Monday, October 12, 2009

Bear Safety

During a trip to the Canadian wilderness, my husband Jim and I learned a lot about bear safety. I was hoping that since "safety" also means crossing guard, "bear safety" would be an orange-vested, upright bear helping kids cross the street. Alas, the phrase can be explained by that old joke: "Wear bells to forewarn of your presence when hiking into bear territory. Note black bear droppings, which contain berries, and grizzly bear droppings, which contain bells."

Tips we learned: To scare off bears while hiking, yell "Way-o." (It seems strange that bears fear calypso, but on some level, who doesn't.) Distinguish aggressive grizzlies from black bears, when their "G" t-shirts are in the wash, by the humps on their backs. Consider packing bear spray – yes, bear spray. Don't hike while slobbering your way through tuna fish. Hike in groups of six or more. If you do see a bear, don't approach for photos, since pressing the shutter release is harder with a missing arm.

If the bear is far or doesn't see you, leave. If it's close or sees you, avoid eye contact and back away slowly. If it "bluff charges," raise your arms to look bigger. If it contacts you, play dead in Position A. If it attacks, react with Strategy B. Do X if it's defending food, Y if it's defending cubs, XY if it's a black bear, and YX if it's a grizzly. I could see it now.

I'd be faced with a bear and say, "Wait, Bear. I have to locate the right response in my manual."

The stage is set. With three friends, Jim and I begin an eight-mile hike through a place called Whitewater Canyon. I'm feeling only two pigtails short of being a fearless, yodeling Heidi. Then I read in the guidebook, "The likelihood of seeing a grizzly here is high." The trailhead sign notes nothing about natural beauty – the entire text is about the beauty of surviving grizzly encounters. Suddenly I feel less like Heidi and more like Ham.

We make a pact that we'll each keep the person behind us within sight, which lasts for three minutes. Eventually we spot grizzly tracks. I supplement my "Way-o's" with my whistle – until I'm informed that the whistle isn't for scaring off bears but for signaling humans that you're in trouble. I think mortal dread should count as trouble.

The canyon is magnificent, with waterfalls, evergreens, and moraines leading to a glacier. The terrain looks so much like Disney World's wilderness simulations that it seems the bears should be fake, too. Jim and I agree that if one of us sees a bear, we'll say, "There's a bear." I wonder about this holding up in practice. Later we’re perched on a rock when he looks behind me and says, "Oh my god." I freeze, sure I'm soon about to have ex-flesh. It seems like an hour passes before he says, "Up there – mountain goats." Thanks, dear. I almost just swallowed my trachea.

We run into a German couple, whose backpacks I virtually jump into to increase our numbers. Soon the woman points to the other side of the canyon. "Look, a grizzly bear!" And there he is – lumbering across boulders and snowfields. Our friend starts singing this Native American "Attract-a-Bear" song she learned. Darned if the bear doesn't start walking in our direction. Luckily he was about a mile away.

I was never happier to crawl into a cramped pickup truck at the end of the hike. You can be sure that the next time I venture into grizzly territory, I'll be absolutely sure to – oh wait, maybe no next time for me. Still trying to snap my trachea back into place.

* Postscript: I've hiked into grizzly territory again since this writing. We saw the same grizzly as before. I know it was him because his breath smelled like a German couple.