Monday, September 16, 2013

Your Safety Is NOT Guaranteed

(Or Why I Am Not Afraid Of Hiking In Bear Country)
I get asked quite a bit about being "afraid" to hike in bear country.  It seems many people are.  More than a few people quite dear to me have told me they flat-out avoid hiking in our gorgeous Montana mountains because they are afraid of bears.

Every time it comes up it strikes me as so very interesting and a little bit funny.  These same people will text and drive or exceed the speed limit, and so on, but they won't go experience the wonder of nature and their place in it because of bears.

Riding lawn mowers kill 95 Americans per year on average, according to the September issue of Popular Mechanics.  More than 150 Americans are killed by hitting wildlife while driving.  Nearly 40 American were killed by domestic pet dogs in 2012.  Meanwhile only three to five Americans are killed by wild animal attacks each year.  The fear of death is so misplaced, to my mind.

Its nearly opposite for me.  I am more nervous traveling on the freeway than the backcountry trails.  But do not be confused--I am not a risk taker.  I am not an adrenaline junkie.  Far from it, in fact.

Believe it or not I am afraid of bears.  That is only natural, I'd say.  I hope to never have a close encounter with one.  To that end I try to be as safe as possible when I am in bear country.  I am tyrannical about bear safety at camp.  No chapstick or water bottle tin the tent, no food or garbage in the fire, all potentially odoriferous items locked up in the trunk--even water bottles and camp chairs.   I take great pains to avoid any of these items from even touching my tent, sleeping bag, etc.  They are simple precautions that can prevent an interaction from ever taking place.  Its easy enough to do.

When we hit the trails we carry bear spray as a last resort should be have an aggressive bear encounter.  More importantly we talk as we hike and call out as we approach any bend in the trail or when we are hiking through thick vegetation that prevents an open view of the surrounding areas.  We respect all seasonally closed trails and areas that are part of bear management policies.  We read the signs at the trail head to see if there are any recent notices of bear activity.

I feel my fear of bears is a good thing.  I admire their power and wildness.  I want to know they are in the woods with me, as it should be.  I am respectful and cautious.  But, I am not about to let it prevent me from experiencing the wonders of nature.

I hope to grow old and pass away in a deep sleep in my bed next to Matt, but if, heaven forbid, some terrible trauma or accident should befall me I'd much rather have it be a bear than a automobile or a riding lawn mower.  I'd much rather have it be a canyon than a stairwell.  At least, I'd be out doing what I love, what feeds my soul.
Some 2012 National Park stats from the September issue of Backpacker:  Just because a hiker and bear meet in the woods doesn't mean there will be a brawl.  Bears don't  really want to hurt us.  They just get startled by us.  Or feel their babies are being threatened.  Or are curious about our food smells.  But, of 933 human-bear interactions in the parks in 2012 only one resulted in human death.  They resulted in 23 bear deaths, however.  That's another reason I am extra bear-cautious.  Its not just me I am worried about.  I don't want any poor critter to die because of my carelessness in food storage or camp set up.    
There are many, many signs in Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park reminding visitors that their safety is not guaranteed.  They're posted in virtually ever campground, bathroom, and trail head I've ever been at.  In Yellowstone they are frequently accompanied by illustrations of people being tossed in their air by a bison.   But the signs can't be everywhere.  One must use common sense.

Unfortunately, I think as our culture has grown more and more safety conscious this use-common-sense mentality cannot always be relied on.  People are inexperienced.  People are foolish.  And as long as they are there will always be sad, tragic, completely avoidable injuries and deaths from falls, animals, and geologic features.  But, I think there is more to it than just that.  I think we've grown accustomed to padded corners and safety railings and people looking out for our well-being. We expect safety.  But, that is just not possible in the wild.  Nor should it be.  To make the wilderness "safe" would ruin it.

The bottom line is our safety is not guaranteed anywhere on this planet!  We only think it is.  So, I hike in bear country and am thrilled with the wildness all around me.

6 comments:

  1. I have a healthy respect for bears but I am not afraid of them. I grew up in an area where we had bears in our yard all the time. The bears were more afraid of us than we were of them. We would try to sneak up to see them, not getting too close but close enough to see them and they always heard us and ran. We would try laying flat on the sundeck in hopes of not being heard and a few times the bear would be too engrossed in eating the plums from an old plum tree to bother with us. We were always so excited to get a sight of a black bear. We learned to live with bears as we should with all the animals on our beautiful earth.

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    1. Most of the bears I chance across are not quite so habituated to being around humans as the ones from your youth it seems. I suppose given the right circumstances it would be quite interesting to be so near them,as it is with all the wild critters. But, none the less, an animal that could be fatal is a bit freaky to me right up close. Their majesty is quite evident regardless. Oh what a thrill to see them out and about! The wilderness wouldn't be the same without them.

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  2. People ask me the same question. Only the subject is snakes. I like your response better than the one I have given. :)

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    1. Lots of snakes down in your neck of the woods, eh?! And thanks!

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    2. Yeah, tons. Copperhead, rattlesnake and coral snakes are the most dangerous ones. But there is also the cottonmouth. And lots of "nonvenomous" ones.

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    3. Wow. We just don't really have that going on up here. I mean, we do have rattlesnakes, but that is the only venomous snake we've got. And we've only got ten species total. How fascinating! (And that sounds like my brother-in-law's idea of hell....I think it would keep him from the woods.)

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Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and ideas. I value the advice and friendship that you share with me!