In the summer of 1979, I was working as night auditor at the Giant Forest lodge in Sequoia National Park. To this day, I look back at this job as probably the most enjoyable I've ever had. Here I was, working alone at night beneath the canopy of the giant sequoia trees, and living in, what I consider to be, one of the most beautiful places in the world. With the exception of twice nightly visits from Jim, the night security guard, there was no one else to disturb the silence and the splendor of these magnificent woods. No one that is, except a late arriving tourist or a bear making nightly inspections of the garbage cans and dumpsters.
the General Sherman treeOne of the attractions of Sequoia National Park, besides the giant trees, are the Sierran black bears. Fortunately, most tourists content themselves with observing the bears from a safe distance. Over time, I became familiar with the nightly schedule of the local bears wandering through the park, as they made their way from one campground dumpster to the next. Since my night auditing work only took a couple hours to complete, I had plenty of free time on my hands before the morning crew came in to relieve me. This gave me plenty of opportunities to do some bear watching, since they are most active at night, and also a chance to do a little moonlighting.
In 1979, Sequoia National Park had a can deposit policy where all canned drinks had a five cent deposit. The intention being to discourage the littering of soda cans; and it worked to a degree. However, many tourists didn't bother to return those cans for the deposit refund. Instead, they tossed them into nearby dumpsters. Well, here was my moonlighting opportunity. So, about twice a week, Jim, the night security guy, and I would make the rounds of the few dumpsters in the parking lots of the cabins around the lodge. This little venture usually netted us 20 to 40 dollars each and was a nice supplement to our minimum wage jobs.
I remember one particular Friday night. Jim had stopped by earlier to indicate he would have time later for a can run. I was waiting on one late arriving guest who had already called to tell me he was on his way up the mountain. This guest, an LA sheriff and his family, showed up about 1 am. He had gotten off work that evening, packed his wife and two kids in the car, and headed to Sequoia, determined to make the most of the short weekend they had. They arrived somewhat tired and grumpy, but relieved to finally be at their destination. As I was checking them in and giving directions to their cabin, Jim had arrived for our can run. He had noticed groceries and coolers in the rear of the Sheriff's station wagon and kindly suggested to the Sheriff that he remove these things from his car or else the bears would get to them. He replied that he had seen the signs, while entering the park, warning that you are in bear country, and he said that he would be sure to take the food out of his car.
As Jim and I watched him leave for his cabin, we both looked at each other and said: "He ain't gonna do it!" I finished securing the lodge and Jim and I headed out for our can run. We made our dumpster rounds so that we would finish up in the parking lot where the LA Sheriff had parked. As we entered the parking lot, the truck headlights caught the motion of two bears, a momma and her cub. These two bears were known regulars in the area and they would leave you alone, so long as you left them alone. Well, on this particular night, something very inviting had gotten their attention: groceries in the back seat of a station wagon. Jim and I stopped the truck and turned off the headlights to watch. Under NO circumstances were we going to approach or even intimidate a mother bear and her cub. We dared not blow the horn for fear of waking up visitors who might come running out to see what the commotion was about only to find themselves confronted by a bear. So we remained quiet at a safe distance.
Bears are very resourceful creatures. I have observed them using two, equally effective, methods to open a car. One, they stand on their hind legs and lean up against a door window and kind of bounce against the window with a loud oomph. This usually pops the window right out. Two, when this fails, they merely grab the upper edge of the window with their huge claws and just peel the window open. On this occasion, the oomph method didn't work, so momma effortlessly peeled the driver's side window. As we watched, momma pushed baby bear into the front seat of the station wagon. A moment later, a watermelon came bouncing out of the window followed shortly thereafter by a loaf of bread. This must have been sufficient for momma bear, as she grabbed the loaf of bread in her jaws and wandered off to eat it elsewhere. Meanwhile, baby bear was having a good old time in the car. It's rocking back and forth and we can hear the baby bear grunting inside. Soon the headlights come on, then the radio, then the turn signals. We thought baby bear was trying to jump start the thing. Surprisingly, nobody came out of their cabins to check out the commotion. We stayed until after baby bear climbed out of the car to rejoin momma, then Jim and I went back to work.
So there Jim and I were the next morning, waiting for the next shift to arrive so we could check out, when in comes the Sheriff from LA. And he's mad. He's ranting and raving about how a bear tore up his station wagon. Jim and I reminded him that he had been warned to remove the food items from his car. He shrugged and said, "Yeah, but I didn't think the bears would bother it last night. I've learned my lesson the hard way." We notified the park rangers about the incident and then tried to console the Sheriff into enjoying what was left of his vacation.
Remember to respect bears and their woodland home.