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.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.