Last week, Russ and I spent a glorious week in Glacier National Park, biking, hiking, paddling and riding horses. We left the heat of summer for a week of winter-like weather, where we spent most of our time in rain gear and warm clothes necessary for temperatures in the low 40’s to 50’s.
As we got in the van the first day with our fabulous Backroads guides, I said “I’m just going to remember, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just wrong clothes.” That motto served me well for the week. What I thought would be a “bad thing” actually turned out to be the best part of the week. We were able to hike and bike significantly longer distances in the cold rainy weather than we would have in the typical hot, humid weather we live in here in North Carolina.
If weather is a hallmark of the unchangeable nature of nature, so are grizzly bears.
The weather was something we could actually prepare for. Those lovely weather apps gave us notice well before the trip so we could pack well.
What we didn’t necessarily know how to prepare for were the grizzlies. Having never been in a place where grizzlies lived, I assessed them in kind of a movie version of the risk. In my fantasy world, grizzlies were something one might expect to encounter only if alone in the deep woods, far outside of the range a hiker like me would do. In other words, I saw it as a high magnitude, low probability sort of risk. Since we were going to be with a group in a public national park, encountering one seemed like a highly unlikely.
It was with this logic that I picked up the bear spray in REI, saw the price tag and decided a whistle would be good enough.
My assessment of the risk and likelihood of encounter could not have been more wrong. It was more like a medium magnitude, high probability risk.
We all wanted to see a bear; none of us wanted to encounter one on the trail.
Very quickly, we learned that grizzly bears are like the weather. They just are. Where the other bears in the park are much like our black bears here, somewhat shy and likely to move away from humans, grizzlies are gonna do whatever the hell they want to do. If they are on the trail and want to pass, it’s our job to let them pass.
While on our hikes, we heard stories from our guides of the group of 20 just days before that had been treed by a grizzly. We heard our boat captain describe having to scramble up a cliff to let a grizzly pass earlier in the week. We watched a grizzly cross the trail across from our hotel on the one trail we considered hiking without bear spray. We found out a different section of the same trail closer to the busy hotel had been closed due to bear activity moments before. We heard of a recent bear attack on two locals who were killed.
My movie world fantasy pivoted to real life awareness. The danger was real.
It didn’t stop us from going. Yet as we walked along, I didn’t see many trees or cliffs I felt like I could climb. My whistle suddenly seemed so inadequate. I was grateful when one of our guides made a point to rearrange our hiking order to move another guide in front who had bear spray and knew how to use it.
Having guides who knew what to do was priceless. The group of 20 that had been treed by the bear were led by someone unwilling to learn the truth of nature. He had called bullshit on the warnings from those in the know and as a result, his group was unprepared with anything other than their ability to climb trees.
On the one hike we did without our guides, they provided bear spray and lessons on how to use it. We listened with both ears. Who knew the way you use it does NOT involve spraying the bear in the face?
In the end, we never encountered a bear on the trail and only had a couple of long-distance sightings. However, the whole thing got me to thinking about being in the wilderness.
Nature has a way of putting us in our place. In our push button world, we forget the power of life on this planet. We can either work with it or against it. We can either learn from it or face the consequences. We can either remember our place or be put in our place.
The people who live in and near Glacier National Park encounter bears on a regular basis. They treat them with respect and listen and observe for the signals the bear is sending them. They have learned that provoking or shrinking back in total fear from such a predator can lead to an attack. Instead, they calmly let the bear know they mean no harm. They move aside and allow the bear to pass. Just like we can live with the weather if we have the right clothes, we can live with bears if we have the right approach.
I’m so grateful that the bears are still roaming free and for the most part, the people who live with them have learned how to coexist. And I’m grateful I got to learn for myself – without having to climb a tree!