Day 79: Our First (and only) Bear Sighting!

June 8, 2018

835.8-849.3

The next morning when I climbed out of my tent to fetch my bear can, there was no moon and the sun hadn’t even started to rise yet. The sky was crystal clear and the air surprisingly warm for how high up we were, which meant that the snow going over Muir Pass would not be very frozen and we’d probably be post-holing a lot. But I couldn’t focus on what was to come because at that moment I was completely awestruck by the sky, so inky black that the stars jumped out at me and the milky way was as vivid as I’d ever seen it.

I knew I needed to get my rear in gear so we could make it up the pass before it got too warm, but I couldn’t move. This was what I’d hiked up here to see – the things you don’t get to see if you don’t go these distances and climb these mountains and suffer the pain and fatigue and sheer exhaustion. I thought about taking a picture but I knew it would be pointless. I decided rather than try to capture the moment I would just stay in it for as long as possible to commit it to memory, to remind myself during my low points on the trail why I’d decided to hike the PCT at all. 

Muir Pass turned out to be one of the easiest passes in the Sierra, in my opinion. Though it was certainly no casual walk in the woods and we certainly did posthole toward the very bottom, the climb proved to be a lot of fun. We left camp at about 5:00am and were hiking just before light along with at least a dozen other hikers. There was almost no trail to be seen so we followed the packed footprints in the snow left by hikers who’d gone before us.

Ghosthiker insisted I was the best at finding the easiest route via footprints and she wanted me to lead. I couldn’t tell if she was being genuine or just trying to make me feel better after yesterday, but I didn’t argue. While some hikers insisted on using Guthooks to stay right on the trail as much as possible, even if they couldn’t actually see the trail and it often meant post-holing, I opted to take the path in the snow left by other hikers. It was often packed, melted, and re-frozen, so there was a lot less post-holing involved.

A bit of snow-free trail leading to the climb.

Muir Shelter sits at the top of Muir Pass at a little over 11,900’, and it was fairly crawling with hikers when we arrived! It was nice to know we were not the only ones crazy enough to brave this section of the trail right after so much snowfall. It was a lovely day with an easy grade down the other side of Muir Pass which, incidentally, was the first pass we didn’t need our ice axes to climb. My kind of mountaineering, for sure. 

The way down was so easy many people were hiking side-by-side since we were walking over a vast landscape of snow, and we were able to meet and chat with lots of unfamiliar hikers. We also ran into Influx, a hiker we’d met at the McDonald’s in Cajon in our way south during our trailcation. We were shocked and impressed by how fast he’d gotten this far, and he said he was starting school in September so he had no time to lose. That was the last time we saw him.

I feel a mixture of jealousy and sympathy for hikers on a deadline. As much as I’d love to be one of those speedy young people, I’d definitely been dealing with too much foot and health trouble to up my pace and, like taking time to look at the stars or the vast landscape, I wanted to try and enjoy what I’d worked so hard to be able to see out here. To each his own, I guess.

Can you see the hikers?

I was having a real problem with nasal congestion since entering the Sierra (another health issue, I know), which was very inconvenient since I’d switched to using a hanky instead of Kleenex while hiking. I would end up blowing so much snot into the hanky that I had to wipe it on a rock or a branch or something or my hanky gets really disgusting. It was really just for wiping after a good snot rocket.

You’re probably wondering why I’m explaining this nasty aspect of hiking. Well, I’d cleared my nose of a huge booger and wiped it from the hanky to a rock so the rain could wash it away later. 

“Man, that booger’s been bugging me forever!” I said to Ghosthiker who was hiking behind me. She was always speaking freely about such things, so I figured if anybody would be able to sympathize with such a statement it would be Ghosthiker. Several steps later I looked back and it wasn’t Ghosthiker at all but a total stranger hiking behind me! I’m sure my face turned beet-red as I let him pass me. Ghosthiker was close behind him and I told her what I’d just done. We had a good laugh about it. 

We passed by the large and winding Evolution Lake, which was gorgeous. Ghosthiker and I couldn’t resist. We shed our packs and anything important out of our pockets and jumped in. It was freezing cold and totally worth it. Afterward, we sunned ourselves on a large rock for almost an hour. 

We also saw our first PCT bear today! Barely Used and Breaker had been sitting down to take a “pack-off” break, saw the bear not far from them, and immediately took off back up the trail to what they felt was a safe distance. When we arrived a few minutes later they told us they’d seen a bear cub and were afraid the mamma bear might be close by. We, of course, had been dying to see our first bear and so marched right over to where they said they’d last seen it. It was up the hill about 200 ft off just lumbering about, and it was definitely not a bear cub. They must have expected an adult black bear to be more the size of a grizzly, but many black bears are notoriously small (which does NOT make them less dangerous, fyi). We took some photos and videos but the bear was not very interested in us and was kind of hard to see in the shade of the trees.

Earlier that day the mosquitoes had started getting bad, so I’d put on some bug repellant that I’d concocted at home using essential oils. This particular blend had always worked for me at home but out here in the mountains the mosquitoes are made of tougher stuff, I guess. It worked a little bit but mostly it just made me smell like hiker funk and fruity essential oils.

It occurred to me as we were standing there admiring the bear that we were standing upwind of him/her, and that I probably smelled very fruity. And just as this thought crossed my mind, I swear that bear stopped, turned its head, and looked directly at me.

“He’s staring at you, Trooper!” Ghosthiker said.

“Yeah, uh…we should go.” I said, not panicked but certainly aware that I may have just put us in a bad situation.

“What’s up?” Sparky asked.

I told them I thought maybe the bear had caught my sweaty fruit loop scent because he/she had suddenly taken an interest in us. Or me.

The five of us, including Gently Used and Breaker, hastily moved on.

Not a great photo.
See him staring me down?

Sparky later told our friends that if they see another bear to not leave their packs behind if they feel they have to run, and also to not run. This encourages them to give chase. If the bears get ahold of their food they become accustomed to it and become problems for other hikers. Once they learn humans in the area have food, they need to either be relocated or put down.

All in all, it was another lovely day of hiking, to be sure, even though it was the first day we encountered a real mosquito problem on trail. Until then they’d been mild to nonexistent, but at the bottom of Muir Pass they were out in force! We’d planned to hike to the alternate Evolution River crossing and camp there but found a nice spot just before the trail junction and several miles from the bear sighting, and we decided to camp there instead. Gently Used and Breaker decided to keep going, so we bid them goodnight and said we’d see them up the trail.

As soon as we removed our packs I replaced my hiking shirt with my wind/rain jacket (which the mosquitoes can’t poke me through!) and rinsed my shirt really well in the creek. It still smelled like hiker funk, but the fruitloop smell was weakened somewhat. It didn’t dry all the way by bedtime so it went into the bear can a little damp. I don’t need a bear trying to eat my only shirt in the night. 

We hastily cooked and ate our dinner while swatting mosquitoes, then built a small fire in the designated fire ring and burned all our flammable trash, like used Kleenex and toilet paper and other paper-based things. Less weight to carry. After that we all scurried into our tents, where I sat within the safety of the mesh and watched the mosquitoes buzzing around outside trying to figure out how to get it. Suckers (pun intended). 

Sparky’s stomach issues seemed to have cleared up, so that was good. I know it probably means skipping Mammoth Lakes, but I’m just happy he’s feeling better. Ghosthiker had been feeling the need to get as close to Reno as possible by the time her husband arrived, but that evening in camp she said it seemed smarter NOT to rush to S. Lake Tahoe but to get as far as Lee Vining so she could shower, get a good nights sleep, and be clean and rested when her husband arrived. She said that meant she could easily zero in Mammoth Lakes as well. I hadn’t said anything about wanting to go to Mammoth Lakes with or without them, so this was good news to me. It meant she wasn’t just saying that for my sake.

My symptoms are getting worse and I’m considering seeing if I can somehow hitch to Mammoth Lakes from VVR. I guess we’ll see.

Published by rogerssj23

I'm a long-distance hiker, an audiobook producer, and an amateur writer. I live in the woods in a renovated 1972 Airstream with my Golden Retriever Zoe. Read more about my hiking adventures at sarahhikes.com.

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