Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Blog #28

Yosemite Bears

Cartoon by Bill Mason ceramic by Carol Janda

The people who read this blog have told me to stop messing around and go back to what I do best: telling stories that may or may not be factual. So here's an excerpt on Yosemite bears from a book I'm writing about my National Park years. Cartoon bears are a lot of fun. Real bears are wild animals whose behavior is modified by living in common with us.

The dump was closed. For many years, an area near Camp Curry was used as a dump. Later, responding to the growth in trash, the garbage was hauled out of the park. A transfer station had replaced the old dump but generations of bears had been using the dump for a long time and they had taught their offspring to visit it. So when the bears came sniffing around the dumpsters at night there would be dozens of flashes going off from cameras of visitors looking for wildlife shots to take home. I have no idea how many people watched slide shows which included pictures of bears trying to get into secured dumpsters. Rangers had to referee the nightly dumpster jamboree to keep the players apart. 

The bears became more adept at getting food every year and raided campsites and cars on a regular basis. The issue was exacerbated by fools who fed the bears in order to get a photo.
The bear population of Yosemite Valley was estimated at just under forty. Interactions with visitors became a serious problem. We were required to kill bears that attacked visitors. We knew the bears on a personal-name basis. They were named by seasonal employees. I was tasked with euthanizing the bear known as “El Cid”. He had clawed a pair of teenagers who had waded to a wooded island to get some privacy and the pair were suffering from a bad case of Ursus Interruptus.

Two seasonal Rangers and I began to follow the big male bear through the campgrounds. I carried a .375 caliber Weatherby magnum rifle designed for killing large animals. Killing a bear with a big gun without hitting someone in our filled up campgrounds and lodges was not an easy task. All afternoon and evening we followed him until about ten at night when we finally found a place to take the shot. The bear had decided to wade across the Merced River downstream from Stoneman Bridge. We had followed him through Camp Seven and from up on the bank I could shoot at a downward angle with the opposite bank as an effective backstop.

My father had taught me to shoot when I was a young teen and after my Army Reserve training I became an instructor in all of the hand-carried weapons. But this was a difficult shot. The bear was in the water moving away and the ranger’s flashlights were wavering as the two of them were breathing hard. I was also puffing a little from the jogging pursuit and needed a brace-rest to get the shot. The closest rest was the side of a small Airstream trailer in a campsite right above the river. I braced against the trailer, calmed my breathing and found the bear in the telescopic sight.

The Weatherby has a huge cartridge and it makes a hellacious loud noise when you fire it. When the rifle went off the poor fellow asleep inside the aluminum and wood structure had a terrible awakening. Boom! went the rifle. I cranked another round in as the bear rose up and spun around twice and then dropped into the shallows dead. The first shot had been true. During all of this, the camper popped his head out the door to see what was going on, and here was a ranger cloaked in gun-smoke with a rifle yelling, “Get back inside.” He did.

I waded out with the rifle ready, but the shot had been placed right and the big bear was dead. We rousted several seasonal rangers out of their tents and dragged the bear out of the river, up the bank and into the pickup. I weighed the truck, drove the bear to the site we used to dispose of the carcasses and went back and weighed the truck again. It’s a rough estimate, but the bear weighed about six hundred pounds and was the biggest Yosemite Black Bear I ever saw. In the morning I went back to apologize to the camper. He was O.K. with the whole deal, had gotten his hearing back to normal and was telling the story to other campers.

Next time I'll tell you about when I chased a bear around in the lobby of the Ahwahnee Hotel.Or was it the bear chasing me?

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