Bears have been on my mind for the past couple of years, which may be a bit surprising since I grew up on a small farm in Central Ohio, a state in which bears of all types were eradicated long before I came along. As a child I had very little first hand knowledge of genus Ursus. Oh yes, there were a few raggedy polar bears swaying their bodies to and fro in the summer heat at our local zoo, and the foggy memory of my four year old self directed to look out the car window during a family trip to The Great Smoky Mountain National Park to see the bears. Despite the paucity of actual experience with bears, I must admit to a niggling anxiety when it comes to the idea of meeting one face to face in the wilderness.
I first noticed this when I was being considered for a position as Artist in Residence at Becharof National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Voices in the Wilderness is a residency program unlike others in that it embeds artists in the wilds of Alaska, hiking and camping along with National Park Service, Forestry or Fishery staff. No sissy log cabins here. In preparation, I read that Brown Bears were numerous in the area and often frequented the same trails as people do for the same reason, ease of travel. Brown Bears sounded pretty cute and cuddly, but a quick Google search revealed that aside from their coloration, they are essentially genetically identical to Grizzly Bears. Ooops.
A quick consultation with my wilderness guru brother and this was confirmed. He suggested the purchase of a bear keg to carry in my pack as a way to prevent bears from smelling food and toiletries, thereby hopefully thwarting an attack in one’s tent or on the trail. A phone conversation with the Becherof Coordinator assured me I had little to worry about. I would be embedded with a rifle toting volunteer who would have my back and I would be equipped with electric fencing to surround my tent at night or myself during the day should I decide to do any drawing or painting along the trail. I would also have access to at least three types of phones in case of emergency. Shit. Now I was worried.
Lack of funding and a change in personnel prevented that experience from getting off the ground and I cannot say that I was terribly disappointed. The cancellation however, did not end my bear anxiety. Just a few months later I flew to Washington State for a residency in a place where bears were so numerous they frequently played in the backyard of the Bed and Breakfast where I was lodged. The owners pretty much downplayed any fears I had, but the “bear experts” set up next to me at The Salmon Festival venue told me a different story. Apparently the bear bells I had purchased and planned to wear on my hike in the Wenatchee National Forest were next to useless. The only thing I scared when I attached them to my shoelaces were the other hikers who anxiously asked me if there were bears in the area. “Hell, yes,” I wanted to respond but didn’t, wondering how people can be so oblivious to their surroundings?
More confused than ever, when I got home I decided to do some reading about bear behavior. Allegedly one is to stand and fight if attacked by a Black Bear and curl up into a ball if attacked by a Grizz. Would a person really remember that rule in such a dire situation? The one thing I did learn from my research is that much like people, bear behavior is unpredictable (Well, that clears things up nicely). Some Native Americans believe strongly in the spirit of bears. Allegedly this is because that once skinned, a bear corpse very closely resembles that of a human. Well that could explained the erratic behavior part.
Fast forward to last summer. Upon checking in at the Bighorn Canyon NRA Residency I was handed a can of bear spray and a holster as standard equipment. You bet I asked about the presence of bears (Black, OMG stand and fight?) and wore that spray religiously, attached to the front of my backpack straps. I also sang Show Tunes (Ooooklahoma where the wind comes sweeping down the Plain) and Sunday School songs (Yes, Jesus Loves Me), whistled, and yelled “Hey Bear” until I was pretty much hoarse. I never did see a bear so I reckon my strategy was effective. The last night of my stay I did one last hike with a ranger to a beautiful waterfall along the “predator highway.” My alarm system was heightened as we drove past the Bear Trap kept hidden out of view of the casual visitor and baited by park staff with stale doughnuts when needed. It was a real stunner of a hike, but as we descended the ranger pointed to some odd looking material under a bush that was apparently “full of berries.” “What is that?” I asked. “Bear scat” was the reply. I can now definitively say that bears do shit in the woods, and after all my concern about meeting a bear in the wild, this particular one was more frightened of me than I was of him.
So where did all that latent anxiety about bears originate? Must have been all those Fairy Tales I read as a child. Yea, you Goldilocks.