Taking my chances in grizzly country

  • Charles Finn

 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • YELLOWSTONE TREASURES: THE TRAVELER'S COMPANION TO THE NATIONAL PARK
    Dreaming of a trip to Yellowstone Park? This book makes you the tour guide for your group! Janet Chapple shares plenty of history anecdotes and...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • COLD WEATHER CRAFTS
    Unique handmade gifts from the Gunnison Valley. Soy lotion candles, jewelry, art, custom photo mandalas and more. Check out the website and buy Christmas locally...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.