Thoughts on “Bearanoia”

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.

Be it the well-marked and maintained Appalachian Trail or the less defined Great Divide Trail in the Canadian Rockies,  bears are brought up as the most emotional topic. And often.

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.

As I wrote before:

  • 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!

from Amazon

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.

Bear Spray search results

 

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.

From “We Love It”

  • 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.

From a website called “Bearmageddon” no less!

  • 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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Da beahs!

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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

A post shared by Paul Mags (@pmagsco) on

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.

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14 Replies to “Thoughts on “Bearanoia””

  1. 25 years living in Colorado, 1000+ trail miles…. haven’t seen a bear. Have alway cooked and kept food about 50 yards away and downwind off trail. Just like bad car wrecks, people are attracted to anything scary or unknown. It also explains why people think UL solo hiking is dangerous, the average car camper doesn’t normally have the experience or “backcountry” knowledge and may be more likely to encounter bold bears in established campgrounds and assume it’s even more dangerous farther out away from established areas. Awareness, understanding and precautionary practices should help prevent bears looking for food. But like the car wreck, accidents can happen.

  2. In 77 years of hiking/backpacking/horsepacking, I’ve seen a bear only twice while on the trail. Once was in Grand Teton NP on the Jenny Lake trail–the bear took off. The other was in North Cascades National Park–the bear was across a canyon from us and didn’t even notice us. The two episodes were 40 years apart! Otherwise, any that I’ve seen have been from in a car, on the road, or in national park front country campgrounds. Sensible precautions (proper food storage and making noise when going around a blind corner on the trail when you know there are bears around, plus not running if you meet one) are warranted, but it’s nothing to panic about. Admittedly, I don’t hike or backpack in national parks, where bears have no fear of people.

  3. Thought-provoking writing, PMags. Good job.

    For me, it’s always been about ‘possibility vs probability’. Is it ‘possible’ that I could be attacked by a bear? Certainly. Is it ‘probable’? No.

    I’m way more concerned about the ‘probability’ of things like vascular disease and cancer than I am of being attacked by a bear!

  4. Beary nice arctosicle. I’ve found out over the years,like you said, that campin in an area away from where Clueless leave a lot of trace others have camped leaves ya a lot more bear free. I’m one who carries Th bear spray around in hand mostly due to not everyone being bear aware…
    Thanks for continuing the wise posts and gear reviews…next time I’m in Moab, meet me at Th brewery durin happy hour and Th first beer is on me!

    John

  5. Hello all,
    I’m heading to the Appalachian Trail right now. I’ve sectioned hiked a bit already but plan to complete it this year. I spent time on the reservation in browning Montana and gathered medicinals up in medicine lake in glacier national park. Bears yeah every day and night coming into the canoground up there. Finding improperly stowed foodstuff yes, some campers made it all to easy to follow the scent. I can remember being awakened by screaming campers and flashlight beans when I stayed up there. Watched them circle in a distance when the wind and cold cane in early evening and cooled the air like turning on air conditioning in your car. They knew where to not hint for food but find food. He’s my brother the bear. I’m in his backyard, mine may have a fence around it to keep things out but his is wide open and feeding him while you photographs only allows him/ her to assimilate foodstuff with humans. I’m not loooking to be profiled by them due to your stopping your car to feed him and photograph him then drive away. Now he just might expect the same easy meal from me. I carry no whistle, no spray but most of all no headphones while I listen to songs and not listen girvwhT night just be tending to cubs around the bend. Be aware!!!

  6. “why are people so full of concern for bears vs. previous years?”… A huge part, I believe, is media, and especially social media. With the click of a button, we can spread our fears around the world in a matter of seconds. Fear spreads like a virus. And fear sells; just look at most of what’s on the news. If the news were to publish a list of all those hikers and backpackers who were NOT harassed or attacked by bears on any given day, no one would give them a second thought 🙂 In over 40 years of backpacking, the only critters that have caused me any grief were rodents, moose, and off-leash domestic dogs. I’m much more afraid of the carte blanche regulations you mentioned than I am of wild animals.

  7. Bearanoia perhaps. But some of this, at least in my small corner of the world, is due to grizzles expanding their range far beyond the immediate confines of Yellowstone Park. My wife and I have bumped into them in SW Montana well removed from the Park. Bear spray in now just another piece of the “kit” not only for backpacking/hiking but also on our daily ranch activities.

    I totally agree that black bears are not really a problem unless habituated to human debris. Over the decades I’ve had a half dozen face to face (read 10′) encounters with them and all ended well for all parties involved.

    Life is nothing a statistician could not provide probabilities for all aspects of. The probability of being killed/mauled by a bear no doubt ranks far below a poor choice of a stream crossing, being munched in a talus slope, an un-arrested trip on a snow/ice field, the drive to the trailhead, and a large number of other possibilities.

    Should bears be ignored? Again, depends on where you are but not in my neck of the woods. A bear spray canister is really cheap insurance. Just know how to use it and hope you actually have time to deploy it (it is totally worthless in your pack—).

  8. General rule: If it’s something that gets played up on the national news, or goes viral on social media, it’s not something to worry about. Those things are newsworthy or viral because they freaking never happen.

    My biggest safety concerns Out There are ones we all know sensible precautions about. Traffic accidents. Falls. Drowning. Disease (particularly insect- and water-borne). Medical emergency (I ain’t getting any younger…). Hypothermia. Dehydration.

    Bears enter the equation only that I know that if I leave food unattended with the rest of my gear, everything might well get shredded while Bruin is looking for more. Which amplifies a bunch of the above risks, by trashing the safety equipment.

    When I was younger, I was comfortable sleeping with food. Now, it’s too much of a PITA. It’s a rare night that I don’t have to get up once or twice, and leaving food unattended with the rest of my gear is asking for trouble. But bringing my food bag with me to drain the kidneys or comply with Deuteronomy 23:13 is generally even more inconvenient than getting a line up a tree or humping a canister.

  9. Good article.
    My Bearanoia story happened to me in Alaska.
    As a little background, I grew up backpacking Northern California. Especially the upper Yosemite wilderness so I learned the standard precautions but even though I saw bears I never had a problem with them. Since then I’ve backpacked extensively in NM. CO. WY and MT. Montana was my first time in Grizzly country (first time with bells too) but I never saw one.
    Two years ago I took a trip to the Kenai peninsula to visit friends that had a house there. They essentially wouldn’t let me hike alone and unarmed. I heard many bear horror stories from them.
    Later in the trip I went to Denali. To camp in Denali wilderness you have to take a “Bear Aware” class. There I learned the last time a bear killed a human was 2012. Unfortunately when they found his remains they also found his camera. He came within 40 yards of the bear and the bear was noted to be increasingly agitated as he got closer. People get attacked more often by Moose than by bear. My AK friends had severe Bearanoia.
    I’ll continue to hike in all country taking normal precautions and sleeping well.

  10. Another big reason is the complete lack of a consensus from the experts on what to do about bears. The rangers tell you one thing, one experienced hiker will tell you another, and a different veteran hiker will claim something else. Meanwhile you’ll hear something entirely different come from a wildlife biologist and yet another approach from an Alaskan outdoorsman. It’s worse than the contradicting ideas about nutrition coming from health experts (Tony Robbins’ cardiologist is now saying tomatoes and cashews are poison! Lol!).

    Mags, you need round everyone up to draft some kind of accord. Everyone sign the thing and lets be done with it.

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