Dream America, think Kuoni

wandering around in Sequoia National Park, California  

Up in the high Sierra Nevada in California grow majestic groves of Sequoia trees. There are a few things that the reader should know about these trees.sequoia tree.jpg

For starters, Sequoias are really big trees...

No, that doesn’t cover it. Sequoias are bloody great huge trees! Up to 275 feet tall and 103 feet in circumference. By volume they are the largest living things on the planet (the Californian Coastal Redwood is a bit taller but is thinner, and the oft quoted in pub quizzes ‘Great Barrier Reef’, is clearly made of millions of separate tiny creatures so doesn’t count in my book). They can live to be over 3000 years old although the oldest Sequoia tree still standing is only thought to be around 2700 years old.  2700 years!  Placing your hand on the bark of a tree that has been around for that long is a strangely thought provoking experience. For me, it brought about cheerful contemplation of what a short, insignificant and pretty much pointless time the rest of us are here for compared to these natural behemoths of the highland forests. But then I’ve always had a naturally cheery disposition.

The sheer scale of them takes some getting used to. When visiting the aptly named Giant Forest in the Sequoia National Park, expect to spend a lot of time, repeatedly pointing up exclaiming ‘LOOK AT THE SIZE OF THAT BLOODY TREE!’ in a generally over excited and high pitched manner. 

Typical of the good old human race then, that when the friendly neighbourhood pioneers discovered groves of these awesome natural spectacles, they promptly set about setting up logging operations. 3000 years of growth, battling against other trees, wind, lightning and forest fires comes to an undignified end at the hands of a gang of lumberjacks. Sequoia wood is brittle and breaks across the grain when felled which makes it useless as timber, so the wood was used for items such as toothpicks and pencils. Its hard to believe today but never the less, the felling of these giant trees continued, from the 1870’s until finally someone in the government saw sense in 1890 (by which time a full third of the Sequoia population had been felled) and the national park was created ensuring that the remaining groves of Sequoias were protected for future generations to enjoy.   

Which is exactly what we were doing there in June 2005 as we walked amongst the Giant Forest, exclaiming frequently as we wandered along the Huckleberry trail that ‘Gosh!  These trees really are quite large indeed!’ (‘we’ being me and my wife Louise in the middle of our 16 day trip to the states, taking in San Francisco, Yosemite National Park, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Santa Monica and San Francisco again).

The plan for the day was simple, a gentle-ish walk from the Giant Forest Museum to a large granite dome on the edge of the mountains known as Moro Rock, with reported spectacular view from the top and a pleasant walk back the long way round through the Giant Forest to the museum, only about  5 or 6 miles in all, and we had most of the afternoon to do it in, what could be finer! 

It was a warm day with a slight breeze and the walk through the forest to Moro Rock was very pleasant, the path running more or less parallel to the narrow track that led down to the rock, but far enough away from it so that the noise from the occasional car didn’t intrude. It was only a couple of miles or so to the rock and soon we had arrived at the parking area at the bottom of it. Louise isn’t keen on heights so the plan was that once we reached Moro Rock, I would scurry up it, take in the view, take a few photos and come back down again while she waited near the bottom.  There are 400 steps cut into the rock to enable an easy ascent so, as planned I hurried off up the steps to the top. More accurately, I hurried up the bottom hundred or so steps at a reasonably impressive speed, which became steadily more sedate the further up I went.


It was worth the effort.  The view from the top was as spectacular as promised, offering a 360 degree panorama of the surrounding mountains.  To the East, a distant crest of 13000ft snowcapped peaks, The great western divide.  To the west the Sierra foothills gradually fell away to the haze of the San Joaquin valley and lowland California which vanished in the distant  yellow haze.   

Leaving the rock, we headed onto the Huckleberry trail, which soon became a very pretty wooded mountainside path and wound its merry way alongside a bubbling stream on the way to Crescent Meadow, our next landmark.

Something worth mentioning now about Sequoia National Park to add an element of excitement to your average hike, is the fact that bears live there.  Black bears to be exact.  Why they are called black bears remains a mystery to me, as they are actually a reasonably light shade of brown.  Strange that this should have slipped through in a country full of such literally named things. The cunningly named Overhanging Rock in Yosemite springs to mind as a prime example, as does the unexpectedly crescent shaped Crescent Meadow mentioned earlier, not to mention the rather noisy Roaring River Falls.  Still, black bears it is, so I will just have to live with it. 

If you ever go to Yosemite or the Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, you will learn a lot about the local bears. You will learn that they are basically large noses searching for food. You will learn that they can tear open the top of a parked car as easily as we might open a packet of peanuts, (probably easier, thinking back to some of the moments I have had fruitlessly wresting with the optimistically labelled  ‘tear here’ part of the packet, which is clearly deliberately strengthened in the factory to humiliate anyone who tries to open the packet without resorting to scissors or teeth). You will learn from the many notices in the car parks of the area that even leaving anything in your car that they could possibly smell vaguely food like (including lip balm and suncream!) will result in a very hefty fine on top of the potential repair bill should a nearby bear be drawn to the smell. Any food you take into the wilderness with you must be stored in bear proof containers.  This is to discourage them from associating humans with easy access to food. Once they associate humans with food they can become aggressive and start harassing hapless hikers.  When this happens the bears have a tag attached to their ear by the park rangers, and ultimately if other techniques designed to make them instinctively fear and stay away from humans again don’t work they can end up having to be shot by the rangers.  So, as many of the signs around car parks indicated, if you leave food in your car, you could be inadvertently responsible for the death of a bear. 

Walking alongside the very pretty and peaceful Crescent Meadow (complete with deer grazing, and fallen Sequoia trees crossing the full width of it in places) and on into the Giant Forest we heard rumours from a passing couple of a bear sighting close to the next meadow along the trail.  This sighting was confirmed to us by a rather strange American fellow who stopped to talk to us further on, after informing us that there was indeed a bear in the next meadow, and some park rangers were near it for some reason, he inquired where we were from.

‘You’re English?’ he exclaimed enthusiastically in a booming Texas accent. ‘That’s great, I’m English too!’ He shook our hands vigorously like we were long lost cousins.

I glanced at Louise.  ‘Really?  You don’t sound very English’

‘Well, My name is Kendal and my Granddaddy was thrown out of your English Lake District for some shady dealings before my Daddy was born, but Hell, I’m still English!’ he assured us offering us his card.

Inspecting the card revealed that his surname was, as he claimed, Kendal, and that he was a property dealer.  We chatted for a couple of minutes longer about how great it was to be English before bidding our farewells and heading on. 

We were in the Giant Forest proper now, and the huge Sequoias were all around us, occasionally the trail forked, with paths leading to particularly impressive examples that had earned names.  I was quietly having trouble figuring out exactly which path we were now following on the map.  The area we were in had several paths marked on it that occasionally crossed, however it did not have any of the meadows that dotted the area marked on and none of the paths were named, so I was struggling with no landmarks nearby other than the contours of the land to pinpoint us.  Tricky in a forest when you’ve been following trail markers without paying too much attention to exactly where you are. I’ve never appreciated before just how good the Ordnance Survey maps in the UK are.  Now I do.   

Turning off the path we were on we followed a sign and headed tentatively a quarter of a mile out of our way to the nearby meadow (the name escapes me) to see if we could spot the bear we had been hearing reports about.   Heading downhill we spied a narrow green strip of grassland curving away ahead of us.  We stopped about 200 feet away, peering downhill through the trees.  A strange intermittent clicking/clonking noise had been getting steadily louder as we approached the meadow, and as we watched a bear appeared at the left hand side of the clearing and hurried across it.  A bear! A real life wild bear. Here in the forest, with us!  Giggling nervously we watched as a minute later a park ranger appeared and the source of the strange noise became apparent.  The ranger was using a hand held device to make the noise and was driving the bear along ahead of him.  It became apparent at that point that the bear was being driven vaguely in our direction, so it seemed wisest to retreat with some haste back to the main trail and continue on our way.  Which we did, very pleased with ourselves and our successful ‘bear spotting’. 

It was soon after that my navigation troubles with the map started to become a real irritation as we reached a fork in the path, a signpost indicated that the right fork belonged to the Alta trail, and the left fork led to one of the named trees.  ‘Michigan’ this one was called if I remember correctly.  After carefully doing my best to follow the Huckleberry trail, I was quite perturbed to find I was somehow on completely different trail and that according to the map it  headed off eastwards into the wilderness proper.   I also discovered at this point that I had cunningly left my compass in the car in our other rucksack. By now, the shadows were lengthening, and it felt like it was only a couple of hours until sunset, I estimated we probably still had an hour of walking until we would arrive back at the tree museum, and I admit to starting to feel a little tense.    Walking in the dark was not an appealing prospect, especially as bears had recently become distinctly more real than they had been an hour earlier.

I glared at the map. The road was somewhere to the Northwest of us, and couldn’t be more than a couple of miles away.  I peered at the sun again, knowing it was heading into the west quarter of the sky, I reasoned that I merely needed to keep it a little in front of me and to my left and I could be reasonably sure the I was heading ‘Northwest-ish’.  The left fork closely matched the direction I had logically identified as ‘Northwest-ish’, and so with my best confidence inspiring voice I declared it to be the path we needed to take us back, and we headed along it. Twenty frustrating minutes later we arrived back at the fork.  The promising path we were following had faded to nothing half a mile along at the top of an escarpment forcing us to retrace our steps. 

The atmosphere between us was starting to get distinctly tetchy.  My announcement that even if we couldn’t find the right path I could get us to the road by striking out ‘Northwest-ish’ through the forest was greeted dubiously, and so we followed the other path in the direction I will call ‘Northeast-ish’, hoping that a more friendly Northwest-ish’ path would cross it soon.  My jokes about ‘the Blair Witch Project’ were not well received at this point.

However, we were in luck this time and a couple of minutes later another fork, and another promising looking ‘Northwest-ish path to be followed appeared. 

Ten minutes later as we strode along, winding our way down into a shallow sided gully and happy to still be heading ‘Northwest-ish’ we met another bear.  This one was on the path.  Right in the middle of the path.  Right in the middle of the path, right in front of us.   Looking at us. Looking at it. Looking back at us. Not fifty feet from where we stood. No park rangers this time. Just us, the steadily darkening forest, and the bear.  It dawned on me at that point that we were facing an animal that was not necessarily below us on the food chain.

Now, there is a shed-load of information about what to do when you unexpectedly cross paths with a bear in the wild and it approaches you.  ‘Make yourself look big’,  ‘ pick up any small children’ (presumably to protect them rather than offer them up as a handy distraction),  ‘ bang your pots and pans together’,  ‘if it is aggressive and you throw anything at it do not aim for the head, you will only make it mad’, ‘back away slowly DO NOT RUN’  (they can run at thirty miles per hour).  We had read all the leaflets about bears, and all the leaflets about mountain lions, joking about who would have to wrestle it if we met one (that would be me then), and being sure that, while we certainly wouldn’t see one, if we did we would definitely know exactly how to react. 

What we actually did upon meeting a real life bear in the woods was the following :-

1. Gasp, and point.

2. Swear.

3. ‘Make yourself look big’ - Simultaneously, without discussion, we both threw our hands up in the air.

The bear looked less than impressed with our futile gesture of surrender.

4. ‘Bang your pots and pans together’  - We both shouted, Louise picked up a stick and hit a nearby tree with it.  The stick broke with a soft cracking noise.

The bear still wasn’t impressed with this unprovoked attack on the local flora and with its head down,, started to walk steadily towards us.

5. ‘Do not run, back away slowly’ - This we did relatively successfully, I even had the presence of mind to quickly fish my camera out of my pocket and take a couple of pictures for posterity, reasoning that if I was going to be attacked by a bear I should at least have some pictures of it.

Unconcerned the bear continued down the path towards us, matching pace with us as we retreated until it reached the spot we had been standing when we first happened upon it, at which point if veered slightly off to the path, and headed off up the side of the shallow gully on whatever business of its own it had been about before we got in its way.  

bear2.jpgAfter a suitable calming down period and when we were sure the bear really had gone, we continued on our way at a vastly increased pace.  Looking about constantly for any of the bear’s friends who might fancy a go at the sport of alarming tourists. Its worth noting that much entertainment can be had during the period after meeting a wild animal by occasionally making a loud snuffling noise while simultaneously pinching your partners ankle/bum/anything else you can reach, after a few goes it does tend to cause a sudden slapping pain on the back of your head though. (if your duck reflexes happen to fail you)

Within a mile we arrived in an area with several well defined paths, all with signs, all with the names of trees on.  Not one sign did we see that said ‘Attention! Startled tourist who has just met a bear, this way for the quickest route to the road!’  Despite the odds my cunning head ‘Northwest-ish’ plan turned out to be a winner and shortly we did arrive at the road in a small parking area, and after a minutes confusion trying to decide whether we needed to go left or right to get back to the museum car park. I bravely overcame the Englishman’s fear of asking directions, and sent Louise over to ask the driver of a pickup that had just pulled in if they knew which way the Giant Forest Museum was.

He pointed,  ‘Just up there to the left, not more than a quarter of a mile’

And happily, so it was.    


Words by Rich D