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October 2007

The World’s Smartest Bears

Welcome to Yosemite, iconic American landscape, hikers' paradise, and all-you-can-eat home of the wiliest bruins on earth.
Backpacker_Magazine_YosemiteYosemite, Courtesy of Robert Holmes/California Tourism

In the end, perhaps it’s not so unnatural. The food concessions and picnic technology in Yosemite Valley may be distortions of nature, but the principle here is as old as biology. Wild animals regularly steal food. Birds from birds, fish from fish, bears from squirrels, foxes from bears, bears from people. The Miwok and Paiute who once used these valleys undoubtedly lost venison and acorn meal to the ancestors of these black bears.

So if a bear goes after your food, it’s nothing personal. Bears don’t want you; they want your gorp. And it’s a testament to ursine grace and the apparent saintlike patience of Sierra black bears that they don’t kill or eat people. After all, if Valley bears thought tourists were tasty, this place would be Jurassic Park.

Despite that unsettling imagery, few thinking people today would wish the bears gone. Perhaps that’s because making national parks and other wilderness playgrounds “safe” would demand an admission of just how domesticated we ourselves have become. It’s also a measure of how thoroughly urbanized we are that most of us go into the woods assuming we don’t have to guard our grub 24/7.

Because Bears Love Beer

On Thursday evening, my ranger companions must remain nameless and not be quoted on policy. So I mentally label them as Green 1 and Green 2 to keep from anthropomorphizing their behavior. We low-ride the F150 on a patrol through Housekeeping Camp, which is not, for readers unfamiliar with Yosemite’s rich concession history, a camp for housekeepers. Instead it’s a small city of 266 boothlike cabins, basically hard-sided cinderblock bunkers floored in cement and covered by a canvas roof and porch awning. Each austere cubicle has four beds, a ceiling light, and electrical outlets.

In one of those ironic tourism twists, Housekeeping Camp’s ghetto ambiance attracts the most ardent fans of any campground in Yosemite. People love it. The densely packed facilities pull a different crowd, a blend of NASCAR tailgate and Burning Man. Circles of lawn chairs sit illuminated by Christmas lights and TVs. There are lots of huge families, a few tattooed posses, and plenty of liquored-up campers.

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