When fear dominates our sense of possibility collapses.Sharon Salzberg
The title for today’s post is from a trail guide to the Beartooth Mountains in northern Wyoming. It is the title of a section that includes of course all the usual recommendations for avoiding dangerous bear encounters, and since, in the words of my Wyoming friends, those mountains are “crawling with grizzlies,” they take on an ominous quality. In the final paragraph, this caveat is added as a publisher’s note: “Keep in mind these are merely general rules, but, as always, it’s dangerous to generalize–and especially about bears.”
I acquired the trail guide after moving to Wyoming in the mid-nineties. My twin daughters had just left home, so I had completed the greatest adventure of my life, watching two infants grow into toddlers, little girls, teenagers, and young women, off on their own adventures. I was suddenly free to begin a new one of my own, so I moved to the Big Horn Basin of Wyoming. It was comforting. I missed my daughters, but now I was surrounded by mountains on all sides.
You don’t have to live in Wyoming for very long before you meet someone who knows someone who has been attacked by a grizzly, most often during hunting season. Such attacks are rarely fatal, which is probably why they almost never make the news.
I moved to Wyoming in September, shortly after my daughter, Leah, had left for New Mexico to attend college. Hunting season had just begun. I had been there about a month when I was called to examine a patient in the emergency room, which was one of the responsibilities of my new job. I was walking down the hall to the examining room where my patient waited when the outside doors to the E.R. were flung open, and through them came a man on a gurney, flanked on both sides by emergency personnel who were ashen in color. I took a look at the man on the cart, and I knew why. I must have lost some color myself at that point. I will spare you the details. Suffice it to say that the image was memorable, so memorable in fact that I have made multiple attempts to erase it from my mind and never succeeded, what in my field would be called a flashback. He looked as though he would not die, but I knew he would be undergoing many months, if not years, of orthopedic and plastic surgery to put his face back together again after being mauled by a grizzly.
So it was the following spring when the snow in the mountains finally began to melt and the trails opened up that I set about exploring my new home, but it seems I’d lost my innocence. I carried with me the image of that bear mauling, and it changed me. I’d had plenty of black bear encounters by that time, but none that rivaled the brief encounter in the emergency room when no bear was present.
I purchased a bear canister. Merely hanging my food at night no longer seemed like a safe and secure precaution. I bought a can of bear spray and then, for good measure, I purchased another one so that I could practice with it. I reasoned that learning to use such a weapon was probably best done when there was not a bear charging me. I learned to carry the bear spray on my belt, and I would periodically flip off the safety latch so that I was certain I could do so quickly if I needed to. When I retired to my tent at night the bear spray would be there on my right side, and I would practice reaching for it at night in the dark.
In my many years of hiking Wyoming’s magnificent mountain ranges I never once encountered a grizzly, not in the Beartooth Mountains, not in the Absarokas, not even in Yellowstone where tourists commonly peer at them from their vehicles. The only predators I encountered with any regularity were wood ticks, which I picked off my ankles and socks after most hikes.
When I retired many years later I left grizzly country and returned to the Olympic Peninsula, where my earlier black bear encounters had occurred. The lessons I had learned in Wyoming stayed with me. I continued to carry a hard sided plastic canister in which to store my food at night. It gave me a degree of security that was not present when I merely hung my food as well as providing a useful stool for sitting. I had several more encounters with “nuisance bears.” I liked that they no longer frightened me.
A few years after retiring, Leah and I decided to hike the Washington section of the Pacific Crest Trail. It was a difficult trip for many reasons, but one of them for me was the complacent attitude of many of the hikers I met along the trail when it came to bear safety. Most reasoned that since there had never been any documented cases of nuisance bear encounters on the PCT additional safety precautions were unnecessary and a canister added both weight and bulk.
They were right of course. I never told anyone about the bear mauling victim I had witnessed, nor were there any grizzlies on the PCT. A few hikers carried an Ur Sack, a Kevlar bag for keeping food safe. I no longer trusted my arthritic fingers to tie knots that would keep the Ur Sack closed so continued to rely on my canister that was both heavy and bulky.
That summer there were glowing reports of a hiker who had defied the Park Service’s mandate to carry a bear canister while hiking in the High Sierras. That hiker had reportedly followed the letter of the law, while ignoring its spirit and intent, which had more to do with keeping bears safe from hikers and their food than hikers safe from bears. He had “carried” a canister but never used it. The empty canister was carried proudly in his arms as he hiked, and his food was taken into his tent at night. He had achieved a kind of folk hero status that summer and was often a topic of conversation when hikers conversed in camp at night. I thought perhaps the heavy canister on which I sat might have spurred the conversation. I didn’t mind being the subject of ridicule, and I at least had a comfortable stool.
Perhaps because the Olympics weren’t quite wild enough for us, more likely because western Washington was just too crowded after living in Wyoming for many years, my husband and I bought a log home in the Okanogan Highlands about a year-and-a-half ago and moved to northeastern Washington state. As luck would have it, this is the only part of the state where grizzly bears are occasionally sited. Locals dismiss them, but they are known to roam not far north in Canada, so it seems likely they may wander south from time to time. I don’t mind. I’m prepared. I’ve got a canister and bear spray.
And if you should wonder why I would consider having grizzlies nearby as “fortunate,” let me remind you of the “wild” that is contained in “wilderness.” Yes, fortunately there are bears. I am ready for them.
The trail guide cited in this post is Hiking the Beartooths by Bill Schneider