Find a way to travel in the wilderness, without carrying a gun


Hiking the Mad Creek Trail north of Steamboat, Colorado, one day this fall, I glanced back at another hiker, who was accompanied by two yelping dogs. I was taken aback to see the man wore a pistol in a holster on his hip.

He fell into step for a while with my daughter, Greta, who's 28. She didn't notice the pistol until they'd parted ways, but his words made it clear why he was packing. He said he searched for antlers on hikes and occasionally encountered bears. So far, they'd always scattered. The man also mentioned seeing a mountain lion that tore off into the woods, and its size frightened him. He was also worried about "part-wild" cows grazing in the area because they made his dogs go berserk.

Perhaps these are decent reasons to carry a gun. While it's rare, wild animals do attack people. But I think he should leave the hardware home and take his chances on the trail. I don't see myself as an adversary in the wild; I see humans as guests inside a wilderness area, with the Mad Creek Trail a gateway.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines the wild as "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." If we respect this idea of wilderness, we acknowledge that it's not our turf to control. It's a protected area, and stacking the odds by carrying a deadly weapon seems like the wrong approach.

I've had my own hairy encounters with bears, always in the Steamboat Springs area. Yet the confrontations were also thrilling, and I can't remember ever wishing that I had a gun. I did have some comic insights – wishing I could dash up a hill faster than ever before. On one occasion, I discovered something about bravery when I stood my ground. On another, I showed cowardice, beating feet when others didn't. Each encounter reminded me what it means to feel unique and totally insignificant, both at once.

Perhaps these are decent reasons to carry a gun. While it's rare, wild animals do attack people. But I think he should leave the hardware home and take his chances on the trail.

During our hike, our group of five pulled ahead of the man with the gun. On one stretch of the trail, we spotted a mound of fresh, dark, berry-laced bear scat. I scanned the high grass all around, thinking how great it would be to see a bear -- and how scary.

Then, on the top of a small hill, smack in the middle of the trail, we glimpsed a big black beast. But it wasn't a bear; it was a rambunctious cow. We got closer, but she didn't budge.

Suddenly, my friend Becca started flapping her arms, spouting loud gibberish and doing a hoochie-coochie dance. It worked wonders: The cow bolted.

I thought, yes, that's what you need in the woods, a woman ready to let it all hang out and go wild in the wild. As it turned out, Becca's antics made the passage easy for the guy with the pistol coming up from behind. He and his dogs trotted over the hill at peace with the world. They knew nothing about our showdown with a cow.

The man told Greta he was a recent transplant to the West from New Jersey. If you come from a densely populated city, Colorado's wide-open spaces must seem intimidating. Certainly his dogs were hyperactive, roaming off trail, barking at nothing.

Meeting him made me remember a bear story that Mark, a Steamboat friend, told me. The bear stormed into his yard early one morning, chased up a tree by a pack of barking dogs. When Mark saw the treed bear, he screamed at the dogs, "Now you cut that out!" They instantly obeyed and scampered away, whimpering. Then the bear thudded down and ran off.

How wonderful, I thought. Mark treated the bear like a neighbor that needed protection. His reaction had none of the anxiety the New Jersey guy emanated. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mark was born and bred in the Rockies. I hope the hiker from back East learns to leave his sidearm and paranoia on the shelf as he acclimates to the West. That will make his forays into the wilderness more relaxing and enjoyable for all concerned. Plus, it could save him the embarrassment of shooting a cow.

Elliot Silberberg is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He is a writer with roots in Colorado but currently lives in Italy.

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