I’ve had close encounters with bears four times.
It’s bound to happen if you spend a lot of time in the high Sierra.
Two times they were good-sized black bears chasing down what they hoped would be their dinner. Each encounter was within 70 feet — one on the backside of El Capitan and the other heading up Mono Pass in Yosemite National Park.
The third was as I was bicycling on the shoulder of Highway 50 up Spooner Summit. A mother bear was closing in on me apparently believing I was a threat to her nearby cubs. Several truck drivers passing by hitting their air horns got the bear to turnaround after she came within 40 feet.
The last encounter was two years ago getting ready to hike Valentine Lake from a trailhead just outside of Mammoth.
It was a slow-mo and a drawn out encounter. I had put on my day pack stuffed with gear including food and was standing outside my Escape about ready to grab my hiking poles and head out when the bear appeared from behind a nearby pit toilet. It then hit a row of bear-proof garbage cans raising its snout as it went by. Clearly to me — or at least it seemed — the bear was looking for food.
Then he came toward me. I turned so I was facing the bear as it closed the distance. Within perhaps 30 seconds it was beside me just five feet away and kept moving. I watched as it sauntered up the mountain and disappeared into the woods just yards from the trail.
A minute or so later I started my hike.
I never press my luck with a bear.
That said they are a pleasure to deal with when compared to the early 1990s when I literally spent time in a bear.
It wasn’t a Jonah swallows by the whale thing. It was wearing the Betty Bear costume.
The Manteca Bulletin once had a mascot named Betty Bear. It was part of the Bulletin’s kids’ literacy program.
She even had her own newspaper. It was a weekly 8-page tab dubbed “Betty Bear’s Bulletin” that was printed in the Saturday edition.
It contained several pages of syndicated kids’ puzzles and short stories on nature and science. We accepted submissions of both art work and stories from youthful readers to use in Betty Bear’s Bulletin. If their item was Betty’s favorite that week they were mailed a stuffed Betty Bear. Second and third received items such as playground balls with her image and named imprinted on them.
All entries received a Betty Bear pencil or ruler.
More than a few teachers requested a classroom visit from Betty Bear and her assistant who happened to be me. While Betty Bear did her thing, I explained how a newspaper worked and answered teachers’ questions on any reading and writing were important. I ghost wrote stories of the classroom visit under Betty Bear’s byline that ran with photos of Betty Bear’s visit in the next edition of Betty Bear’s Bulletin.
Betty Bear during such visits was another Bulletin employee or a college kid who saw it as a way to make a few quick bucks.
Betty Bear also made her share of appearances at public events such as festivals and parades that usually took place on warm to hot days.
It was during those times I became Betty Bear right down to wearing a skirt and shirt that more than a few noted were in East Union High’s colors. Getting a sidekick to help was no issue. That’s because the real problem was being inside the Betty Bear costume.
It lacked all the modern conveniences of breathing such as ventilation beyond holes in the eyes and snout. The original Betty Bear costume lacked a battery powered fan built into the head.
As a result spending time as Betty Bear was equivalent to being trapped in a sauna without the ambiance. You could easily shed 4 to 5 pounds of water weight per use.
That brings up the real revolting factoid about Betty Bear. No matter whether it had just been cleaned prior to someone else wearing it, the costume was ripe on the inside.
Given scientists are in agreement a bear can detect smells at least a minimum of two miles away, I’d venture to say a real bear in Yosemite National Park could have smelled Betty Bear whenever she ventured out in Manteca on a summer’s day.
The popularity of Betty Bear at the time among elementary students, a rash of kids on bicycles versus cars accidents, and my unofficial role as a crash dummy for bicycle helmet testing prompted Manteca Police Department community service officer Rex Osborn to come up with an idea.
He arranged for a bicycle safety assembly at every Manteca school for kindergarten through fourth graders.
Betty Bear would be there as the celebrity and Rex would get things rolling. I would take it from there decked out in racing garb, cleats, helmet and gloves. I’d bring one of my two flashier racing bicycles with aero bars as props.
I also brought four helmets I had cracked in high speed downhill crashes as well as one when I went over like a sack of potatoes as I slowed down to 12 mph on French Camp Road to cross diagonal tracks and caught my 700cc front tire in the gap between the rail and pavement.
Each time the helmet made the supreme sacrifice and the worst I ever got was a headache Ana bruised ego.
To give you an idea of how long ago this was Jason Campbell, who is now a part-time Bulletin reporter and a high school teacher in Modesto, remembers me making the bicycle safety presentation as a fourth grader.
When we visited Shasta School Betty Bear was John Decker, a Delta College student who worked in our production department.
We were wrapping up the presentation with a question and answer session about the bicycle I had with me such as what was the fastest I’d ever gone downhill — 67 mph based on a cyclometer reading — to how much the bike weighed, which was just a tad over 15 pounds tricked out.
The late Rick Mello who was the Shasta School principal at the time asked me how much the bicycle cost.
I happened to have my most expensive ride with me that day — a custom McMahon titanium bike frame.
My answer was $7,500, adding it would have been higher but I didn’t go with top of the line Campognala components opting for Shimano instead.
Upon hearing that, Mello abandoned his plans to make sure kids didn’t mob Betty Bear on the way out of the assembly to make sure they stayed away from my bicycle. I told him that wasn’t necessary but he insisted.
What happened next is one of those things you never forget.
Much to Mello’s horror as he stood guarding the bicycle and me as kids filed out, a fourth girl ran up, put her hands on Betty Bear’s shoulder and pushed her knee up into “her” groin.
As John doubled over wincing in pain and sucking in air, the girl turned to her classmate and exclaimed, “see, I told you Betty Bear was a boyI”
This column is the opinion of editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Bulletin or 209 Multimedia. He can be reached at email@example.com