Dealing with Bear Encounters in the Northern California Wilderness

A bear with a tasty treat along Shasta Lake

When bears turn up on city streets or caught foraging in suburban dumpsters, you might expect it to make the evening news. So why should it seem surprising to encounter bears when we invade their natural habitat, the vast wilderness areas of Northern California? Especially in a state of almost 40 million people, wilderness is a natural treasure, an obvious sanctuary when you sometimes need to escape from too many gosh-darned people.

Bears are native to the wilderness we love so well, which means if you spend enough time outdoors away from crowds, you are almost certain to encounter wild black bears. The ferocious grizzly bears that once inhabited California were long ago declared extinct. That’s not to say that black bears cannot be just as dangerous to human life, but they are much less likely to attack humans than their larger, distant cousins. The vast majority of black bear encounters in NorCal end up happily ever after; the focus of scary tales told around a campfire with a heaping helping of S’mores.

Where Are They?

Black bears are usually found as far away from people as possible, although they may enter populated areas after dark. They like forests and mountain areas with plenty of shade and a good water source nearby. It is possible to encounter them almost any time of day, but your chances of having a bruin encounter increase manyfold at night, dawn and dusk.

It’s no secret that NorCal can become quite hot in the summertime, and bears do not have the option to remove their thick fur coats when temps hit the triple digits. Bears find cooler areas during the day like caves (large and small), shady ravines (especially with streams running through them) and shady tree branches upon which to catch a quick daytime snooze. When it does get hot, bears may go wading in rivers or streams, and have been known to take a leisurely midday swim.

Not Generally People-Eaters

Though their waistlines might not suggest it, most black bears subsist on a near-vegan diet. Almost everything they normally eat is vegetable, but they will eat meat or a variety of other things if there is a good supply easily obtained. It’s not uncommon to find bears digging into and under rotting logs for grubs, termites and ants. In late summer and fall they take advantage of the bountiful blackberry harvest, especially along many of our state’s famous waterways.

NorCal Close Encounters

Bear in Yosemite. Flickr/Dave Toussaint

I’ve encountered many bears in the wild, and a few places stick in my mind as places I’ve seen bears on multiple occasions. South of the town of McCloud in Siskiyou County are Squaw Valley Creek, Lake McCloud and the McCloud River corridor (above and below the reservoir), all terrific places to encounter black bears, and it’s no wonder. There’s lots of shade, abundant water and very few people.

I can’t even estimate the number of times I’d been fishing the McCloud River until the sun was off the water, left to hike back to my car in the pitch dark. The good news is bears will usually go to great lengths to avoid human contact, so singing your favorite song or whistling a happy tune not only does a lot to steady your nerves, but it also gives them ample opportunity to get the heck out of your way before you ever see them. For a lot of folks, just knowing bears are in the area might be enough reason to avoid the wilderness, but this is unfortunate. Bear attacks are incredibly rare. Statistically you are in much greater danger driving your car to the wilderness, or even encountering other human beings when you get there.

Both the Pit River and the upper Sacramento River have a lot of perennial (broad-leaved) sweet peas close to the water. Most of these are remnants of historic homesteads (not native plants, but brought over from Europe) and settlers often planted apple, plum and fig trees close by. In season (late summer) these will bring the bears out in good numbers, especially at dawn and dusk.

Once I was fishing at dusk on the upper Sacramento River at Pollard Flat, and a bear came down the steep hillside across the river for a drink of water. It was a rare moment because I had seen the bear, but the bear had not seen me. Add to that a perceived margin of safety as I knew the bear would have to swim across the river if it wanted to get me. Naturally, I took advantage.

“HELLOOOOO MR. BEAR,” I called in my best Hollywood stage voice, removing my hat and bowing reverently to my guest. I’m not sure where that bear suddenly found the horsepower of a nuclear missile, but the speed with which he rocketed back up the hill and into the woods seemed to defy physics. I only felt mildly guilty afterwards.

Whiskeytown National Recreation Area west of Redding is also an excellent place for bear encounters. The trail system there is a terrific place to take a hike (easy, moderate and difficult), and there are bears there aplenty.

I won’t name the specific trail I was on taking a solo hike, but here was another situation where I saw the bear first, before the bear saw me. Unlike on the upper Sac, this situation lacked the margin of safety. I quickly decided if this bear wanted to get me there wasn’t much I could do about it. The animal was gorgeous. First, it was huge, much bigger and well-fed than most other bears I’d encountered. It was munching on a thicket of blackberries in a golly below the trail where there was a small stream running. It’s coat was not black, but almost a brownish-blond, what some call a cinnamon bear. It also had an impressive hump on its back very much like a grizzly bear.

I’ll never forget the moment our eyes met. I was still as a statue, but when our eyes locked I was suddenly very self-conscious. I started backing up the trail, wanting to create distance between me and the bear while not wanting to take my eyes off it until absolutely necessary. Never run from a bear. They can easily outrun a human, and you don’t want to trigger a chase response.

When I had moved a good way down the trail I faced the direction I was headed and kept hiking, stopping every so often to see if I were being followed. Thankfully that bear was more interested in eating blackberries than me. I’ve seen bears swim both in Whiskeytown Lake and Keswick Reservoir north of Redding.

If You Do

If you encounter a bear, try NOT to make eye contact. Move slowly away without running. If the bear moves toward you, make yourself big (arms out to your sides or over your head) and yell. If need be, you can also throw things at an approaching bear; anything to make it think you’re not worth hassling with. It’s not a bad idea to carry bear spray in the wilderness, both for bears as well as more dangerous human beings.

Black bears are not generally aggressive, and there are plenty of them in Northern California. If you encounter one in the wild, it’s good to know you’re probably not in much danger, but do be careful and follow the aforementioned guidelines. As Flannery O’Connor once said, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.”

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.

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