A few weeks ago, my friend Emma and I set off into the San Gabriel Mountains on what we called our 'badass girls-only backpacking weekend.' The idea was simple: we'd find the strong, independent badass women we have within ourselves by spending a night on the trail, carrying all the weight and managing all the navigating - no guys allowed. Who needs 'em, right?
So one Saturday morning, we hiked into the San Gabriels with our packs, two days' worth of food, and plenty of water. I had scanned the trail info pages out of my backpacking book so I had something to reference if we got lost, and I made sure to let my mom and boyfriend know exactly where we were headed in case of emergency. My bear spray hung from my backpack strap so it was easily accessible - you never know when you're gonna need it.
It was Emma's first backpacking trip - which also meant it was the first time for me to be in the role of 'teacher' rather than 'apprentice.' So I helped Emma distribute the weight within her pack, and gave her a few tips on using the trekking poles I'd brought, and off we went. As we began hiking, my bear spray started to sway, hitting me in the shoulder like a nagging reminder. "Oh yeah," I said, "I should probably teach you what to do if we were to encounter a black bear. Just in case - it's highly unlikely we'll actually see one."
Here's the gist, as taught to me by my backpacking mentor:
- Don't run. Slowly back away from the bear in the direction from which you came.
- Hold your pack up above your head. Make yourself look as big as possible.
- Yell and make noise; your size and sounds will most likely scare the bear away.
- Use your bear spray only if and when necessary.
So later that afternoon, after we had set up camp near the river and the sun was just beginning to descend and give everything a pretty shade of gold, we started cooking dinner. The menu consisted of ramen, dried apricots and beef jerky, with copious handfuls of trail mix. At this point we were feeling quite proud of ourselves - we've hiked all the way in and found a place to stay for the night; half the battle was won. Just as we were laughing and eating and feeling like we'd found the badasses within ourselves we'd been searching for, a black bear came traipsing through our campsite, straight for us and our food.
We were in a bit of a predicament as the bear approached us by coming through our campsite, which meant the bear was between us and our packs. This meant two things: 1) we could only make ourselves look as big as we are with our arms above our heads, and 2) I didn't have my bear spray (it was still hanging from the strap on my pack). So we stood up and slowly backed away from where we were cooking our food, yelling at it to see if that may be enough to scare it off. But as we backed away yelling, it only came closer to close in on our food, grabbing our bag of beef jerky and running off.
As soon as the bear took off towards the river, I took the opportunity to grab my bear spray from my pack and make sure my knife was readily available. I'll admit that this was likely overkill (who am I, DiCaprio in The Revenant?!), but it's a little jarring when a wild animal the size of a large Rottweiler comes traipsing into your campsite and stealing your food.
My main concern was that we had more food, and that this bear did not seem to be afraid of us whatsoever. I kept a close eye on the bear as he chowed down on what was nearly a full bag of expensive beef jerky, scared and a little angry. What would keep him from coming back for seconds?
Answer: nothing much. After he finished his appetizer, he came back for a second course. Our screaming and slamming pots and silverware did nothing to deter him, so once he was about three yards away from me, I aimed - and sprayed. The cloud it him, and he sneezed and backed away, running over to the other side of our campsite. There it perched itself on a rock, saliva dripping from his mouth as a result of the bear spray, and watched us.
The bummer about this whole situation is that Emma and I also got bear sprayed. With the cloud lingering in the air, and the two of us clambering around our campsite trying to gather our things together so we could get out of there, the residual spray got into our eyes and nostrils. With my shirt covering my nose to avoid breathing in any more, I stood at the edge of our campsite to keep the bear at bay while Emma took down camp and hastily shoved everything back into our packs. Once we had everything, we slowly backed away until we were out of site, and then began run/hiking back down the trail.
On our hike out, we had passed a group of three guys who also had set up their camp by the river. "Let's just make it to where those guys were and we'll feel safer," I said to Emma as we laboriously made our way down the trail in our sandals, carrying half of our things in our hands. it was too late in the day to hike back out before dark, and if we were to set up camp in a separate location alone, what was to keep us from another bear finding us and our food there?
We came around the bend, huffing and puffing, to find said guys hanging out at their campsite. We quickly explained our situation and asked if we might be able to set up our hammocks near their site. They graciously welcomed us to set up anywhere there was room, and even offered us some of their food since most of our dinner was stolen.
So there we found ourselves, on our 'badass girls-only backpacking weekend,' surrounded by a group of guys from whom we required their protection and assistance. "GOD DAMMIT," I thought. We've failed. After a few rounds of whiskey and coke (also so graciously provided by this group of guys), we admitted that we had set out on a backpacking trip meant to be 'girls only.' "How ironic," I admitted, "that we'd end up here with all of you guys - not very badass of us."
To that, one of them said, "You guys handled a bear! That's like, the most badass thing. None of US had to deal with a bear tonight!" Emma and I made eye contact. "That's true," I said. "I guess I hadn't looked at it that way."
In the morning when the sun came up, we packed up our things and thanked the guys for being so helpful and kind. "No worries," one said, "trail angels - everyone needs them. Just pay it forward!" And pay it forward we sure will. Who knows, maybe someday we'll need to be trail angels for someone else whose dinners were eaten by a bear.