How to Sleep Safely in Bear Country

Seeing a bruin up close is a Yosemite highlight. Unless it's too close.

When I wake in the middle of the night, high in the mountains, the number of things I expect to see is really quite small. The silhouette of a sharp granite ridge. A sky shot with electric constellations that would look fake anywhere else. Trees. A blinding full moon that makes me wish I’d brought a tent.

A bear snout is not on the list. But that’s exactly what I found myself staring at one night in a High Sierra campsite. A glistening black nose six inches from my face, with the hulk of the 300-pound bear it belonged to looming behind. Imagine how you would react if you expected to see stars but saw nostrils–big ones–instead. My two buddies and I, we froze.

Adrenaline has a funny way of both sharpening and erasing memory. I clearly remember the underside of the bear’s muzzle, and almost nothing else. Though I do recall a pang of guilt about our messy camp. Yosemite bears are nothing if not brazen when it comes to camp food, and no doubt this bruin had been drawn to our camp by the smell of pasta or beer or both. We’d done a bachelor-pad clean-up after a late dinner. And had left the dirty dishes for the morning.

But the bear had failed to find the feast it expected (we’d at least stowed our food properly), and was completing its search by sniffing hopefully around our heads. It was obviously surprised to find three sets of human eyes instead of a carb-heavy midnight snack. Like us, the bear seemed at a loss as to how to proceed. Its head dropped a few inches closer to Dave’s as the impasse dragged on for an eternal two seconds. Then that great black nose wrinkled just a bit. The bear’s lips parted slightly. It sucked in air and … Actttthheeewww! It sneezed. Bear snot rained down on Dave’s face.

Each of us shouted and jerked in our bags. The bear rose up on its hind legs, eyes wide. It wasn’t clear who had scared the other more. Then it lumbered away and disappeared into the forest.

After Dave cleaned his face–bear snot, he reported, is sticky, salty, and smells like hay–we finished cleaning the dishes.