My Girl Guide career was brief and largely underwhelming. I was good at three things: making fires, scaring the shit out of the other girls with late-night ghost stories, and playing ‘spotlight’.
I sucked at putting up tents, taking down tents, washing up camp equipment in the dark, tying knots, and using a compass. I choked on the Kool-Aid when it came to reciting the Baden-Powell-cult manifestos and adhering to guidelines on how ‘nice’ girls behaved (I’m sure the Girl Guides Association has since undergone an overhaul when it comes to gender roles and bias, but back in the early 90’s the Goulburn branch was essentially a Stepford Wife training facility). I hated sleeping on the ground and spent an inordinate amount of time shaking the grit out of my sleeping bag.
Yet I somehow still managed to get my camping ‘badges’, symbolising my mediocre-yet-passable skills at surviving the outdoors. I remember this mostly involved learning to tie a reef knot, which I can still do (it’s up there with Pythagorean theorem on the knowledge-I’ve-never-ever-used-since spectrum). But nowhere in the guidebook of requisite Girl Guide knowledge was there any information offered on how to subdue, ward off, outrun or avoid getting eaten by a bear.
Surely this is something you’d expect the Girl Guide syllabus to cover – at least in the USA. The Australian guidebook should probably have a section on how to avoid getting killed by, oh, just about everything. But bears would have to be a fairly major consideration in the USA – and particularly Yosemite National Park, which is currently chock-full of Black bears hunting for tasty treats in preparation for winter.
Unexpectedly, Yosemite was just as spectacular as the Grand Canyon. Possibly more so, in my humble opinion. When we first drove into the park, it was all bendy road and hairpins through alpine forest – lovely (and lovely smelling), but nothing to blog home about.
Then we stopped off at Mariposa Grove, a stretch of the park full of magnificent, ancient sequoia trees. One of them, called the ‘Grizzly Giant’ is around 1,800 years old and gigantic – both in circumference and height. Walking amongst these giants we also spotted several deer, and promptly turned into big dorks (a deer! A female deer!). So Mariposa was quite impressive.
Then we drove an hour or so further into the park towards Yosemite Valley, and our first view of that as we came around the bend was like a beautiful punch in the face. It is monumental, almost unearthly. Driving through it (top down!) you’re surrounded by towering granite and shadowed forest. You’re struck by the feeling that this place has stood for eons, and will still be standing long after there’s no one left to see it. It’s like driving through eternity.
In a similar fashion to our time in the Grand Canyon, we decided to start our first full day in Yosemite (which also happens to be our second wedding anniversary) with one of the many hikes on offer.
There are two options close to our lodge – the Upper Falls trail, a steep elevation hike that winds up one of the granite cliff faces (and during the Spring melt offers amazing views of the waterfall – alas, it’s completely dry during our stay but the views of the valley itself are outstanding), and the Lower Falls trail, a completely flat walk that takes you past the foot of the falls. The latter is about as challenging as walking to our mailbox at home, which means it draws the majority of the tourist crowds. Thus we choose the Upper Falls trail, confident that our Grand Canyon hike was good training for another climb.
We set out on the walk at around 7.30am, when most of the other tourists were either still sleeping or eating their 500 pancakes with a side of coronary heart disease for breakfast. It’s a pretty trail, enclosed by forest and rockery. Before too long we’d hiked a good way above the valley, and could no longer hear or see signs of other human life.
That’s when it got creepy.
Not too much further on, we realized we couldn’t hear any birds singing either. Not a single peep.
You know that irrational feeling that steals over you sometimes when you’re doing something banal like standing in your kitchen, slicing tomatoes? That undeniable Dagobah-feeling of being watched? Well, I can confirm it’s about 100 times more uncomfortable when you’re traipsing through an utterly silent, bear-infested alpine forest full of shadows with nothing but a full bottle of Mount Franklin and a loud screaming-voice at your disposal as potential defense.
So I did the only thing I could think of: I started singing the annoying Bear Song I learnt during my Girl Guide days. If you’re blessedly ignorant of the annoying Bear Song, you can find it in its entirety here.
Singing this seemed to help because a) it humanises bears and makes you unrealistically hopeful that you could maybe reason with one, b) it’s a song about someone who successfully escapes being eaten by a bear – so in that regard it was good for morale, and c) they say making lots of unpleasant noise can frighten bears off. If I actually saw one I’m not sure I’d have the nerve to start yelling at it, so my obnoxious singing was actually a highly strategic pre-emptive strike.
Meanwhile, Brendan took to lugging a large rock in each hand and occasionally cracking them together as a warning sound (for the bears, not me – however this did have the added effect of frightening me into walking faster). Walking briskly up the cliff face, I started writing the possible media headlines in my head.
Australian Couple Eaten by Bear on Second Wedding Anniversary.
Woman Sings to Pass the Time as She is Slowly Digested.
Although the feeling of being watched didn’t go away, we made it to the top of the trail unscathed and admired the views of the valley below before quickly hauling arse to get the hell out of there and back down the trail.
About a third of the way to the bottom, we (finally) see other tourists on their way up. They’re standing completely still, looking at something on the trail bend ahead. As we get closer we see there’s an enormous bobcat stretched out across the centre of the path we’d walked not 10 minutes before, yawning and looking kind of like me first thing in the morning before the coffee kicks in; pissed off. He was also quite fat, as if he’d been down at the lodge cafeteria scarfing pancakes and bacon.
Disturbing a feline the size of our German Wirehaired Pointer dog back home was the last thing we wanted, so we strayed off the path and clambered down the side of the hill to avoid him. He took no notice of us, not even when we took photos – which is probably a good thing. I doubt bobcats are interested in hurting/eating humans, but I wouldn’t want to tangle with one.
And so we survived our hike through the Yosemite wilderness. Aside from more deer and the unruly family of tourists/herd of elephants staying in the cabin above us, the bobcat was the only form of wildlife we saw during our Yosemite adventure. As much as I’d love to see a bear in the wild, I much preferred celebrating our anniversary with romantic dinner to being on the seasonal hibernation menu.
Postscript: As it turns out, Yosemite’s Black bears are largely vegetarian. However, they will enthusiastically approach humans carrying food or anything that remotely smells like food – including cosmetics and plastic water bottles – and they often get stuck in bins left open on the site by stupid tourists, as they search for tasty scraps. But it’s comforting to know any bear we came across probably would have chosen a handful of berries over a handful of Emma.