Taking my chances in grizzly country

 

When I travel in grizzly bear country (admittedly less often than I used to and far less frequently than I would like), I leave the bear spray at home. In fact, I’ve never even owned a canister of it. Never wanted to. My basic rationale, if you can call it that, is that I would rather be mauled to death by a bear than pepper-spray an animal that has a sense of smell thousands of times greater than my own. Honestly, I simply can’t imagine the agony a bear goes through when it gets a snout full of capsaicin, and I, for one, don’t want to be the person responsible for such pain.

The second reason, which is actually the stronger of the two, is that I want to meet the wilderness on its own terms.

I know this sounds naïve, and even worse, cavalier or arrogant. But it is also honest. In nearly every way I can think of, we as a society are obsessed with being safe. We have tried, in every conceivable way and place, from playgrounds to campgrounds –– and all too often these amount to the same thing –– to make the world safe, tame, digestible, comfortable, and ultimately, bland and soulless. And nowhere is it more evident than in our approach to wilderness, those few pockets of reservation-like habitat we’ve crowded our animal neighbors onto.

Call me old-fashioned, but to my way of thinking, if a mountain lion or grizzly bear or even a stray branch from an old tree wants to take me out, well, hell, that’s part and parcel of the risk of traveling in the backcountry, trespassing across the animals’ land and home. To go even further, I’m of the school that believes that we should set aside huge swaths of country on which human beings aren’t allowed to set foot on, or even fly over. Let the animals, at least the ones that are still out there, have at least a smidgeon of privacy and security. My sole argument for this is simple: It’s the right thing to do. But I know it won’t happen any time soon, and therefore, in the meantime, wildlife and human visitors are bound to interact.

That means each person’s responsibility when traveling in the backcountry is to know what he or she is doing, and that includes taking precautions to avoid running into a grizzly unexpectedly. Viewing wildlife, especially the megafauna found out West, is often the highlight of any trip. It may be a remote chance, but I’m always hoping to see a bear, lion, elk, caribou or wolf. At the same time, I’m not trying to count coup with a camera, or doing anything as blatantly foolish as cooking right next to my tent, sending out olfactory dinner invitations. A little common sense goes a long way on the trail, and in my experience you generally have to go out of your way to have a personal encounter with one of these wild creatures. Ninety-nine times out of 100, they see or hear or smell us first and -- intelligent creatures that they are –– want nothing to do with us, and our obnoxious and hideous ways.

I think part of what leads to our exaggerated ideas of safety is that people forget, or maybe don’t even understand, why they want to be in the wilderness in the first place. News flash: It’s not supposed to be safe. It is supposed to be mysterious and at least slightly (and I emphasis slightly) dangerous. (Driving a car is the single most dangerous thing a person can do, and yet most of us drive nearly daily without a thought about the potential disasters.) For those brave souls who get out of their Winnebagos and backpack into Glacier National Park or Yellowstone, the whole point is to be in the wilderness with all its beauty, sublimity, transcendence, hardships and dangers. Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, a Buddhist monk, said, "When mountain climbing is made easy, the spiritual effect the mountain exercises vanishes into the air." Safety first, of course, and be prepared. But, really: There’s got to be a line here, somewhere.

My sister has jokingly given me the Indian-style name Eaten-By-Bears. I certainly hope this isn’t a prophecy, but if it is, then, well, fair is fair. At least I’ll know I died serving a purpose -- helping to fatten a bear up for winter. After all, they were here first, and the odds of survival are decidedly not in their favor. If anyone deserves to be pepper-sprayed, it’s us.

Charles Finn is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News(hcn.org). He is the editor of the High Desert Journal.

Jeff Martin
Jeff Martin Subscriber
Sep 07, 2012 02:43 PM
Certainly an honorable choice to travel without bear spray but remember if a bear dose maim or kill you because you traveled sans spray you have sentenced "him" to death and the authorities will carry out the execution!
John R Pence
John R Pence Subscriber
Sep 11, 2012 02:15 PM
I agree with Jeff Martin's post 100%. You can save two lives with spray. I hope you never experience an up close and personal confrontation!
Richard Boyden
Richard Boyden Subscriber
Sep 11, 2012 02:26 PM
Finn likes wilderness. I can tell because I do, too. I just don't go where I have no business. I'm 50% deaf so that limits my options. My dog takes the dark out of the night for me. (Otherwise my imagination takes over.) I wouldn't want to maim or kill a wild animal, even if it was him or me. What is so wonderful about this miserable body that I would want to blow off the whole planet just for my convenience? We all just end up in the garbage pile anyway. Nice writing, Charlie!
greg mcmillan
greg mcmillan
Sep 11, 2012 02:52 PM
However, there is a very diffenent "pucker factor" when you are camped in areas where you are not the top of the food chain....I feel much better knowing I have done it.....
Michael Painter
Michael Painter Subscriber
Sep 11, 2012 02:53 PM
I also was going to comment that the bear that kills you will in all likelihood be killed himself afterward. If you could ask him, the bear might tell you that he would prefer a noseful of bear spray than a lead bullet.
Don L Watson
Don L Watson Subscriber
Sep 11, 2012 02:56 PM
I agree with Jeff Martin and will add that, for black bears at least, that after a dose of pepper spray the bear will tend to steer clear of people.
Katie Black
Katie Black Subscriber
Sep 11, 2012 02:58 PM
I agree with Jeff Martin and John Pence. Your judicious use of bear spray would save at least two lives - yours, and that of the now "dangerous" animal that would attack you. Also, it could keep that bear away from humans for quite a while. Right or wrong, the authorities will kill animals which have killed people. There are plenty of ways for you to allow the wilderness to conquer you, if that is your wish... but don't condemn an animal that is just behaving naturally by misplaced kindness.
Alan Gregory
Alan Gregory Subscriber
Sep 11, 2012 06:45 PM
My vote: Simply stay out of bear country. They were there first, anyway. There are many, many, many places to hike, backpack, etc.
Michael Kirkpatrick
Michael Kirkpatrick Subscriber
Sep 11, 2012 09:22 PM
Ditto to Jeff Martin et al.'s comments. The author has a right to do what he wants, but it would be best for the wilderness he enjoys if he were aware of the consequences for all.
greg mcmillan
greg mcmillan
Sep 12, 2012 01:24 AM
Once again,I think you miss the point....being in a place where you are not on the top of the food chain,without protection, is a very humbling experience.It is the essence of natural travel. It IS primal....and not for all...g
Katie Black
Katie Black Subscriber
Sep 12, 2012 10:56 AM
greg mcmillan, bear spray is only a deterrent to bears, and having it doesn't take away from the primal experience. For instance, a canny mountain lion can drop on you from above without you ever seeing her. You can also be humbled by many other things in the wilderness. We live close to forest and wilderness areas, not where grizzlies are, but black bear and lions, and NATURE. We witness lots and lots of folks being hauled out of the mountains after their primal experiences went bad... and yes, when they have a bad encounter with a bear, the bear often suffers the penalty.
Furthermore, if you want natural travel, I hope you leave modern sleeping bags, tents,water filters, and compasses behind. The native people, after all, did just fine without them, and guided themselves by the stars.
Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Sep 12, 2012 01:47 PM
...and if you really crave that not-at-the-top-of-the-food-chain thrill, dive with California sea lions when great whites are around.

That'll cure ya.
Richard Boyden
Richard Boyden Subscriber
Sep 12, 2012 01:50 PM
The real point about bears in the first place, it seems to me, is that their habitat is becoming more and more scarce and, in turn, the bears are having to get meaner and meaner just to survive. I asked a Navajo once how did people walk out of the teepee at midnight to answer the call of nature with millions and millions of wolves, bears, lions, etc. everywhere (before Europeans came, that is.) He answered that in those days there was so much food that there was little enmity between the different species. The interface between humans and animals in this day and age is bound to be difficult as long as we still haven't learned the art of living WITH nature, rather than trying to conquer her.
greg mcmillan
greg mcmillan
Sep 12, 2012 02:44 PM
I am from Central California where, probably, was found the greatest population of grizzlys in North America....before euporeanization. There are numerous records of the local humans and the Grizzlys feeding together, under the oaks, searching for acorns....seemingly non competitively....
Bruce Smithhammer
Bruce Smithhammer Subscriber
Sep 12, 2012 03:03 PM
I can appreciate the author's candor (to a degree), but as someone who has spent a lot of time in bear country (black and grizzly), deliberately going into real bear country without bear spray is simply foolhardy.

No, every bear is not "out to get you" and I've had many close encounters where the bear was as surprised, and far more fearful than I was, and ran the other way. But bears are individuals and one should never expect that his will always be the predictable reaction. As mentioned above, in an encounter where the individual can't deter a bear with spray and it results in a mauling, or worse, you are likely sentencing that bear to death. For someone who seems to be acting out of such extreme concern for the welfare of the bear in an encounter, how can that be justified?

I'm also guessing (or at least hoping, unless the author is simultaneously exploring multiple ways of becoming a statistic) that this is ideologically inconsistent. Do you carry extra clothes in the backcountry in case of a change in weather, or do you feel that this too is a concern driven by an overblown fear of safety? Do you carry a first aid kit in the backcountry, or does this also create too much of a safety net? Trust me - these questions are coming from someone who regularly hunts alone in bear country and who has been told numerous times that he's crazy for doing so - but I always carry bear spray on such ventures. Why? Because I've seen the effects of a serious mauling, and I'mp pretty sure any short-term effects to a bear's olfactory system pale by comparison. And because getting mauled when something as simple as bear spray could have avoided such a tragedy is just plain stupid.

More than a concern of our society being "too concerned with safety," the author seems driven by a loathing for humanity - such as the blanket statement describing our "obnoxious and hideous ways" and using the tired stereotype of people on vacation in "Winnebagos." Guess what, Mr. Finn? It's entirely possible be an experienced wilderness traveler, to enter wilderness that contains a healthy bear population with great respect, as I frequently do, AND to carry bear spray. The two aren't mutually exclusive, except when it serves an author to oversimplify it as such.
Tim Baker
Tim Baker Subscriber
Sep 12, 2012 08:08 PM
The following are just pieces of my opinion and should be taken as a mandate on anyone's choices.

- The original opinion piece by Charles Finn is a personal philosophy that may or may not be shared by others but certainly seems to suit him just fine. While you may disagree, it seems a bit much to attack him for his essay. He isn't telling you how to behave, just explaining his own choices.

- Humans have interacted with bears for a considerably longer period of time than bear spray has been around and I haven't seen any studies where predation numbers have changed because of the spray (though admittedly, I may have missed it somewhere). While bear spray can be useful at times, it is not a panacea (we had a joke about how to ID GRIZ scat from black bear scat in Montana).

- It should be fairly clear to any observer that the U.S. has become obsessed with safety -- hence the need to kill any bear that displays aggression towards humans even if the humans incited the reaction. Heck, all you have to do is look at the pile of regulations, signs, laws, and policies that emerge every year regarding everything about safety to see the obsession.

- The philosophy of deliberately choosing to not be the safest one can possibly be is largely an anathema to many, if not most people, but one I can appreciate. For years I rock climbed moderately difficult cliffs solo, sans rope, and I've spent a fair amount of time alone in the backcountry (just came back from a week alone in the Wind River Range). And that includes trips in bear country before bear spray was commonly available. I do have some spray but I don't always carry it with me.

Just because it isn't your cup of tea doesn't mean it isn't a valid point of view. And to be honest, it isn't his fault if the bear is killed by others too worried about the bear's behavior to allow it to live. You can only be responsible for your own choices, not those made by others. And that was what I took away from the essay.
Michael Kirkpatrick
Michael Kirkpatrick Subscriber
Sep 12, 2012 09:34 PM
"And to be honest, it isn't his fault if the bear is killed by others too worried about the bear's behavior to allow it to live. You can only be responsible for your own choices, not those made by others."

That sounds similar to what the filmmaker who recently incited violence in Libya and across the Muslim world said too. The killings probably wouldn't have happened otherwise, though they might have. I don't mean to say the perpetrators are not guilty too, but the situation could have been easily avoided by not provoking them.

Grizzly bears are probably not naturally hostile to humans, but humans often provoke them without even knowing it. That's why bears are put down in the wild. No human encounter = no bear mauling = no dead grizzly. It's obvious in these cases that a human (like the essayist) is indirectly responsible for these incidents, and blaming the rest of humanity (the Forest Service) for doing what it does, i.e. putting down dangerous bears for the sake of other humans, is just dodging culpability.

I worked in grizzly country this summer near Yellowstone, and I was told by a FS employee of the number of bears relocated and/or euthanized because of such encounters. It's not a small number. Often these encounters involve livestock rather than humans (which is another, though related, issue), but bears being put down is a reality, and it's not for their own good. Whose good is it for, then? Until grizzly's get to write their own FS laws, it's a question worth pondering if you're heading into their homeland.
Tim Baker
Tim Baker Subscriber
Sep 12, 2012 09:56 PM
I want to apologize for the mistake in my very first sentence, I have poor proofreading skills in these comment boxes. I meant to write that my opinions should NOT be taken as a mandate, I hope that was more obvious than my typing skills would indicate.

As for Michael's analogy, I fail to see any pertinence to what I wrote. The filmmaker in question deliberately tried to provoke a response while when I travel in bear country, and I think the essay author as well, try deliberately to not provoke a response. To suggest otherwise is a bit offensive.

The USFS and other agencies often relocate and euthanize bears more out of fear of lawsuits and bad publicity than any real assessment of risk. It's the old 'better to be safe than sorry' philosophy that led to the essay in the first place.
greg mcmillan
greg mcmillan
Sep 12, 2012 10:05 PM
Tim, I did catch that error but immediately understood what you were actually saying.....I see it as the responsibility of the reader to proof read everything......g
Richard Boyden
Richard Boyden Subscriber
Sep 12, 2012 10:32 PM
OK, so bear spray is for my benefit and that of the bear's. What do I carry in mountain lion country?
greg mcmillan
greg mcmillan
Sep 12, 2012 11:00 PM
Pee every 30 seconds.......
Richard Boyden
Richard Boyden Subscriber
Sep 12, 2012 11:06 PM
C'mon, Greg. Get serious. Lion mauling's are for real.
greg mcmillan
greg mcmillan
Sep 12, 2012 11:11 PM
At least here in California, it alwaysseems that that runners are catted down...I think it is the Nike Swoop that pisses them off...I might be wrong....
Richard Boyden
Richard Boyden Subscriber
Sep 12, 2012 11:32 PM
Yes, one couple was jogging in Northern California and a lion attacked the guy. While his wife was clubbing the lion with a branch, the lion bit the guy on his face so many times, that the doctors didn't know if the guy would survive, even with massive doses of antibiotics. Never heard the outcome. I always thought it would be an honor to get attacked by a wild animal. I mean, after all, the wilderness is his home. But if the animal suffers after the attack by possibly getting put down by the "authorities", then what can we do to prevent the whole thing from taking place at all? I mean, bear spray may be helpful with bears, but what do you use with lions?
martin weiss
martin weiss Subscriber
Sep 13, 2012 01:06 AM
Someone who was both blind and deaf, Helen Keller, wrote that: "...There is no security in nature..." You're on your own. Pay attention. Look up. Put all your senses to work, including common. If intruding on a meat-eating predator's turf, be prepared not only to protect yourself, but the poor animal who has no other option but forage. That critter is biologically more crucial to the stability of the biosphere than any brief and superficial visitor. One owes them the responsibility of a vastly superior intelligence. If they have to be slaughtered because you erred, there's no fixing it. With our comprehensive power and dominion over the natural world comes responsibility. Our own lives are dependent on the stability of the biosphere. This is not a casual or optional duty. Naive and irresponsible babes, as well as indiscriminately destructive fools, have no business in the woods. They are a liability to both the natural inhabitants and society including rescue crews. Bear spray is the least you can do for the bears. Personally, I've always found it simpler to avoid problems than have to solve them. Err on the side of caution and prudent respect. I would no more intrude on big hungry predators than on poor, ignorant and desperate humans. I believe tempting them is more sinful than them succumbing to temptation. Life is sacred in my view and had best be protected.
Thanks again, HCN, for facing up to the hard choices.
Bruce Smithhammer
Bruce Smithhammer Subscriber
Sep 13, 2012 07:32 AM
Tim Baker wrote:

"Humans have interacted with bears for a considerably longer period of time than bear spray has been around and I haven't seen any studies where predation numbers have changed because of the spray (though admittedly, I may have missed it somewhere)..."

No, instead what you have are numerous real world studies clearly indicating that bear spray is a very effective deterrent when used correctly. Far more so than firearms, according to a recent Idaho Fish & Game study conducted with a decade's worth of data.

Look, I'm the first to admit that our culture is overly obsessed with safety, or at least with creating a self-delusional idea of it. But carrying bear spray just makes sense in bear country, for all involved. As pointed out above, if all of this is out of such concern for the bear, then a little short-term olfactory impact is a helluva lot better than most of the other scenarios. Bears don't really care about our idealism.
Richard Boyden
Richard Boyden Subscriber
Sep 13, 2012 07:50 AM
This is really good. For all of our foibles, humans do have dominion over the non-human world, not for exploitation, but for protection. We have a responsibility to do the right thing. There are even beings who have dominion over us ordinary mortals. Think about it.
 
Richard Boyden
Richard Boyden Subscriber
Sep 13, 2012 08:00 AM
Check out the book by Richard L. Thompson called "Alien Identities: Ancient insights into modern UFO phenomena." Sept., 1995.
Bruce Smithhammer
Bruce Smithhammer Subscriber
Sep 13, 2012 09:22 AM
Thanks for getting to the core of what this article is REALLY about, Richard.

By the way, do you know of a good source for alien spray? I've been looking everywhere...
Richard Boyden
Richard Boyden Subscriber
Sep 13, 2012 09:22 AM
Amazon.com describes "Alien Identities" like this: "This is the intelligent, fair and logical examination of modern UFO phenomena that countless readers have been looking for written by a renowned scientist and philosopher. (It) also explores possible UFO incidents recounted in ancient Vedic descriptions of flying craft, floating cities, cosmic battles and other wonders. It examines the extraordinary and the extraterrestrial in European folk tales and looks at religious reports of miraculous visitations particularly in the 1917 apparition at Fatima, Portugal, bringing fresh and convincing insights into the identity and purposes of UFO visitors throughout the centuries."
Richard Boyden
Richard Boyden Subscriber
Sep 13, 2012 11:06 AM
If we posit beings higher than ordinary mortal humans, then the analogy is that we have to think about how we are treating those under our protection (bears, etc.), just as we might plead for mercy to those above us whose mission is our protection. The book I mentioned discusses this possibility. Of course, this is a controversial subject, and HCN might not be up to it.
Jeff Martin
Jeff Martin Subscriber
Sep 13, 2012 04:11 PM
When exactly did did this comments string run of the rails????
Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Stephanie Paige Ogburn Subscriber
Sep 13, 2012 04:17 PM
Folks, I agree with Jeff -- let's get off the alien string and keep the comments focused on the piece itself. Here's our comment policy, for reference http://www.hcn.org/policies/comments-policy

Thanks,

Stephanie P Ogburn, online editor
Charles Finn
Charles Finn
Sep 13, 2012 07:14 PM
As the author of the article, the point that my foolhardiness (and I agree that it is) could result in a bear being killed is well taken. Not carrying spray is a stupid stance when the realities of what would happen to the bear were I mauled are taken into consideration. I failed to consider this, that even if it were my fault and a bear was simply being a bear, defending her young or who knows what, that even if I were dead that bear would be blamed and killed if possible. So I'm in a quandary. My main point for not carrying spray is the second I mentioned, that I want to meet the wilderness (for lack of a better way of saying it) on its own terms. Apparently this is irresponsible given policy today. For reasons that make no sense and I am fully capable of being hypocritical, I would prefer to carry a gun in bear country. I can't justify this twist of logic, but there it is. The essay is at heart a rail against being overly safe in so so many walks of these days. I am an advocate of traveling in the backcountry solo when possible. I don't carry a cell phone when I backpack. The list goes on. Had I had twice or three times the room I might have brought in all kinds of other arguments/sentiments. Finally, to respond to one commenter, I don not loath humanity, and I wish I had editted out the two phrases you rightly picked out, "obnoxious and hideous ways" and using the tired stereotype of people on vacation in "Winnebagos." That was poor writing and even worse thinking. As for carrying a sleeping bag or first aide kit, I don't think such arguments apply.
martin weiss
martin weiss Subscriber
Sep 13, 2012 09:48 PM
After all pro and con that has been written here, I have to commend your acceptance of humility in the fact of the ineluctable mortality of our existence. I share your resignation to our elemental indivisibility with the stuff of life. My own molecules will be honored among those who have gone before and those who still ply the winds and waters of this exquisite world. I'd rather be eaten by bears, wolves, lions, eagles, vultures, sharks, mice, bugs, worms or microbes than embalmed. There is no way out for us. Try as we might, we cannot "do no harm". Our bodies extinguish millions of microbes in the course of respiration, digestion and metabolic process. While I presently doubt I will ever give up life, and attempt always to lessen the suffering and promote the well-being of all I can, when my time comes, regret will be only to witness further this incredibly beautiful panoply. In this calm acceptance of being eaten by a bear, we agree, as long as the bear is not harmed. I suspect few dietary items could be less appetizing than my miserable carcass, but there's no accounting for taste. I see neither utility nor need in apologies for your interesting insights and well-written opinions. Like all of HCN's articles, yours was deeply thoughtful and I am sure, earnestly felt. It sure brought the responses of many respectable minds. Much obliged.
martin weiss
martin weiss Subscriber
Sep 13, 2012 09:50 PM
After all pro and con that has been written here, I have to commend your acceptance of humility in the fact of the ineluctable mortality of our existence. I share your resignation to our elemental indivisibility with the stuff of life. My own molecules will be honored among those who have gone before and those who still ply the winds and waters of this exquisite world. I'd rather be eaten by bears, wolves, lions, eagles, vultures, sharks, mice, bugs, worms or microbes than embalmed. There is no way out for us. Try as we might, we cannot "do no harm". Our bodies extinguish millions of microbes in the course of respiration, digestion and metabolic process. While I presently doubt I will ever give up life, and attempt always to lessen the suffering and promote the well-being of all I can, when my time comes, regret will be only to witness further this incredibly beautiful panoply. In this calm acceptance of being eaten by a bear, we agree, as long as the bear is not harmed. I suspect few dietary items could be less appetizing than my miserable carcass, but there's no accounting for taste. I see neither utility nor need in apologies for your interesting insights and well-written opinions. Like all of HCN's articles, yours was deeply thoughtful and I am sure, earnestly felt. It sure brought the responses of many respectable minds. Much obliged.
Katie Black
Katie Black Subscriber
Sep 14, 2012 12:27 AM
Charles Finn, that was a nice paragraph above. Thanks for adding it. I wondered if perhaps you didn't know what happened with bears that encounter humans aggressively. We do live where bears live, and we don't always carry spray, but we do think that if a person is alone, a startled bear is more likely to be aggressive. That is my argument. And, I liked your blog, though I disagreed about the spray.
As for guns... they rarely will stop a bear. At least, not one easily carried. Anyway, the wilderness is grand, and awesome, and humbling, no matter what we take with us, unless we are completely lacking in imagination.
Richard Boyden
Richard Boyden Subscriber
Sep 16, 2012 09:34 AM
Famous last words....Are we out of the woods yet? I love bears and the woods and my freedom. Learning many things from these comments, I pledge to be a conscientious backwoods traveler, if I ever get out there again.
martin weiss
martin weiss Subscriber
Sep 17, 2012 02:13 AM
In wildness is the preservation of the world. Too much striving for safety and security actually makes this a more dangerous place. There's no question that we can kill anything, but can we sustain life? Our own lives depend on the existence of bears and wolves and a balanced biodiverse ecosystem. Making a safe place for cows and people undermines the long-term viability of the natural world and us.
Bill Gordon
Bill Gordon Subscriber
Sep 17, 2012 09:36 PM
I've long believed that if a person is in bear country they are in a really beautiful place. Mr.Finn, your position is an interesting one. To each his own, but I will continue to carry my pepper spray and hope I never have to use it. And if I should have to use it, both the bear and I will get over it quite nicely. And I will happily apologize to the bear when I finish changing my pants!