But the vacationers who arrived in droves were not Tahoe’s typical tourists, observers say. Some seemed unfamiliar with wilderness protocols, which include packing out trash, protecting pristine natural elements such as trees and boulders, and not feeding the bears.
After stay-at-home mandates eased, “we did get a surge of people being able to travel again,” said Carol Chaplin, president and CEO of the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority. In South Lake Tahoe, an area with beaches, campgrounds and casinos, 80 percent of hotel properties reported July and August revenue that was the same or greater than in 2019, she noted.
Many visitors were “day-trippers or people traveling through on their way to other destinations like Oregon,” she said. “People were looking for road trips; they felt safer in their own little pod in their car.”
When visitors come for extended stays, there is time to orient them to the fact that Tahoe is bear country, that you cannot keep food in your car, even in a cooler (bears recognize them), and that you cannot keep first-floor house windows open or even leave sliding doors unlocked. But when people arrive for a brief visit, they form a more casual relationship to the wilderness around them, said Ann Bryant, 68, head of the BEAR League in Homewood, Calif., a 24-hour call center for bear issues. They may even leave food out for a bear for Instagram opportunities. That has consequences for the next visitor, who may be terrified when the bear returns for more.
Calls to the BEAR League skyrocketed this summer. “Most people come up here with no clue that there are bears,” Bryant said.
A visitor from Georgia, for instance, stayed at a hotel near the lake that bears pass on their normal nightly rounds. “Every time he would see one, he would call 911 like it’s a major emergency,” Bryant said. “They threatened to arrest him if he called again.”
“Bears aren’t into hurting people,” she emphasized. “They’ll knock over anything to get out if someone’s blocking their exit.”
This summer, many drivers came from the San Francisco Bay area and lacked “proper forest etiquette,” Bryant said. There was a surge in vandalism and littering. Trees and ancient boulders were spray-painted, sometimes with obscenities. “It got really hostile,” she said. “We were absolutely incensed to see that. I can’t imagine what kind of person would think that’s okay.”
Volunteers tried to clean up the boulders, “which takes off lichen that’s been growing on the rocks for a million years,” she said. “The history was removed from them.”
Locals protested with several rallies in August, holding signs that read “tourists go away” and “don’t trash Tahoe.” “It’s unfortunate, because we love our visitors, and that’s our primary source of revenue,” Chaplin said.
The environmental concerns were echoed by Lisa Herron, 58, a spokesperson for the USDA Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, under whose jurisdiction most of the region’s campgrounds and beaches fall. “We’ve definitely seen an increase in visitation to the national forest lands over this past summer,” Herron said. “And sometimes with that increase comes added pressure. In some instances, people would leave trash outside overflowing receptacles. That’s unacceptable.” She keeps a spare trash bag in her backpack and urges visitors to do the same. (The profusion of trash might stem from the pandemic, with its increase in single-use plastic and plastic foam for takeout food service, Chaplin said.)
But the problem isn’t just one of sanitation. “Once bears find the source of human food or garbage, they return and seek it out,” Herron said. “They’re pretty smart.”
The risk of bear engagement, paired with pandemic concerns, led officials to cancel the Fall Fish Festival, which draws up to 12,000 people in a single weekend to watch kokanee salmon spawning in Taylor Creek.
Zhee Zhee Aguirre, 48, owner of Spoon Restaurant in Tahoe City, Calif., said she’s experienced an increase in business, especially takeout, this summer, which she in part attributes to the wildfires that swept Northern California. “With the fires, we’ve had a lot of people running away from their homes, going haywire because of being cooped up,” she said. She’s seen bears around her restaurant, and one customer reporting seeing a bear with a disposable mask in its mouth. Customers have also wept at the sight of cubs hit by cars, she said.
In the past, according to Bryant of the BEAR League, there has been a yearly average of 50 bears hit by cars; this year, she estimated the number to be 100. “And we aren’t even done yet. The bears won’t go into their dens until closer to Christmastime.” While some bears survive the hits, 30 to 40 die in a typical year.
Jon Hunt, 46, lives two hours from Tahoe. He and his wife, Carey Moreno-Hunt, had been discussing buying a condo near the lake for years. Then, this year, when all their vacations and their four kids’ sports programs were canceled, they purchased a place in Kings Beach, on the California side of the North Shore. “We didn’t know how long covid was going to be, so we thought we’d give it a try,” he said.
Hunt noticed in August that Tahoe was “packed, with wall-to-wall people — I thought that was kind of shocking” — but said the numbers thinned out once school started. And though he had never encountered a bear on previous visits, he saw three this summer.
He even witnessed a mama bear ease open the unlocked bear bar on a dumpster and lift the lid while her cub went inside to toss stuff out. Neither bear responded to the people clapping and yelling, so the humans eventually gave up and went to bed. In the morning, “trash was strewn all around like they had a little party,” Hunt said.
Relief is coming: The bears, who ate vigorously all summer to put on the calories they’ll need to survive hibernation, will be less visible as the weather changes. And perhaps visitors will start to treat Tahoe’s natural beauty with the respect it deserves. “Hopefully our winter season will be a little gentler,” Chaplin said.
Mailman is a writer based in Northern California. Find her on Twitter: @ErikaMailman