tent sites available. The harried ranger confirms for us -before he rushes off to address a mild crisis in Loop C- the fact that yes, bears break into closed, locked vehicles all the time here. “Just put all food, pots and pans, anything even remotely associated with food in the bear box!” He yells as he dashes away.

We roll into campsite 18B and Marybeth, who’s been reflecting on the bear issue for a few minutes -like for instance how thin the nylon fabric of our tent is- upon spying the big steel food box by the picnic table states soberly, “I might spend the night in that food box myself.” She’s probably kidding but I’m not sure.

The two older boys disappear in the campground neighborhood, ever on the mission of seeking and finding other kids to play with, while Marybeth and I set up our simple camp. Taylor drives his toy cars through the dirt of the tent pad after he helps us set up the three-person -five in a pinch- North Face dome. I prepare yet another outstanding -yeah right- version of Daddy Stew on the single-burner stove.

Later, we’re falling asleep as I read to Adam from Oliver Twist. The campground is pretty quiet; other folks must have had a big day too.

Following what must have been a few hours of quiet and snoozing I’m roused by yelling from across the campground, followed by general disturbance in the place. It turns out that a bear -or two or three- has come a-foraging. From the safety -haha- of our tent I see spotlights and an open-top Jeep driving around. The college guys in it -hired for the job- are encouraging the bears to leave with the spotlights and what sounds like banging pots and pans. In a little while the commotion fades and while sleepiness returns, actual further sleep is not in the cards for the rest of this night. Every so often, the yells and clatter erupt again; the entire campground awake for sure, only to die down quiet yet again.

Like I said, this is a very popular campground, full every night, and as such there will always be those folks careless with food and cooking, and once the wildlife, including bears, is accustomed to the tastiness of human food they’ll do most anything to get it.

While I’m not afraid of the bears doing us bodily harm -I know they’re just after a tasty and easy meal- it is a bit unsettling to have the big, long-clawed bruins among us. Thankfully we had dutifully placed all of our food and cooking utensils in the steel bear-proof box.

At some point in the night a clever and motivated bear breaks into a food-tainted car in the adjacent campsite. So it’s true. Closed and locked vehicles are not bear-proof, not here in Kings Canyon anyway. This event is heralded by loud squeaking and clunking as the deal unfolds, and the feeble beam from my headlamp allows a glimpse of it all prior to the bear being shooed off by the college guys. I won’t even be drowsy after this episode, and we lie in our sleeping bags awaiting daybreak as occasional racket yet erupts across Dorst Campground.

As the dawn sheds light on the excitement of the previous night we find out how the bears do it: using their strong and substantial claws -and associated brute force- they peel back the corner of a car door window frame and keep bending and battering it until the window falls out or the door opens, either of which allows a good portion -if not all- of the bear’s bulk to invade the vehicle and successfully reap the goodies within.

Pretty impressive, you’ll have to agree. It’s all further affirmation of the power of incentive -for bears as well as for people- that in this life where there’s a will there’s a way.

Johnny Robinson