Stay alert, especially in California, and you’ll see a variety of wild critters: foxes and coyotes and roadrunners in the desert. Even the city of San Francisco is home to colorful wild parrots on Telegraph Hill, feisty raccoons in the Presidio, and sewer rats the size of Chihuahuas on downtown street corners.
We walked five miles in 103° temperature to a closed campground at Folsom Lake searching for a marker of the historic gold town of Condemned Bar. We avoided rattlesnakes and poison oak but encountered four large wild turkeys.
Want to see a country road covered with crawling tarantulas? Drive through Sisquoc-Foxen Canyon east from Santa Maria during their September-October mating season.
From a distance, the spire in the otherwise empty field in a remote area near Flournoy looked like the historical marker for which we had been searching. The area was not fenced nor posted as private property. We walked cautiously through knee-high grasses, alert for rattlesnakes. “Watch it,” Lee said. “Here’s an electric fence.” We stepped over the foot-high obstacle into another: The field came alive with swarms of grasshoppers that covered us.
Many outdoor restrooms are built of cement blocks without a door. The entrance angles at a “U” shape so no one sees in or out. In bear country, signs at the doorway caution people that a bear may be inside. From the safety of our car at Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay Vista Point, we watched a large cinnamon-colored bear eat from three open garbage cans next to the restrooms. A sports car pulled in ahead of us. A man jumped out the passenger side and ran to the restroom. He stopped in his tracks when he saw that he startled the bear. The young man dashed back to the car and it sped away.
Lee and I explored the Malakoff gold diggings north of Grass Valley where the ‘49er miners washed away all top soil with hydraulic hoses exposing pink, orange, beige, and white rock formations. A few caves of former gold mines remain. At the entrance of one cave, we heard extremely loud snoring. Is a transient sleeping in this remote area? Curious, we stepped closer. A deep, growling sound rumbled from the darkness. We agreed the “snoring” definitely was not human. I hadn’t moved so fast back to the car since I ran the 100-yard dash in high school.
Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park is one place to be especially alert and careful because of the numerous bears. This is bear country!
Visitors checking in at the lodges are warned not to leave anything in their vehicle overnight. Carry everything into your room or cabin. Bears smell and are attracted to any and everything with a scent. This includes anti-freeze, motor oil, soap, bug repellent, empty snack or food wrappers, crumbs on the seat or floor, and all food inside ice chests inside vehicles and locked trunks.
A chart at the check-in desk indicates the number of bear break-ins to vehicles in the parking lot per month. We checked in on the 14th day of the month after 13 previous break-ins. Accompanying pictures showed visitors’ cars, trucks and motorhomes with their doors ripped off, windows broken, seats yanked out, and trunks smashed as if rammed by a tank. Bears possess unbelievable strength.
The following morning, we carried all of our belongings back to the car, checked out of our room, and drove to the Big Stump Basin. We planned to walk the one-mile loop trail on our way out of the park. Ours was the only vehicle in the parking lot. Should we leave our snacks in the car or carry everything with us? We chose to leave the food and hoped for the best.
A quarter mile into the trail, we saw large, very fresh, bear scat near a berry thicket that had been picked clean. I jiggled my bear bell. A quarter mile farther, another fresh bear scat. Too late to turn back now.
I felt chills on the back of my neck and turned to look up on the rocky ledge behind us. I thought I glimpsed the swish of a rope-like tail. Was it a cougar, also known as the “ghost cat”?
Flashback to the late 1940s: As one of six teenage Camp Fire Girls, I rode in the back of a dusty pickup truck up the middle of a dry, rocky stream bed into the hills above Laytonville one weekend on a practice run for us wannabe counselors to prepare for summer camp. At dusk we sat on our sleeping bags placed on the ground as spokes of a wheel around our camp fire. Two piercing screams, one distant and one nearby from the surrounding hills, sent chills up our backs. They sounded like screams of women in pain.
“It’s only a mountain lion,” our adult leader said. “It won’t come down to bother us.” Then she retreated to sleep in the cabin.
The screams continued during the night. We were too frightened to move or whisper. None of us slept well, but we must have slept soundly. In the morning, we quivered with more chills when we discovered big cat paw prints in the sandy soil around our sleeping bags.
Fast forward to the Big Stump Basin loop trail: Half a mile to go down the scenic, deserted, and quiet trail except for my clanging bear bell. No more berry thickets or bear scat. Around the bend we saw our car, still the only vehicle in the parking lot and untouched by bear claws.
Bear jams at Yellowstone National Park are considered roadblocks but most visitors anticipate them. No traffic ahead or behind us so we stopped to watch a large cinnamon-colored bear emerge from the Madison River. Wet and muddy, it approached our right front fender, clambered onto the hood, and stared at us through the windshield. Then the bear repeatedly pulled the windshield wiper straight out and let it snap back against the glass. We had created our own bear jam. Traffic backed up on both sides of the road. Onlookers laughed and shot pictures of the bear’s little game. Eventually bored with this “toy”, the bear slid off our left front fender and ambled across the road. It left a muddy mess on our hood and one bent windshield wiper.