DONNER SUMMIT - About a dozen volunteers safely lowered a tranquilized black bear Sunday morning from picturesque Rainbow Bridge near Donner Summit to the floor of a granite-strewn ravine.
The concerted act of mercy occurred against a backdrop of escalating encounters between humans and bears in the region this year, many resulting in the death of bears in car crashes or their capture by basin residents tired of bruin break-ins.
On Sunday, though, humans turned out to save the life of a 250-pound bear that literally clung for its life through the night.
According to the Truckee BEAR League's Dave Baker, a medium-size bear jumped the railing of Rainbow Bridge, a 100-foot concrete arch near Donner Summit, on Saturday afternoon.
"The bear was crossing the bridge as cars were coming from the east and west," said Baker. "(The cars) pinched the bear up and over the guard rail."
The bear apparently jumped to avoid the cars, then found itself trapped in the concrete girders beneath the highest point of the bridge from 3 p.m. Saturday until its eventual rescue at noon Sunday.
"I've been on a lot of bear rescues, and this is the most intense bear call that I've been on," Baker said.
One of the first on the scene, Baker said he saw claw marks etched into the concrete railing where the bear leaped and then scrambled for a secure hold to prevent falling about 80 feet.
Baker said he and a man from Las Vegas identified only as "Andy" tracked down a 20-by-40-foot nylon net from an Army surplus store in Reno. Assisted by rock and tree climbers, Baker strung the orange cargo mesh beneath the span of the 80-year-old bridge.
A Nevada County Animal Control official then shot the animal with a tranquilizer dart.
"We thought it would take 15 minutes - no, it took forever," said Executive Director Ann Bryant, of the BEAR League, of the wait for the sedative to take effect.
"He kept lifting his head up - he was really fighting it."
According to Baker, Mike Turner, of Turner's Tree Service, donned a safety harness and lowered himself over the bridge in an effort to push the bear off the girder and into the net.
Bryant said the bear was in danger of falling toward the net's outside edge, which could have ended with the animal landing on the granite crags below.
"Then I yelled, 'It's a good time to give her a nudge - she'll just fall in there,'" Bryant said of the tense moment. "[Turner] just pushed her with a pole and a boot, and the bear tumbled into the net. As soon as she fell, the net became a bag."
When the bear reached the ground, it staggered out, still groggy from the drugged dart.
At that point, nearly 100 spectators lining the roadway cheered and applauded the brown-furred bruin, Bryant said.
Bryant said she and BEAR League volunteer Kellie Baker then herded the animal into the shade, away from the crowds, where it lay down.
The BEAR League worked alongside Nevada County Animal Control, Truckee Animal Control and the California Highway Patrol to help in the rescue effort and control traffic and crowds, according to Truckee Animal Control Officer Dan Olsen.