A healthy respect for bears is a good thing. Fear is quite another. -John Schandelmeier, two time Yukon Quest winner
There are different challenges on wilderness treks that come up over the days, weeks, or even months when a person is out “in the bush.”
These challenges include depending on the trail or route, but are not limited to: Weather issues, physical ability, stream fords, small critters getting food, insects and related diseases, navigation challenges, hygiene, taking a fall on loose terrain, etc.
However, the biggest bugaboo on the trails or routes is not the weather, navigation, stream fords, or other issues.
The biggest bugaboo? Bears.
People spend more time on Facebook trail forums, message boards, websites, etc. questioning about bears and what to do about them:
A local Colorado Costco sold bear spray when there are black bears prevalent, a friend recently posted news about a bear spray workshop, and when I announced my intent to hike the Great Divide Trail, the most significant concern expressed ended up being about grizzly bears. And on my GDT hike, a young couple gave me their campsite on the very popular Skyline Trail because they heard of a bear on the trail. Campsites with separate eating areas and food storage lockers.
I am not going to downplay bear precautions.
Grizzly bears are the “issue” people ALWAYS voiced concern about. And people are petrified of them! I heard more bear bells in one month than in my life total, saw people walking in the campsites with bear spray, and people expressed concern that I chose to hike solo. I am not going to downplay caution in grizzly territory, but being cautious worked for me.
I’ve discussed various bear precautions before. And my friend Andrew already opened up that can of worms questioning if the traditional methods are effective. The resulting comments are, ah, interesting.
There is no doubt a person has to be “bear aware” be it hiking solo, at camp at night, or in popular areas. But why are people more concerned about bears vs. other issues? Even in Alaska, people experienced in the bush think bears are something to respect, but not overly so.
So, I ask the question, why are people so full of concern for bears vs. previous years? Why are people so “bearanoid?”
Mind you, I am again not arguing against being bear aware (proper food storage techniques, taking precautions when outdoors, following local regulations and so on), but scratching my head over why bears are the primary concern versus other equally important, if not more important, issues.
People aren’t just saying being bear aware and using proper techniques. Such statements are being said such as:
If a bear starts poking around in your campsite, you might die.
A more grounded statement of “Use proper food storage techniques to mitigate human-bear conflict.” might be more applicable.
The very statement of ‘“If a bear starts poking around in your campsite, you might die.” is indicative, I think, of how many people feel at heart.
Imagine stating “If you drive, you might die” rather than “Use your seatbelt and follow traffic laws to help prevent automobile accidents“?
I think it is telling that Yosemite outright bans carrying bear spray despite the high black bear population. Black bears are not as aggressive as their griz cousins. And too many nervous people “locked and loaded” with a potentially dangerous chemical in a dense area is only asking for trouble.
But we treat bears differently? Why?
Bears have always been in the public consciousness of course. A Walk in The Woods had a reoccurring theme about bears on the Appalachian Trail. And infamously featured a grizzly bear on the cover!
But longitudinal Google search trends show steady growth in interest in bear spray over the years. Not the only evidence that could be procured such as sales, and it does not factor in the overall growth of an online presence, but interesting overall.
So, why the pronounced bearanoia in recent years?
A few reasons come to mind.
- People are indeed more bear aware esp. among experienced outdoor users. Experienced outdoor users are acknowledging we have a responsibility to be bear aware and using proper food storage techniques. We can debate WHAT those adequate food storage techniques might be, but people are aware that we need to act differently in areas with a large concentration of bears.
- People are DNA coded to fear predators, of course. Except, black bears are not traditionally predators against humans. And though grizzly bears can be predators, proper precaution mitigates this aspect. Logical reasoning, experience, and exposure help mitigate these fears. The flip side of more experienced users being bear aware is that I think people, overall, are not going where there are bears: meaning, fewer overnight activities overall and less interaction with bear populations. What we do not know tends to scare us.
- Marketing encourages people to take the view that bears are out to get us. Look at a typical bear spray, bear canister, or even bear bells packaging or discussion. Bears look like vicious creatures out to get us. Marketing does prey upon our insecurities and fears.
- Social media tends to make a ripple effect. When a rare bear attack does happen, the attack gets promulgated all over social media. More people become aware of bears in the backcountry. And the lack of experience gets magnified. Any coincidence that Costco sold bear spray, in a black bear area, when a Colorado bear attack happened? And the bear attack occurred in a rural private campground. Not the backcountry.
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- Similar to the above, bear attacks and issues sell. Be it traditional media, Instagram accounts or other forms of social media, bear attacks sell. “If it bleeds, it leads” as a crass statement that happens to be true.
To reiterate, I am not arguing against being “bear aware.”. As responsible outdoor users, we need to follow appropriate foods storage techniques, use proper precaution in areas with bears, and follow local regulations. That is good and necessary.
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In the “WHO KNEW???” category: I’ve known for a while that Canyonlands National Park requires bear canisters in the Salt Creek Zone. A relatively lush zone, there is some evidence of bear activity. So, the NPS mandates the requirement of bear canisters. . What I did not know is that bear canisters are loaned out for *** free! *** Though @ramblinghemlock and I both have canisters, they are larger ones sized for multi-day trips or guiding. Not for a quick overnighter or even a long weekend. NPS loans the popular BV450. Just sign the form in the Needles District Visitor Center backcountry office first, make sure the sand is removed when returning, and that’s it. Easy peasy! The BV450, with some adroit planning, can fit enough food for four days. Or two days if sharing a canister. . With more and more govt land agencies starting to require canisters, I think it is only a matter of time before we look at bear canisters as a mandatory piece of gear except in a few places. At some point soon, I’ll probably break down and purchase a small canister. In the meantime, nice to know we can easily get a small canister for the quick weekend trip. And, of course, have the larger canister for extended trips! … … #hiking #camping #backpacking #canyonlandsnationalpark #nps #nps100 #findyourpark #bearaware #coloradoplateau #utah #moab
I think that being “bearanoid” serves no purpose. Give bears the proper respect they deserve. But being bearanoid of bears can lead to more issues. Carte-Blanche regulations as a simple issue. Or unwarranted aggression against bears on the other side as (arguably) is the case with wolves.
The proper response, respect, and techniques help us and bear both. Being bearanoid does not help anyone. Not the outdoor users nor the bears themselves.