[I wrote the initial draft of this account on August 9, 2014, on my way home from Seattle. I’ve finally gotten around to proofreading and publishing it here on FASTalk.]
As I sit in SEA-TAC, returning home from another great trip to Mt. Rainier, I thought I’d tell you about The Summerland Bear Incident. This is most troubling bear encounter I’ve ever had in the backcountry and it happened just a couple days ago. You may also wish to browse The Summerland Bear Incident photo gallery, which I’ve linked to throughout this post.
As many of you know (and can probably tell from the banner pictures in my blog), I’m a Mt. Rainier fanatic. Most years, I head to The Mountain to hike the aptly named Wonderland Trail, a 94-mile loop trail that circumnavigates Mt. Rainier. The official Wonderland Trail (or WT) route includes nearly 30,000′ of elevation gain, and since it’s a loop, an equal amount of descent. Hiking the WT takes you through frequent transitions between deep, old growth forests, rocky glacial moraines, high subalpine meadows, snow-covered mountain passes; over or past countless streams, creeks, rivers, and waterfalls. You’ll experience an incredible array of wild mountain flowers; at times, do battle with mosquitos or black flies; and encounter a wide array of wildlife including mice, chipmunks, marmots, deer, elk, numerous birds—including ptarmigan and eagles—(if you’re lucky, mountain lions, and fox) and, of course, bears.
During my now sixteen Mt. Rainier treks, including 13 times around the WT, several 50+ “Northern Figure-8” routes, numerous off-trail, cross-country hikes, and a climb to the summit, I’ve spent a lot of time in the Mt. Rainier backcountry. And I’ve seen many bears throughout the national park. But I’ve never had an encounter quite as troubling as The Summerland Bear Incident.
Summerland Camp is one of the most coveted backcountry camps, both by backpackers and, because of it’s relative accessibility from the Fryingpan Creek trailhead, by day hikers. Perched on the edge of a mountaintop meadow at 5900’ elevation, Summerland offers fantastic views of the east side of The Mountain. There’s a nice stream flowing along the south side of the camp and, if you time it well, the area is filled with the colors and scents of wildflowers–paintbrush, lupines, sitka valerian, pink mountain heathers, and more.
The campsite itself features five individual sites, spaced about 150-200 feet apart, and a group site containing a three-walled storm shelter. Each individual site is 20 to 30 feet across with some immediate tree coverage for shade, but separated from each other by open meadow space.
Out in front of the camp, a large open meadow leads to a spectacular view of Mt. Rainier. To the left, as you face The Mountain, the trail dips briefly to cross the stream, then climbs quickly up and out of sight on its way to Panhandle Gap, the highest point on the Wonderland Trail. To the right, the trail drops quickly through a series of switchbacks down to the Fryingpan Creek area.
The Summerland area, from Fryingpan Creek, up through the camp, and into the meadow above, is also a favorite destination for bears. Over the years, I have seen bears wandering up or down from Fryingpan Creek, through the camp itself, and throughout the meadows above, including going up and over Panhandle Gap.
On multiple occasions, I have arrived at an individual site only to find a bear already there rooting through logs for grubs, or mice, or whatever. I’ve had a bear pass six feet behind me while filtering water from the stream. I even had a bear walk “petting distance” in front of me as I sat trailside in front of the camp admiring the sun setting over The Mountain as I ate my dinner. In all cases, the bears were either oblivious to my presence or quickly ran off when I raised my voice or otherwise made my presence known.
But this time was different.
On Monday, August 4th, I left Indian Bar camp early, eager to enjoy the spectacular route to Summerland. After spending several hours enjoying the weather, views, and a strong cell signal in Panhandle Gap, I descended into Summerland, arriving a little before noon.
They mentioned the bear frequented their site disconcertingly often.
Earlier in the morning, I had crossed paths with a couple guys who had stayed the night before in Summerland, site #5. They told me there were two bears in the area, one of which had killed and eaten a large marmot the prior evening, right in the middle of the camp. They mentioned the bear frequented their site disconcertingly often. My reaction was, “Yep, typical for Summerland.”
Upon arriving at the camp, it took less than five minutes until I noticed the first bear. It wandered nonchalantly through the camp, to the meadow, and into the trees headed up The Mountain. As I spent the next 90 minutes setting up camp, having lunch, filtering water, and preparing to day-hike a nearby crest, I saw that same bear and one other, in and around the camps every 10 or 15 minutes.
A patrol ranger came through to remind people (by then, there were perhaps a dozen day-hikers in the area along with half a dozen backpackers) that we were in bear country and should hang all food.
No Meanie Crest Today
After lunch I took off for what I planned would be a 3-4 hour day hike up Meanie Crest, a high ridge crest up and to the left of the meadow that fronted the camp. It is on the Little Tahoma climbing route and offers fantastic views back down into Summerland and surrounding areas.
This is very atypical bear behavior–at least for the black bear at Mt. Rainier.
I was only about 10 minutes out of camp, headed up the relatively steep ascent to Meanie Crest when I noticed one of the bears coming down across the meadow, heading back toward camp. But I became uneasy when, upon noticing me perhaps 300 feet uphill, the bear changed its direction and began slowly coming directly in my direction.
This is very atypical bear behavior–at least for the black bear at Mt. Rainier. Typically, the bears are either oblivious to humans or, more commonly, actively avoid them.
I continued up for another couple minutes, but noticing the bear was continuing to follow, I decided I’d rather not end up on a high, narrow, and remote ridge crest with no company except a bear that apparently did not mind approaching a human.
I broke off my route and circled back to the left and down to the WT where I could see a number of day hikers snapping pictures and having lunch. The bear ceased to follow me, so my concern subsided.
Jake and Jordan
After hanging out, chatting with folks, including the photographer, Jeffrey Trubisz, who had hiked in for a day of shooting, I headed back to my site. On the way, I met Jake and Jordan Mitchell, a young couple from Auburn, Alabama on their first night out on the WT. They were having dinner on a log out in front of site #1, where they were staying for the night.
None of us knew it at the time, but as we were talking, a bear had entered from the far side of their site (up the hill from Fryingpan Creek) and was in the process of stealing a dinner, which had been left unattended just 30 feet from where we were talking but obscured from view by several large trees.
Eventually, I returned to my site and was just beginning to prepare dinner. (Which consisted mainly of boiling water to reconstitute a freeze-dried beef stew and make hot chocolate.) I noticed Jake walking up to my site. “Sorry to bother you, but do you have any advice for how to dissuade a nuisance bear from returning to your site?”, he asks.
I offered the usual advice, ensure all food is hung up (the camp includes a central “bear pole” for this purpose), make noise, talk, stand up, bang on your pot, etc. I offered words of reassurance that the bears out here are not aggressive and prefer to avoid people.
Dinner (for the Bear)
With all the bear activity and discussions that day, I was more cautious than ever when preparing dinner. I set up in the most open area of my site, affording me the greatest visibility of the area, boiled my water, and “cooked” my dinner. With the hot chocolate in a mug with a lid, and the stew now steeping for 14 minutes at my feet, I figured I’d take advantage of the only camp on the WT with reliable cell coverage to call home.
I called Carol, who put me on speaker phone with the kids. After talking for a few minutes, I heard a rustling and turned to see a 200-ish pound bear, lighter brown on top with darker legs and underbelly, approaching only 15 feet behind me. I stood up, turned to face it, and said calmly into the phone, “There is a bear approaching, I’m going to have to raise my voice.”
… I was 3 seconds too late in remembering to grab my main food bag.
I began to yell to the bear, “Go! I’m having dinner!” and so forth. (I assume the bear does not understand English, but it seemed better than just making loud babbling noises.) The bear did back off and made a wide circle to the right, only to approach again through the more heavily wooded side of the site a few minutes later.
Repeating the process, the bear this time did not break off, but continued approaching, slowly. I told Carol and the kids to not worry, but I was going to hang up and deal with this situation. (Of course, they would worry.) As it turns out, the bear did not stop, despite all my efforts yelling, banging, even throwing small stones. So, I decided it prudent to simply back away.
I grabbed the stew I was actively eating as I backed away, but I was 3 seconds too late in remembering to grab my main food bag. By the time I thought of that, I was 10 feet back from the bag, but the bear was just 2 feet on the other side of the bag. With a sinking feeling, I realized it was lost.
Standing about 30 feet outside the site, I heard my nylon food bag rip open. I decided that even though the bear had succeeded in getting to the food, it would be best if it did not succeed in keeping it–all of it, anyway. So I quickly ran to another site where Monica Monk and Dave Howard were camped and asked if they would come help me scare a bear out of my site. They immediately grabbed their ski poles and jumped up.
The three of us ran toward my site yelling, banging poles, and throwing rocks.
The bear seemed rather unbothered and continued enjoying its new found, high-calorie dinner.
We decided it would be best to round up more people. I shot over to site #1 and the group site and rounded up John Dickinson and several others from his party. Quite coincidently1, right at that time Bill Yeager came hiking in, making a group of about 8 people total. Together we made enough racket to drive the bear back, but only about 6 feet, where it just stood, looking at us.
Several of the guys grabbed my tent and all of its contents (which, fortunately, was essentially all of my gear), and carried it out of the site. I managed to grab the mug of hot chocolate, but I dared not reach for what remained of my food bag, which was now scattered in a 4-foot circle, just in front of the bear.
After debating with the group for several minutes about the best course of action, we thought we should attempt one more push to reclaim the food. Our concern was more for the bear itself if it came to believe humans were essentially food sources. (Such bears end up being “culled” by the park service.) But, when we tried to drive it off again, rather that backing up, this time, the bear actually took a step forward as if to defend its bounty.
At that point, we all agreed. It was not worth further escalation and that I should use the rare cell signal to call for ranger backup.
By then, it was after hours, so I called 911 who got a message to a White River area ranger who called me back. I described the situation and he said he’d call me back in five minutes after talking with his supervisor. The call came back that they’d send a ranger in the morning. I advised him that we (as a group) were uncomfortable with that because we had never encountered a bear this bold in the area and asked if they could send someone sooner. Again he said he’d call me back in 10 mins.
I never got a ring, but after about 20 minutes I noticed I did have a voice message. The same ranger explained that it would take someone at least four (and probably six) hours to reach Summerland and, in the meantime, “use your best judgement and do whatever you feel you need to remain safe; reconfigure camps without regard to the usual rules about limiting the number of people on a site” and they’d send folks in the morning.
Regrouping for the Night
After some discussion, we decided that we’d divide into two groups. Jake, Jordan, and I would move in with the folks in the group site and sleep in the shelter. The other three parties of two would consolidate on Yeager’s site #5, which was furthest from the “scene of the crime.”
The plan worked out fine. There was plenty of room in both places and both groups were large enough to feel unthreatened. Discussions in the morning confirmed that the bear remained in my original site for an hour or two, devouring every shred of my food, resting his full belly, then disappearing quietly. Neither group saw or heard any sign of bears throughout the night.
The Long Hike Out
My original itinerary was to spend one more night on the trail in Glacier Basin (about 10 miles from Summerland), then hike out over Burroughs Mountain to the Sunrise trailhead the following day. However, the day before hiking into Summerland, after lunch (at Indian Bar camp), I realized I had barely enough food to make my planned itinerary. I could do it, but it would mean skipping one dinner and one breakfast.
Since I had just had a filling lunch at Indian Bar, and since the hike from Indian Bar to Summerland is relatively short, I decided to skip dinner at Indian Bar. I also had a very light breakfast before leaving, knowing that I’d have a nice lunch in Panhandle Gap and, I assumed, dinner in Summerland.
However, with the commotion of the bear incident, I ended up actually eating only about 10% of my dinner at Summerland. So, upon waking at the Summerland shelter, I was by then rather hungry and in possession of exactly zero food, with 16 miles and roughly 5000′ of elevation change to Sunrise (where they serve cheeseburgers!).
Monica gave me some excellent beef jerky, cheese, and half a bag of Tim’s Extra Thick potato chips–all of which were excellent. John donated a pack of Cliff Bar “Shotbloks” (high carb energy thingies similar to gummy bears, but less gross) and an electrolyte drink mix. With that, I decided to skip the final night at Glacier Basin. Instead, I’d head that way, but just before reaching Glacier Basin, take the trail up and over the Burroughs Mountain summit and then into Sunrise. It would make for a long day on few calories–especially after having skipped several meals over previous two days, but it would end where they sell cheeseburgers!
By 7 AM, I said goodbyes and thanks to everyone–without whom it would have been a much more trying ordeal–and headed out. It was a beautiful morning and I made great time down from Summerland, around enormous Goat Island Mountain, and into White River Campground. I shed trash, filled up water bottles from a drinking fountain (which is a luxury out there), and had a nice breakfast.
It’s about an hour’s climb from White River toward Glacier Basin before reaching the Burroughs Mountain turn off. Unfortunately, it was a hot day and I quickly consumed all the chips and Shotbloks. I was still facing an almost two-thousand foot climb up the Burroughs Mountain switchbacks, and several miles beyond that back to Sunrise—without a good source of carbs. I still had some calories in the pack, but all cheese and beef. By the time I was half way up, I was feeling very drained.
I found some shade, popped a Motrin, and shoveled in the remaining jerky and cheese. Then I took a 20-minute nap to give the digestive system some time to work. I felt better, but not great. But I knew that time was the enemy; I was burning fuel and I needed to move on.
Upon hearing that, several people immediately piped up, “What do you need? Granola? Fruit? Sandwich? Chips? Water?…”
The Burroughs Mountain summit is only a few hours walk from Sunrise (where they sell cheeseburgers!), which makes it a popular day hike destination. This day was absolutely gorgeous, so there were about a dozen people at the summit. Walking into a group of day hikers, alone, with a big pack, and looking (and smelling) like I’ve been in the backcountry for a while, I’m inevitably asked, “Where’d you come from? Where are you heading? How you doing? See any bears?” And this time was no exception, except I answered a little differently: “Summerland, headed to Sunrise (where they sell cheeseburgers!), but I’m pretty much out of gas after losing my last two days of food to a bear last night.”
Upon hearing that, several people immediately piped up, “What do you need? Granola? Fruit? Sandwich? Chips? Water?…” I ended up accepting a granola bar, a (nice, fresh!) banana, a slice of whole wheat bread dripping with honey, and half a liter of water. (Almost without exception, you meet the nicest people on the trails. In general, the farther from a trailhead, the nicer the people. Occasionally you’ll run into a jerk of one sort or another, but rarely more than an hour out from a trailhead.)
I hung out on the summit for 30 minutes or so, letting the new found carbs digest and talking with people about the terrain, bears, the views, etc. I can’t overstate the healing power of the right food. Carrying 50 pounds 16 miles through 5000′ of elevation changes burns a lot of fuel. But the new calories were kicking in and I felt like I’d just had a good night’s sleep; I was feeling strong and eager to finish the spectacular four-mile walk down to Sunrise (where they sell cheeseburgers!).
Heading down toward Frozen Lake on the way to Sunrise, I exchanged the usual pleasantries with a number of day hikers. Upon learning that I had started that morning from Summerland, several of them told me that they had learned, from the ranger as they entered the park that morning, to be “bear aware” as they hiked, since a backpacker had lost all his food to a bear in Summerland the previous evening. They wondered if I knew anything about “the Summerland bear incident.”
Ninety minutes later, I walked down from Sourdough Ridge—where ten days earlier I had started this WT trek—into Sunrise, to close the loop.
And to have a cheeseburger.
On the way out of the park, I passed the White River Ranger Station shortly after closing time, but there is a box on the door for after-hours check-outs for climbers. I filled out one of the check-out forms with my contact info along with a note explaining that I was the person who had called 911 about the bear the night before and offering to provide additional details. As of this writing (three days later), I have not been contacted for any follow-up. [Note: it’s now been four months without follow-up.]
Looking Back (and Ahead)
Over the past two decades, I’ve hiked roughly 1500 miles and spent 150 nights in the Mt. Rainier back country—most of that, alone. While I’ve had many bear encounters, this most recent Summerland bear incident is the only one I consider troubling. I don’t believe I was personally in any significant danger (the bear wanted my food, not me), but I do believe it is very likely this animal is trouble brewing.
This bear has demonstrated it’s willingness to approach humans and it’s unwillingness to yield ground, even to a group of people actively trying to turn it away. It has successfully obtained high-quality food from (at least) two different camp sites, one while people were very nearby, one while people were actively trying to scare it away. Summerland is popular with both backpackers and day hikers, ensuring numerous, daily opportunities to reinforce a dangerous idea in the mind of a bear: people —> food
I hope the Park Service takes concrete steps to address this specific bear, perhaps relocating it. I’ll not curtail my visits to the area—in fact, I’m quite looking forward to a WT trek next summer. However, I’ll certainly be more mindful with food, especially in the Summerland area.
Being Alone (with Good People)
There’s nothing like a solo trek in the wilderness. It’s a wonderful way to clear the mind, invigorate the body, and take time to experience and ponder the amazing, natural world in which we live. And, perhaps a little ironically, it’s a good way to meet people.
I’ve always said, you meet the nicest people backpacking in the mountains. Over the years, I’ve met a bunch of great folks and, through the magic of the Internet and social media, I’ve managed to stay in touch with quite a few of them. This most recent trip was no exception. I’m thankful and impressed, but not surprised, by how many people sprang to my aid.
I’m reminded of a story I heard years ago about Bobby Kennedy, who back in 1965, took a trek to climb the 14,000 foot Mt. Kennedy, which had recently been renamed in honor if his slain brother. After the climb, someone asked if he liked climbing mountains. He answered that what he really liked was being around people who liked climbing mountains. I have some idea what he meant.
- Tom Yeager was one of my kids’ favorite elementary school teachers. He and his brother, Bill, share a striking resemblance to each other—not only in appearance but in mannerisms and voice. The first minute or two of talking with Bill was surrealistic. Part of my mind believed I was talking to Tom, while part of it knew I was not. When I mentioned I was from Ann Arbor. Bill immediately mentioned that he had a brother who taught school in Ann Arbor. I said, “Tom Yeager, right?” Then it was Bill’s turn to feel surprised. ↩