Meeting Mr. Bear
Sequoia National Park is the second oldest National Park in the United States. As the name suggests, there are a number of groves of sequoias in the park, and they are all beautiful beyond imagination. The park literature correctly characterizes these clusters as “cathedral-like”. The most famous tree in the park is the 275-foot-tall sequoia they have named General Sherman. It is believed to be the world’s largest living tree on the planet and is estimated to be more than 2,200 years old with a circumference at ground level of nearly 103 feet. Of course, I was awed; I can’t keep a six-inch basil plant alive in my kitchen for more than a few weeks.
The hundreds of other sequoias within the park are every bit as fantastic as the ones with names. In the aggregate, these trees annually drop many hundreds of thousands of tiny cones from their branches. The teeniest of seeds from these cones can grow to become sequoia trees. The next generation of sequoias is visible on the forest floor ranging in height from young trees that are several feet tall and diligently growing with each passing year to saplings just a few inches tall. Who knew a baby tree could be so adorable?
The park is co-managed by the National Park Service with Kings Canyon National Park. Together these two parks encompass an incredible range of habitats. Within their borders the elevation ranges from about 1,500 feet to 14,494 feet. At the lowest point, the north fork of the Kaweah River cuts into some of the country’s deepest canyons. At the highest point stands Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous 48 states. We were fortunate and obtained overnight accommodations in the center of Sequoia National Park for two nights at The Wuksachi Lodge. We enjoyed a perfect location but (once again) were without telephone service and virtually all Internet service. Mariah, Sarah, and I all found our inability to communicate with the rest of the world more challenging than expected. Being truly unreachable and out-of-touch for significant periods of time is such an anomaly nowadays. It felt quite strange to be disconnected from an increasingly connected world.
We enjoyed a guided tour on Monday morning to ensure that we visited most of the well known sights in Sequoia National Park. After visiting many of the “signature” trees, our tour included a hike of Moro Rock, a dome shaped granite monolith. Sarah and Mariah trudged straight up to the 6,725 ft summit, while I hiked midway and successfully exorcised my Grand Canyon hiking demon. I was raised to always “Get back on the horse”, so although it would seem to be a small thing to many, this short hike was important to me. During the afternoon we drove for hours on our own to trace the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway almost to its end, where at canyon floor level, the water gushes by over a rock-covered riverbed and we were able to look up at thousands of feet of canyon walls. It was exquisite.
The disconcerting thing about both of these parks, and upon reflection, about most of the National Parks we visited this summer is their preoccupation with educating their millions of visitors about the risks of being outdoors. Pamphlets, brochures, signage, and park staff constantly caution visitors about the dangers posed by both natural hazards and wildlife. During the last few days, we weren’t sure whether to be more wary of the black bears, rattlesnakes, cougars, lyme-disease-carrying-ticks, and giardia lamblia or the lightning, fires, falling trees, slippery surfaces, rolling rocks, cliffs, fast rivers, and biting insects. Fortunately, I have post-doctoral-level expertise in multi-variable worrying. My maternal instinct would make a mama bear with her cubs in the harsh Alaskan tundra blush.
Based on our personal experience, we think the risk-management team at the National Park Service may have hyped the risk of hostile black bears causing harm to humans. This morning a bear cub was out and about very near to one the park’s visitor centers looking for brunch. Mariah and dozens of other park visitors photographed him from a safe distance while a very focused park ranger tossed pebbles at the cub to encourage him to retreat back into the woods. Fortunately, after the crowd dispersed, Mariah and I were able to get VERY close to him and we had a rare opportunity to talk together about our feelings. Mariah’s photographs of the bear foraging for food and our amazing candid photographs taken with the bear later are below.
After almost two months of travel, I finally convinced Mariah that it was her manifest destiny to become a Junior Park Ranger. We had observed young people receiving badges and being congratulated by park rangers at each of the National Parks we visited throughout the summer. This morning, at the very last ranger information desk in the very last park we were scheduled to visit this summer, Mariah acquiesced. Much to our mutual surprise, it turns out it is more difficult than it looks to garner this prestigious title. For the time being, Mariah is an official Junior Ranger Candidate. There is a blank workbook to be filled out between her and the coveted designation of Junior Ranger. This is fine, as I am certain that “It is important to have goals” resides on the same unwritten list of guidelines for a good life as “Always get back on the horse.”
Today, Sarah drove us back to her apartment so that the three of us could spend a few more days together in California. We went bowling this evening with some of her friends and it was a blast. This Friday, fifty-days after embarking on this summer adventure, Mariah and I will fly home.