Fifteen hard miles in ten hours in the hot sun will leave anyone feeling a little wilted. There was a palpable air of relief around us as we shuffled our way back to the car, which was parked in a dusty lot and pulled in facing a wooded area. The setting sun was still beating on the granite cliffs to the South, but the parking lot was in total shade.
I was on the driver’s side and had just let out a relieved grunt as I slid off my stiff and heavy backpacking boots. Standing up to stretch after slipping my feet into some sandals, my jaw dropped as I saw two hundred pounds, four legs and light brown fur lumbering away from a neighbouring car with a brown paper bag in it’s mouth.
“Sarah! A bear!”
She wasn’t fifteen feet away from us and only wandered about twenty feet into the woods to dig into her new find. Seeing a bear with a tag on its ear and a grocery bag in its mouth doesn't quite recall the majesty of John Muir's Yosemite, but there was still a quiet awe in both of us as we stood transfixed and silent.
Sarah and I had each snapped a picture and I was going to reach for a phone to call and report the late afternoon snacker when I turned and saw the rangers approaching us. Dressed in their green pants, matching ball caps and crisp khaki shirts, the gang of four were probably a couple years younger than me. Two men and two women, with two of them carrying high-tech listening equipment and a paintball gun.
I was approached by the younger of the two men, wearing big glasses and a stubby dirty blond pony tail pulled through the back of his hat. Knowing what he was looking for I whispered “Right there, straight ahead,” and pointed. He took a look and then went back to his teammates. There was a deceptive and fleeting moment of calm as the four of them took about three steps toward the bear.
The contrast could not have been more stark: the silent reverence when we sat watching the bear eat, and the top-of-their-lungs shouting as the rangers gave chase. "HEY BEAR! GET OUT OF HERE!" They exploded like a pack of wolves on Red Bull, a college football team emerging from the tunnel trying their best to psych out their opponent as they ran straight at the animal. She was undeterred for a moment, but once the rangers were within about ten feet she dropped her find and retreated to the woods. As quickly and silently as we had seen her, she disappeared in a jarring mess of shouts and pressurized paint pellets.
They weren't done, though. The older of the two male rangers, sporting close-cropped black hair and a neatly groomed beard (pffff) went back to the truck and emerged with what looked like a Soviet assault rifle. The younger woman stayed close by him with radio equipment they could use to track the animal into the woods.
"So, what do you guys do now?" I asked.
"We have to go and find her. This bear has been a real problem," came the cavalier, almost boastful response from the ranger brandishing the firearm. "We've been chasing her almost exclusively for about a week and-a-half, and she's getting bolder and bolder. We're going to shoot her with rubber bullets to try and keep her away, but we've relocated her five times."
"Did she break into a car just now?" Yosemite bears are famous for tearing into locked cars in search of food.
"No. Somebody put their food down and walked a hundred yards away. She came and grabbed it as soon as he walked away."
"So I guess he didn't pay attention to the signs that seem to be every five feet telling you to store your food properly, huh?"
"Yeah, well, signs are only so effective. " And then, as a casual afterthought he added "We'll have to put her down if she gets worse."
So, just to recap: Person comes into bear's habitat. Person told not to leave food out. Person leaves food out. Bear gets shot. It was a strange and troubling end to four days in Yosemite that were overwhelming for any number of reasons - both magical and devastating.
Yosemite National Park is stunning. The granite cliffs, soaring waterfalls and mountain meadows are enough to bring a grown man to tears. They have captured the imaginations of writers, artists and musicians for generations, and are why three and a half million people visit the park every year (that's an average of ten thousand a day, for those of you keeping score at home). But of those 3.5 million, one has to wonder how many of them see the park as simply a forested extension of the cities from which they come. It would not be a stretch for anybody to view Yosemite as yet another consumerist enclave, only one that happens to be surrounded by natural, rather than artificial skyscrapers.
I am not an elitist. I think the woods are for everybody, and just because I can walk a little ways into the mountains, that does not mean that I am any more entitled to see Yosemite than someone who, for whatever reason, cannot venture more than a half mile from the car. But to nurture the sort of roadside tourism which Yosemite oozes - a pizza joint, souvenir "clearance outlet" and sprawling, cancerous golf course can all be found on the valley floor - does not show the same sort of reverence for the natural environment that the park pretends to espouse. How are tourists supposed to take seriously the warnings about locking up their food when they are parked a stone's throw from an all-you-can-eat buffet? The park is dotted with signs asking us to keep the animals wild, but they aren't exactly setting the best precedent with what they've done to the landscape.
If ten thousand people a day want to respect and learn about the land - even from the comfort and safety of their cars - then that should be encouraged. Awareness and education are the cornerstones of conservation. But I am at a loss as to what good is served by the hordes coming through Yosemite to eat pizza and buy t-shirts, only to have the wildlife that is emblazoned on those very t-shirts be euthanized as a result of the negligence of park visitors. (Funny, too, how John Muir - a man whose image and name are shamelessly plastered all over the park - defined his life by the time he spent in these mountains without every buying a single t-shirt).
Let anyone who so desires come to Yosemite. Let them stay awhile, take pictures and tell all their friends about it. I, myself was a temporary guest, and am very grateful to have been allowed to come for a visit. But let the people come on the terms of the mountains, dictated by compassion, not consumerism. I'm happy to pay to enter the park, but I want to pay to enter a park in the mountains, not a shopping mall in the woods. If you want a pizza buffet, stay at home. If you want a buffet for the soul, bring your sleeping bag and plan to stay a while.
Just remember to lock up your food.