28 March 2008

Fear of Nature: the big, bad grizzly bear

OK, so it's late winter (seasons don't run according to the calendar here at 6,000 feet in the northern Rockies) and I've been spending too much time indulging in fantasy emails with friends. No, I'm not talking about cybersex, but rather that other form of ultimate pornography (for some outdoorsmen & women): bear attacks.

It's a fun topic, and even a bit relevant if you live here and recreate in grizzly country. While black bear attacks also occur, there's no comparison between a black bear and a grizzly when it comes to size, claw length, power, or irascibility. Some evolutionary behaviorists believe grizzly are so cranky, short-fused, and offensive with perceived threats because of their co-evolution with the short faced bear. At twice the size, speed, and (one can presume) aggresiveness, short faced bears probably preyed on grizzly cubs, and only the most counter-agressive grizzly sows could protect their progeny.

I've had a number of friends over the years who would not fish certain places along rivers because of their fear of rattlesnakes. And recently I've been in disussions with another friend about his fear of bears. While I cannot understand such fear and haven't experienced anything like it since my first nights sleeping out alone at the age of about ten, I try to be sympathetic. My bear-phobic friend does not camp in certain places because a grizzly or black bear (!) might attack him in his sleep, and he is looking to buy a Model 29 Smith & Wesson revolver or some other 44 magnum pistol for "protection."

Now, having once owned a Remington Model 788 in 44 magnum and having been thoroughly UNimpressed with its ability to drop a whitetail deer in its tracks (this might have been a bullet problem), it's hard for me to have much faith in the infamous 44 mag for protection against big, tough, mean bears. Add to this stories like Bozeman author Scot McMillion's account in his Mark of the Grizzly: a guy was mauled after shooting a grizz twice with his 44 mag pistol (after his 30-06 autoloader rifle jammed!). Hmm... you get the idea.

So what's a poor body to do?

First of all, lose your fear. Even for folks who experience a hundred days or more a year in Montana's backcountry, encounters with aggressive grizzlies are rare. Your odds are much worse of being killed in a car wreck on your way to and from grizz country.* Get out there, and enjoy the natural world for all it has to offer us.

Seondly, in bear country, carry pepper spray and know how to use it. Research by grizz fanatic Dr. Stephen Herrero and many others finds that pepper spray is far superior to bullets in prevening or halting a bear attack. No, it's not foolproof, and pepper spray is no substitute for common sense. Be alert when you are in the backcountry, don't leave the pic-a-nic basket on the table, and don't smear yourself with bacon grease before going to sleep at night.

* Note: I've often wondered if the fear some people have of "nature" stems from the fear = hatred equation for things that are beyond their control. To love nature, and to immerse yourself in it, is to give yourself over to something larger than yourself. Nature is not a video game or well managed farm: you cannot control whether or not it rains, how cold it will be at night, how well the fish are biting, or (remote possibility) whether the next grizzly sow you bump into will be looking for an excuse to lay down some whup-ass on a thin skinned, fragile primate. Well, hell: one could do worse in life than ending up in a grizzly bear turd.


More info:

Short faced bear http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arctodus_simus

Stephen Herrero, Bear Attacks (Lyons Press, 2002).

Dave Smith, Backcountry Bear Basics (The Mountaineers Books, 2006)

Scott McMillion, Mark of the Grizzly (Falcon Press, 1998).

1 comment:

sceamon said...

The unexpected is what keeps bringing us back to nature. Otherwise, it would be boring.
Speaking of fishing and snakes, I'll never forget one time when I was about to sit on some damp soil near Warm Springs Creek. My rear end was six inches from sitting on a foot-and-a-half long garter snake.

It was enough to send a quick shiver up my spine, even though the garter was probably just looking for worms along the bank.