The Upside of Dangerous Hikes

Queen Elizabeth Range
The Queen Elizabeth Range, Jasper National Park, Alberta Canada

It’s a day of rain and drizzle, and we’re hiking in Jasper National Park on a trail that flanks the Queen Elizabeth Range. It’s July, so it’s tourist season, but it’s also mid-week on a cold day on a trail that isn’t very popular. In other words, there aren’t too many other hikers on the trail. A fact that is causing me a bit of anxiety.

On the drive up to the trailhead my husband and I encountered two black bears and their cubs foraging close to the road. We stopped, rolled down the window and took photos from the safety of the car. I was thrilled and amused at seeing so many bears in the last several days, mostly from the car and mostly black bears. But now, as we make our way through the mud and mist on a narrow trail that cuts through the dense forest, I’m not amused by the thought of seeing yet another bear. Particularly a grizzly, a species with a healthy population in this part of Alberta, Canada.

The trail curves to the left, then to the right. The trees that surround and tower over us seem dark and foreboding. The birds have fallen silent for the most part. All we hear is the steady drip of the rain and our footfalls. I’m remembering (and regretting reading) a passage in a book I picked up at a gift shop near Maligne Lake in Jasper. It was about a grizzly bear attack near Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada. A couple was hiking and enjoying the scenery one minute, and the next minute they rounded the bend and everything changed. The husband was killed and the author was left disabled when a large brown bear charged them. Just like that, you stumble upon a predator and your entire life changes.

I’m normally not afraid of bears when I hike in my home state of Colorado. I’ve encountered many black bears there, and only once while hiking. They seem skiddish, elusive and shy. I respect them, but I don’t worry too much about them. Incidents of bear attacks on hikers are unheard of in Colorado.

Here in Jasper, it was different. There were warning signs posted at certain trailheads about hiking in groups of a minimum of four people for safety because of the high chance of grizzly bear encounters. The visitor center in Banff National Park further south had posted trail closures due to high grizzly activity in the area. We bought a large bottle of bear spray and were advised to carry it at all times. These people weren’t messing around. This wasn’t Colorado. This was a place where you had to stay focused and alert when hiking. No joke.

So here we were, the two of us, descending deeper and deeper into the woods. Our senses were sharpened and sensitive. We heard every snap, every rustle around us. When we stopped to fish in the lake the trail encircled, we would occasionally look over our shoulder to make sure nothing was stealthily moving upon us. Whenever I got a whiff of something musky, I felt a rush of adrenaline burst in my chest. Was that a bear nearby or a moose?

We didn’t feel that we had the luxury of silent contemplation while hiking on this trail. We were constantly talking or singing, trying to make as much noise as possible so we wouldn’t startle any unsuspecting predators. When we tired of talking, we’d smack our hiking poles together to make eerie, metallic “clack, clack, clack” sounds to cut the silence. We doubted any of this was going to really scare away a grizzly.

In our everyday lives, we normally don’t need to be in such a state of heightened awareness. Our natural instinct for preservation and attunement to the natural world is deadened because we are surrounded by conveniences and comfort. Instead, we walk around in a mental fog, distracted by our cellphones, pondering our to-do lists, constantly tweaking our environment for comfort and pleasure.

Despite the nervousness and tension I felt while hiking in the backcountry of the Canadian Rockies, I look back fondly on that hike and others we’ve taken in similar places known for large, dangerous predators and dangerous conditions: Yellowstone, Glacier National Park, and Teton National Park.  My heightened sense of awareness in these places brought me fully into the present moment like nothing else in my everyday life. The fear burned my memories in high definition with surround sound. It’s one of those experiences you dread at the time, but can’t stop talking about later.

When you’re in a place where can die at any moment, whether it’s because of lightning, slippery trails over steep drop-offs or the possibility of dangerous animals and predators, something ancient and primitive gets activated. It’s a part of us that lies dormant as we commute to work, buy dinner from the grocery store and sit on the couch at night. It is hibernating in the dark corners of our being, until the moment we go outside and step into a vast unknown. It suddenly wakes up, eyes clear and ears pricked, and suddenly we remember something that’s taken us centuries to forget: how to survive in the wild.

 

 

Road Trip to Oregon

After being away from home for three weeks, first on a trip to Ridgway, Colorado to meet with contractors about building a house there, and then two weeks on a road trip to Oregon, it’s good to be home. Not because I was tired of traveling or sleeping in unfamiliar beds, but because it’s good to step back and learn to appreciate again the things you take for granted.

I have some great memories from the trip, and enjoyed spending time outside in nature most every single day. We picked berries and cherries in the Hood River Valley, we fished off a row boat at Long Lake under the watchful eye of Mt. Hood, we caught and released a salamander, hiked up to some glorious waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge, watched fireworks over the Columbia River, inspected tide pools at the beach, and traced low tide on a cool, windy beach at sunset.

I missed my dog, and I know this because I kept gravitating toward other people’s dogs, secretly wanting to rub them and feel their soft fur. I missed the fresh garden salads I would make. I miss my garden, both at home and at the Grange where we keep a community garden. I miss my pillow, because people who rent out their vacation homes don’t invest in quality pillows. I miss going to the rec center and lifting weights and feeling sore, because doing push ups and squats every day is BORING. But I did get to do some awesome hikes and runs. My favorite was the hike to the summit (1,600 ft summit) of Neakahnie Mountain, a fairly steep, short, but scenic climb through douglas fir and moss heavy woods to one of the highest points on the Oregon coast.

I loved hearing the melodious calls of the Swainson’s Thrush birds, which sounded like the combination of crystals tinkling and a soft flute. Learning about the 60+ year old sturgeon named Herman that lives in a tank in a fish hatchery in the Columbia River Basin near Bonneville Dam was astounding – as was seeing this docile fish, which was the size of a great white shark!

The most inspiring of all was visiting and learning about the replanting of the Tilamook State Forest, where 600,000 or so acres burned in wildfires over the course of two decades in the 1930’s and 40s but was all replanted by an unimaginable human effort that lasted two decades. It’s a lush forest now, and a testament to the human spirit.

Nature, the Media, Real and Perceived Violence

Going to the Sun Road, Glacier National Park, Montana

I spent a week in Glacier National Park, Montana with my family, almost completely unplugged. We didn’t have cell phone service where we were lodging, there was no wireless, and the only time we could check messages or receive calls or texts was when we drove into Columbia Falls or West Glacier to get groceries. We did have cable television in our cabin, so there was some tie to technology and the outside world if we wanted it.

Other than needing an update on some luggage Frontier airlines lost, I really didn’t care about not having phone or internet. I enjoyed the respite from my day job, which involves sitting at the computer writing or designing for many hours a day.

We were visiting Glacier because we were intrigued by the almost-surreal photos of the park we had seen. These photos featured mountains that were pointier and steeper than any mountains in Colorado, with lush valleys greener than anything west of the Mississippi, except for the Cascades and Olympics.

I don’t own a professional-quality camera and I’m just a mediocre photographer anyway, so the photos I’m posting here can’t do the place justice. When I first embarked on a hike in the Many Glacier area, I remarked that the entire place looked almost fake, like one of those sofa paintings you learn how to create in a half an hour on Sunday morning off a PBS television show. Waterfalls that were hundreds of feet tall, and hundreds of them, insanely steep cliffs, rivers snaking through valleys that were green with moss and pines and birch. If there’s a bucket list of hikes to do in the United States, I would rank this among the Top 5.

Something happened midway through our stay in the wilderness that bolted us out of the present moment of blissful contentment with the scenery. While our on way to Whitefish for the day, my daughter received a text from a friend telling her about the Aurora theatre shooting. Just like the vistas in the park, at first the story seemed fake. My teen had been waiting to see this movie for what seems like months, and to get a text that said, “Somebody came into the theatre on opening night and started shooting and killed more than a dozen people” sounded like a mean prank designed to annoy her, like a not-so-funny joke meant to burst the bubble of a 14-year old who’s been anticipating seeing a popular action movie for a long time.

We quickly discovered that it wasn’t a joke. Suddenly, we were not present to our surroundings any more. We were lost in thought, thinking about what happened 1,000 miles away. We empathized with the people who had experienced the tragedy. We imagined what we would have done if it had happened to us.

Then, when we returned to our cabin, we made the mistake of turning on CNN.

There wasn’t much new to report, but that didn’t stop the reporters from retelling the tragedy over and over.  Cameras and microphones were dispatched to Aurora and San Diego with the hopes of getting some juicy tidbit from friends and family. And I realized, that just like the 150 point headlines on the Huffington Post, the media loves to sensationalize a tragedy. If there isn’t a tragedy sufficiently shocking enough to warrant 7/24 coverage for many days in a row, it doesn’t matter. They’ll come up with something. They’ll create drama, controversy and tragedy where barely any exists. And if something awful really does happen, like it did in Aurora, it’s capitalized and maximized. The media loves a tragedy.

I know what happened was horrible, and because it happened so close to home, even more shocking.  I don’t know quite how to say this without sounding callous in some way about what happened, but I wonder if people realize the mainstream media’s sole purpose is to make money and distract us with sensational stories so we become addicted to the drama. It’s not really to “report” anything. These people aren’t even real journalists, probably. And let’s face it. Shitty things happen every day, all over the world. In recent days hundreds have died in attacks in Iraq.  Adults murdered children in Rwanda and Darfur. Children murdered adults. Somewhere, right this minute, a creepy old man is sexually exploiting a child and lying about it.

You know what else is happening right now? There has been unprecedented melting of glacial ice in Greenland. We are poisoning ourselves and the environment with toxins. We are depleting soil quality and clean drinking water. Species are dying off. We are on the downhill slope of Peak Oil. Climate change has entered the phase of negative feedback loops and we probably won’t be able to alter its course, even if we all stopped driving and using electricity today.  The last time the temperatures rose this quickly was during the Permian extinction, which killed all but 3% of life on Earth.

We are on board a runaway train headed toward a cliff, and there are no guardrails.

Why aren’t those stories told with 150 point headlines on Huffington Post and monitored ad naseum 7/24 on CNN and FoxNews?

It also made me consider that in the midst of the wilderness in Glacier, where rangers harp on “bear awareness” and bookshelves at the gift shop feature, among the nature photography, frightening nonfiction about bear and animal attacks, the true violence isn’t in wilderness. After hearing what happened to the regional Native American people from a Blackfeet tribal historian, I see where the real danger lies.  After experiencing record heat and seeing so much of the Front Range explode in fire this summer, all while energy companies advertise how “sustainable” and “good” they are to the environment, I see where the black heart of evil resides.

It isn’t in the woods or on the grassy slopes of a national park.

True violence isn’t where we fear it is. It isn’t in the deep woods of a national park at 3 am, or while you’re hiking alone in silence in Glacier. That’s not where true violence is, and it’s not  where we should be feeling trepidation. True violence is sitting next to us in a dark theatre, about to execute its agenda, as we’re about to enjoy a tub of popcorn and a superhero action movie with our kids.

Fear of Predators

Written by guest blogger, Darren Johnson.

Darren Johnson is the author of Taking a Walk on the Wild Side, a blog born out of his personal love of nature and his desire to help youth and adults improve their lives through higher self-esteem, good decision making and strengthening family bonds by building a relationship with nature.  He spends as much time as possible in nature activities such as hiking, photography, food plot and habitat development, and other conservation projects.  Darren believes that an active relationship with nature is one of the best things a person can do to reduce stress while improving their overall health and happiness.

As I slowly moved through the dark field toward the forest, I heard the sound of running in the woods ahead.  I stopped to listen, expecting that it was just a deer I had spooked in my pre-dawn clumsiness.  Instead, what I heard chilled me to my core.  The running got more intense, as if more than one animal was making the sound.  This was followed immediately by sounds of a desperate struggle as if an animal was rolling around on the forest floor fighting to get up.  Then something similar to a loud guttural scream pierced the air, followed by a short silence, then the sound of something large being drug across the forest floor.

I froze, totally consumed with fear.  I hadn’t ever heard any sound like this before.  My heart was telling me to turn and run to the safety of the truck but my body was froze motionless.  I remember trying to be quiet but at the same time feeling like I was gasping for air.  I slowly turned to look at my hunting partner to see if he had also heard it.  I was hoping that somehow, I had imagined the whole incident but the look in his eyes told me otherwise.

By now, the forest was silent again as we stood in the field desperately trying to figure out what to do.  My mind raced to try to rationalize the sound as something mundane and not dangerous.  Try as I might, I kept coming back to the same conclusion, that we had heard a mountain lion bring down a deer on that pre-dawn morning.

Fear to a reasonable degree is a good thing.  It is part of our internal defense system that works  to prevent us from making poor decisions or getting caught up in dangerous situations.  Fear is a good thing as long as we don’t let it dominate our thought processes and actions.  Simply put, fear is one component of our internal risk management system where unconsciously, we assess the potential reward compared to the potential risk before taking action.

For much of my life, I have been exploring the fields, woods and waterways.  That means that I have spent more than my share of time outside in dark conditions.  I inherently have come to grips with most of the risks and subconsciously deal with them rather than fear them.  These include minor things such as tripping over logs I can’t see, sliding down hillsides or falling into creeks.  It could even include more significant risks such as coming in contact with venomous snakes or other predators.

By nature, I am a very analytical person (my wife would even say over-analytical and after intense analysis, I would have to say that she’s right) but on that fateful day, my analytical side abandoned me and my emotional side took over.  Perhaps it was the magnitude of the sound in an otherwise silent forest, maybe it was the darkness or just the fear of the unknown.  Maybe it was the combination of many factors but regardless of what caused it, fear consumed me for the moment.

This type of fear can be seen all around us on an almost daily basis.  The media tries to create fear to gain audiences for their product.  Living in Indiana, I am amazed how the local media tries to make every 1 to 4 inch snowstorm seem like a natural disaster.  It works though, as TV weather forecast ratings go up and stores sell out of milk and bread in anticipation of the “white death” that is coming.

Parents try to create this fear within their children by making exaggerated claims like “if you don’t do well in school, you won’t make it into college and be able to get a good job so you’ll end up homeless!”  Stores try to scare us into buying the latest fad or trendy product by saying things like, “Get yours now before we’re sold out and they’re gone forever!”

The media also over blows the coverage of deadly human interaction with predators.  A single encounter makes the news for weeks while the multitude of murders, rapes and other abuses in our cities hardly makes the news at all.  Again, it is the media trying to create an emotional attachment to the story so that their audience expands, a “fear factor” so to speak.

If we stop to think about any of these situations for just a moment, it doesn’t take us long to determine that the majority of the time, there is no real reason for fear.  There is reason to prepare, and be cautious, but fear in these cases is nothing more than an impediment to achieving our goal.

It is the same with encountering predators in the wild.  If you spend any length of time whatsoever in the wild, you will come in contact with predators.  Most of the time, you won’t even be aware of this contact as the predator avoids you and all is good.  Some times, you might see the predator as they are fleeing, which again presents no real danger to you.  Only occasionally, a statistically insignificant portion of the time, does this situation present any potential for danger to you.  For those few times where an adversarial meeting between you and the predator might happen, keeping a cool head and logically responding can mitigate any danger to you.  Knowing the behaviors of each predator and how best to respond is more productive than fear ever will be.  Dealing with this situation logically rather than emotionally puts you back in control of the situation and allows you to enjoy your outdoor activity.

To put it in perspective, think of the thousands of bears, mountain lions and wolves in the U.S. today.  Next, think of the thousands of hikers, hunters, fishers and picnickers who hit the trails every day.  The combination of people and predators being in the same general locale at the same time presents the possibility of many encounters each day.  Yet when you count the actual number of fatal encounters with all of these predators combined in any given year, you can count them on your fingers.  A handful of instances spread over thousands (maybe millions) of interactions make the fear of predators unfounded.

While we can mathematically prove there is not a significant risk of a deadly encounter with a predator, we do know that this fear exists in some people and must be dealt with.  First and foremost is to acknowledge the fear and don’t try to deny it.  Understand the statistical magnitude of the risk or in other words, realize how little at risk you actually are.  Realize that the fear might not be as rational or justified as you originally thought it was.  I believe the next step is to refuse to be defeated by the fear and decide to productively manage it.  Then you can prepare by educating yourself on how to best deal with the potential threat.  Knowing what to do, if the situation ever arises, will empower you to be able to enjoy your connection with nature to the fullest.

To illustrate the power of emotion and fear working together, let’s look at this question.  For your children’s sake, which you should be more fearful of, a gun kept in a house with children (with ammunition present also) or the same house with children and a swimming pool?  From an emotional standpoint, most everyone including myself, would initially be more fearful of the house with the gun.  I own several guns but it just feels more dangerous than a swimming pool, which elicits thoughts of summertime fun.  The statistics in the U.S., however, prove otherwise.  Household swimming pools cause about one child drowning death for every 11,000 households with pools.  Considering there are about 6 million pools, this means that on average 550 children die each year.  Child gun deaths currently average about one for every one million households with guns.  While there about 200 million guns estimated to be stored in households, this results in about 175 child deaths each year due to a gun kept in the house.  So which has reason to be more fearful, guns or swimming pools?  Clearly it is swimming pools with approximately one death for every 11,000 households compared to guns with one death for every 1 million households.  In fact, swimming pools are about 90 times more likely to cause a child’s death than a gun but I bet you haven’t seen anyone on the news promoting a “turn in your swimming pool” program, have you?

Can guns in a household result in a dangerous situation?  Absolutely, but the vast majority of gun owners are responsible people who use caution, education and logic to effectively manage the risk rather than fear.  Can bears and mountain lions harm you?  Absolutely, but you can effectively manage this risk also by means other than fearful avoidance of nature.

So, how did I deal with my “mountain lion” encounter that day years ago?  After calming myself down, I came up with three possible scenarios.  First, we had totally misunderstood the sounds and it was not what we thought (I didn’t believe it, but it’s possible).  Second, we had interpreted the sounds correctly, but it was another predator, likely the much more common and smaller bobcat.  Third, it had been a mountain lion but it now had a full stomach and that meant it was not on the prowl for more food.  I don’t know which of the three is correct, but they all meant the same thing.  It was safe to continue our expedition, which we enjoyed very much without any mountain lion sightings that day.

While you should definitely recognize your fears, you should work to manage them rather than be controlled by them.  Now go live your life, not your nightmare!

Taming Our Fear of Bears and Mountain Lions

It’s very early in the morning on a weekday, and you decide you need some quiet time to yourself in nature to get you out of the cranky mood you’ve been in all week. You call in to work and leave a message saying you’ll be a little late coming in. You’re taking a little personal time. Heck, you deserve it. You pack a light snack, lace up your hiking boots, fill up a water bottle and throw it all into a daypack. Your plan is to go on a hike not too far from home, somewhere with meadows and woods and peace and quiet. Somewhere with no phones ringing, no e-mails to return, and no annoying co-workers asking stupid questions.

You arrive at the parking lot to the trailhead just as the sun is beginning to warm up the air and melt the last remnants of frost that have accumulated on your car windows. It’s late October, almost Halloween, and the smell of decaying leaves and woodsmoke from chimneys permeates the crisp air. There are no other cars parked in the lot—you’re the first to arrive that day. You thrill at having the place to yourself, since this trail is usually so popular on weekend mornings, especially in the summer, when you usually come hiking here. You check your gear, lock up your car and take long, energetic steps on the gravel path that first crosses two small streams, a bridge, and then ascends steadily up a wide hill. In the near distance, to the east, you see the sprawl of Boulder. To the west are the foothills: Bear Peak, Green Mountain, and the distinctive Flatirons of Boulder. You take deep breaths and feel yourself relax as the path opens up to a large grassy area framed in sumac and scrub oak, with ponderosas regally crowning the hill up ahead.

The low hum of the city transitions into the sound of the ecotone between prairie and forest: the occasional cheeps of small birds, some shrill cries from a magpie in the trees, and the everpresent rumble of jets as they carry travelers east and west over the Front Range. The further up you hike, the quieter it gets, and as you turn off the main trail and into the thick of the woods, you notice the how much more quiet it’s gotten.

A few minutes pass. Something shifts in your body. The hushed silence, the shadows of the woods and the solitude begins to feel ominous. You no longer feel relaxed. Your gait slows and you strain to hear the smallest, faintest clicks and snaps from branches and leaves rustling around in a faint breeze. For some reason, the birds have stopped singing and cheeping. You notice that you’re holding your breath as you strain to make sense of a creepy feeling that’s overcome you.

You feel as if you’re being watched.

But watched by what, or whom? There were no cars in the parking lot and the nearest road or house is at least a mile away. You continue up the trail, but you  can’t shake the feeling that this hike has suddenly become a BAD IDEA.  Isn’t October the time that bears are preparing for hibernation and doubling their foraging efforts? Isn’t early morning the prime time for predatory animals like mountain lions to be out hunting and stalking? Didn’t you just hear on the news about a mountain lion attacking a woman in Colorado Springs the other day? And here you are, alone, with no one else on the trail to hear you if you were to yell for help or scream. Great.

You tell yourself not to be a big baby. You will your legs to continue to move—one leg in front of the other, congratulating yourself for pressing ahead even though you have a queasy feeling in your stomach and your heart seems to have relocated up into your throat. You’re not going to turn back just because you’re here alone and the woods are freaking you out. Most of the time when you’re hiking here on weekends the amount of human traffic and obnoxious chatter makes you wish you had the trail to yourself. So why is it that now that you’re finally getting that peace and quiet, you can’t handle it? You almost hope you’ll see another hiker up ahead, around the next bend, a friendly face or even someone on a bicycle. Anything to alleviate this feeling of dread that’s come over you.

Another ten minutes passes and you come across a stream that disappears into a vast thicket of shrubs filling a ravine. A small, laminated paper sign is posted there: “Bears Live Here” with a warning to stay on the trail and be aware! That’s it, you think, I’m outta here.

Just as you turn around and begin to retreat back down the way you came, you hear a series of cracks and snaps behind you, as if something bulky is lumbering through the ravine. You feel a rush of adrenaline course through your body and without even turning around to see what the sound was, you run in breathless panic down the narrow path.

The Stories We’re Told and the Ones We Tell Ourselves

What you just read is a story. It’s a story I made up to make a point. It’s story that you may relate to.

Our heads are filled with stories. These can be stories that we heard growing up, stories we read about in novels or on the Internet, or stories in the form of movies and documentaries. They can be stories our friends tell us, or stories we conjure up in our head about the world.

Some stories are meant to manipulate us into feeling a certain way. For example, in some of the fairy tales we grew up with, like Little Red Riding Hood, large predatory animals like wolves are not just dangerous, they’re intelligent and cunning and out to get little girls who make the mistake of walking in the woods alone. These stories once served the purpose of teaching children to stay close to home and not wander off into the woods, where they could get lost or (gulp) eaten by a big, bad wolf. Other fairy tales, such as the one about the Three Little Pigs or The Boy Who Cried Wolf, also contain scary predators, but the message seems to be that in order to avoid being swallowed by a ferocious creature, you must be industrious and honest. Either way, in most traditional fairy tales, nature is portrayed as having the potential to kill and hurt you, the intent to do so, and “civilization” is portrayed as the salvation against the brute forces that lurk in the darkness.

During medieval times, the Church encouraged the telling of such tales to children because the Church was on a mission to extinguish the last bastions of paganism and convert as many Europeans as possible to Christianity. It did nothing to discourage the impression that nature was not only profane, it was downright evil. Women who made their living healing with herbs and communing with the forest’s residents were considered “witches” and people who seemed to worship the sacredness of nature were considered heretics and sinners. The Church didn’t want its followers to be too attached to the beauty and charms of the Earth, because they wanted them to have one goal only in life: to forsake the profanity of the material world and devote themselves to the Kingdom of Heaven, a world separate and unattainable by mortals. In order to experience divinity, one had to die and “go to Heaven”. To experience divinity on Earth meant you were a pagan and a worshiper of the Devil.

Our Western Christian heritage follows this tradition. We still, as a culture, consider those who “worship” nature to be out of the mainstream, or someone with “alternative” views.

Modern stories in the media also perpetuate the fear of predatory animals. Take for example one of my favorite movies, The Edge, which is about three men whose plane crashes in the wilderness of Alaska. As they try to survive and make their way out to find help, a large grizzly bear appears, killing one of the men and relentlessly stalking the other two over a period of several days. What’s wrong with this story is that it’s completely fabricated and ridiculous. Grizzly bears don’t stalk humans the way a human hunter with a bow and arrow would stalk a moose, waiting for just the right opportunity to overcome its prey. Grizzlies do attack humans on rare occasions, but it’s usually as a response to a threat or because they’ve become too habituated and see human dwellings as sources of food.

The media likes to run stories about bear and cougar sightings or encounters simply because fear sells. Fear and negativity brings more readership than good news and success stories. With the economy struggling, more and more people are drawn to negativity. It’s almost a subconscious impulse, like “misery loves company” or the sense of perverse gratification one might have to learn that someone else (who is richer or more beautiful) has it worse than you do. This is why celebrity gossip is so compelling to people. This is why certain cable political pundits have such a following.

But I digress…

Perpetuating a fear of nature and specifically a fear of bears and cougars is harmful, because when a series of incidents sparks panic in a community as it did several years ago when mountain lions started showing up in the city of Boulder, the knee-jerk reaction many people have is to eradicate the entire population of mountain lions in the foothills, as opposed to dealing with the problem in a reasonable, appropriate way.

Mindless, reactionary sentiment is part of what led bounty hunters to completely exterminate wolves from large parts of the American Midwest and West, to the point that the gray prairie wolf is now extinct. Wolves were not just culled, they were stalked and hunted by vengeful men who couldn’t accept that an animal would continue to elude their traps, as in the case of Three Toes, a wolf that eluded capture for 13 years. It’s an overreaction to certain fears —fear of losing livestock, fear of being hurt, fear of death, or fear of the unknown.

Perpetuating fear is advantageous not only to the media so that it can increase its viewership or readership and thus advertising dollars, it’s advantageous to certain groups who want to inflate their ego. For example, the sport hunting culture perpetuates fear of predators, because if bears, cougars, large moose or wolves are not seen as scary or dangerous, they would no longer be the “prize” and symbol of masculine prowess that they seem to be.

The next time you go on a hike, tell yourself a new story: That it would be a special thing to see a bear or a mountain lion, and that it’s wonderful that these animals still grace the land we call home.

Imaginary Versus Real Violence

When you see a squirrel in the woods on a hike, do you normally get hungry thinking about how tasty he may be? Of course not. Human beings don’t normally eat squirrels. We eat grains, vegetables, fruits, chickens, pigs and cows. We don’t eat squirrels and probably wouldn’t consider eating squirrels unless we were desperate or starving. During the Great Depression some people did eat squirrels, along with other animals they could easily trap or hunt for free when other sources of food were too expensive.

Bears and cougars don’t eat humans, either, for the same reason. Cougars were taught by their mothers to hunt mule deer, their preferred food. Bears forage for berries and roots and will occasionally eat carrion or dig a mole or chipmunk out of its burrow to eat it. Brown bears (grizzlies) also supplement their diet with salmon in Canada and Alaska. The reason most animals stick with certain kind of food is energy management: a cougar may expend the same amount of calories chasing down a chipmunk or rabbit as it would to chase down a mule deer. But the mule deer contains much more nutrition and calories. If cougars wasted a lot of energy hunting down small prey, they would eventually starve to death and go extinct. For this reason, cougars and bears don’t normally go after small game or humans or pets. If they do, it’s probably due to unusual factors such as starvation and territory issues. The grizzly mother bear and her cubs that attacked and killed the campers in Montana this past summer was found to be severely underweight, for example.

We imagine violence from predators and ignore the real violence in our lives. The threat of violence is much, much higher in our cars or in our very homes. In 2008 alone, there were 44 pedestrian/automobile fatalities in Colorado alone. In the last decade in Colorado, only one person was killed by a black bear, and that was an elderly lady living in Ouray who had been feeding bears for ten years and one day the wrong one showed up. There were no cougar-related fatalities in Colorado in the last decade. On the other hand, the number of cases of child and spousal abuse, rape, and assault point to the fact that being in our own home or car, or even crossing the street, is a more dangerous proposition than going on a hike in the woods.

There is a focus on the imaginary violence of terrorists, of predator attacks, of dark and foreboding places, but not enough focus on the real and often tragic violence in our society. In fact, we as a country sponsor the murder of people in lands far away for the sake of protecting our “lifestyle” but yet we persist in validating the myth that nature is more dangerous than our government.

Befriending Our Fear Means Mindful Examination

There really is no quick and easy way to suddenly stop fearing predators in the woods. Our genetic and biological makeup naturally makes us wary of claustrophobic places and large predatory animals that can easily overpower us. It’s normal, to a certain extent, to be afraid when you encounter a bear or mountain lion. We avoid snakes and poisonous insects for the same reason.

However, there is such a thing as reasonable and unreasonable fear. Unreasonable fear is when we refuse to go out into the woods or mountains, alone or even with friends, because we fear what’s “out there.” Reasonable fear is knowing how to be diligent about leaving food in your campsite; not going off trail alone, especially at dawn and dusk, without making adequate noise to avoid surprising a predator; and being knowledgeable about what to do when you find yourself encountering one of these animals, so they don’t feel threatened by you. Reasonable fear means being well-equipped to prevent some common problems you can encounter, such as hypothermia (14,900 fatalities from this in one decade in the U.S.), getting lost, falling and spraining an ankle or breaking a bone, or dehydration.

The best way to befriend your fear of bears and mountain lions is to continue to go hiking alone, again and again—and after a while the unreasonable fears will subside and be replaced by simple diligence. Did you pack a cellphone, extra layer of waterproof clothing and a map? Check. How about a headlamp and plenty of water? Check again. What about hiking poles and an ace bandage in case you sprain your ankle and need to limp back to your car? Yep, check on that one. What’s there to be afraid of anyway? Life is full of risk. But it can also be full of contemplation and beauty, and a feeling of connectedness and joy. Don’t deprive yourself of the goodness of life because of an unreasonable fear of an animal who is just trying to survive in the world and raise its family, in the same way we all are.

Burning Bear, Dead Cow and Talking Ravens

Burning Bear Creek Trail #602

Location: Pike National Forest north of Grant, Colorado.

Directions: From C-470, take Highway 287 west toward Fairplay for about 39 miles. At the town of Grant, turn right onto CR-62, or Guanella Pass Road. Follow Guanella Pass for approximately 5 miles. The trailhead for the Burning Bear Creek Trail will be on the left at the top of the hairpin turns and there will be a small parking area on the right side of the road. There is a brown, wooden trail sign at the entrance to the meadow where the trail starts.

Duration: Approximately 3 hours.

Route: Follow the Burning Bear Creek Trail – there is only one route out and back.

Access Notes: The parking for this trail can accommodate no more than several cars. You may need to park lower down on the road and walk up a quarter of a mile if you can’t find parking across from the trailhead. It takes about an hour and a half travel time from Westminster/Arvada to arrive at the trailhead without traffic. Guanella Pass Road does not go all the way through to Georgetown as of 9-10-10 due to construction and landslide abatement, so taking CR-62 from Grant is the only way to and from the trail. Guanella Pass Road is a gravel road with limited winter maintenance and in dry conditions is easily passable by passenger car to the Burning Bear Creek Trail. Dogs are allowed.

The Hike

View from the Burning Bear Creek Trail

This hike begins in a marshy meadow on top of a constructed, elevated path that turns into a wooden bridge that crosses the Burning Bear Creek before it enters the shady confines of the trees. There are views of surrounding mountains: Arrowhead Mountain (el. 11,209 ft.), Kataka Mountain (el. 12,441 ft.) and Geneva Mountain form a bowl of rounded peaks directly to the east-northeast of the trail. To the west, the direction the trail runs from Guanella Pass, you’ll see distant Red Cone (el. 12,801 ft.) and Handcart Peak (el. 12,518 ft.). There’s very little discernable elevation gain the first 2 miles of the trail, only occasional undulations as it runs alongside the soft swells of a forested hill where it meets the meadow.

The winding creek at the start of the hike was a strange shade of teal blue when I was there – perhaps mineralized runoff or bacteria was coloring the water. It was running low but with enough volume to indicate at least a little bit of precipitation had fallen recently in the mountains up slope. The trees at the start of the hike are mostly pine and spruce, but aspens do make an appearance about a mile in. Across the large meadows you’ll see a house and perhaps some horses and cattle, but it won’t be long before you’ll have more of a sense of wilderness as you walk deeper into the forest. It is quiet here, being that it is so far from Highway 285 and the traffic is considerably lower on Guanella Pass since its closure at the half-way point.

Wild mushroom

The creek is much smaller and closer to the trail about a mile up, and you can stop to enjoy the sound or just dip your feet for a while. In late summer, the trail close to the creek appeared eroded from mud, so I imagine that it can be quite muddy on parts of the trail in early- to mid-summer. Look for mushrooms in the darker, moister areas, some of which can grow to the size of large grapefruit. Just don’t pick them or eat them—mushrooms can be toxic and only an expert can be sure if they are or aren’t.

Dead Cow and Talking Ravens

It was a sunny, breezy and warm day when I hiked this trail for the first time early in September. There were hardly any signs of the approach of autumn on the drive up yet, with the exception of a few patches of orange-yellow from select branches of narrow-leaf cottonwoods and aspens along the South Platte River to the west of Conifer. On the relatively flat path in the woods at the start of the trail, I would occasionally hear the rumbling and clattering of tractor trailers as they lumbered up Guanella Pass to where they were doing road work. Otherwise, the sounds of trees and birds was soothing and pleasurable. A woodpecker would pound its head against a dead tree trunk and make a repetitive, hollow sound like a tiny jackhammer. A breeze would comb through the hillsides and down the meadow through the brush, as grasshoppers took off and landed, took off and landed underneath my feet, their flight haphazard and brittle-sounding.

The woods changed texture and shape the further I went. At first, the branches were lower and greener, creating a dark green canopy with a lap of mossy growth at the base. Then the trees got leggier, with bare branches reaching further up and allowing more sunlight and warmth to the floor. An amber light enveloped the trail at that point, creating an atmosphere of mystery and suspense.

A series of raven cries got my attention at the point where the path led out of the woods into a grassy area. There, about 100 yards away from the trail in the meadow, were about a dozen of the big, confident birds, perched on what appeared to be a large black boulder with white streaks in the middle of the straw-colored field. Some of them were flapping their wings and some were balanced squarely on the edge of the black object. I walked off trail toward the scene, curious and suspecting it might be a dead animal of some kind. The ravens departed as soon as they realized I was approaching, cawing and fussing at me for encroaching on their prize.

I got as close to it as I dared before I realized it was a dead cow. It had been laying in the field for some time, its interior completely caved out by scavengers. The white streaks on the black hide were bird feces from the ravens, disrespectful and crass by human standards, normal protocol by bird standards. I snapped a couple of photos and returned to the trail.

It was there that I saw the rest of the herd: cows laying about, slowly chewing their cud, moving like ghosts between the trees, quiet and contemplative in their bovine repose. Whether they knew about their fallen herd member or not, it was hard to tell. They seemed to be enjoying a rest in the shady woods and staying far away from the gruesome scene in the sunlight. They didn’t seem concerned or frightened or worried. Whatever killed their fellow cow was no longer threatening them—or never did to begin with. Maybe the cow died of a heart attack or stroke. Do animals get strokes?

Before I returned to the  trail I noticed a bleached animal skull – I’m guessing another cow skull from a different season, a different year, perhaps, decorated the trail nearby. I bent down to touch the teeth. They were like human teeth: rounded, white, solid molars toward the back and pointier, more jagged teeth for slicing in the front.

I always wonder why we don’t see more carcasses of dead animals and birds around. There are thousands of birds in a suburban neighborhood. There are maybe dozens of squirrels and rabbits. Sure, once in a while I’ll see a stiff corpse of a bird or a flattened rabbit in the gutter, but is that it? Surely, the rate of casualties must be high in the animal world where the average life span is a few years or less. Nature’s trash collectors and recyclers must do a bang-up job disposing of remains.  No landfill needed. No morgue, or hospital, or hospice necessary. Death seems to occur in private, in burrows and ravines and under vegetation.

An hour later, after an exploratory taste of the woods deeper into Pike National Forest, I turned around to head back to the car. I passed the scene of decay once again. I began to hear strange clicks and murmurs coming from the trees. It took me a while to confirm the sounds were coming from the flock of ravens I had disturbed earlier. They had flown up into the trees above the trail and were having conversations. These weren’t the insistent “caw caw caw” sounds you typically hear from crows or ravens when they’re announcing their location or yelling at each other. These were alien-like whispers, trilly little clacks and brrreeps and bird-like clucks of the tongue (do ravens have tongues?). They were quiet conversations; gossipy and bantering. When I stopped to look up to see where the sounds were originating, I would be startled by a sudden swoosh and a flapping of black wings overhead. The ravens didn’t like to be observed.

I continued walking and just listened. I imagined their exchange went something like this:

“You think she’s going to want to eat some of our beef, Bob?”

“Probably not. She looked a little freaked out by it.”

“Whatever. I’m pretty full anyway. That meat was a little on the tough side.”

“Yeah, but I hear there’s a fresh kill of elk just over that ridge there. Maybe we should check it out later.”

“You go. I need a nap first, Phil.”

I wondered what the take-away message was from this hike and I decided there wasn’t really a message. I had stepped into the living (and dining) room of Burning Bear Creek, intruded on a lunch buffet, eavesdropped on afternoon gossip, and tromped through what may have been a period of bereavement or rest for a tribe of cows. It was regular life and death drama, going on as it does every day, every month, every year, whether humans see it (and hear it) or not.

Imagine what it would be like if one day a couple of squirrels with backpacks decided to walk through your house for entertainment, exercise and to take in “the view.” You and your family would be enjoying a roast at the dinner table and one of them would jump up on the table, get a good look at the scene on the serving platter, and then continue on his merry way to your kitchen, then bedroom, then your den. One of them would stop and pee in a corner behind a chair. On their way back out, they’d pass through where you were sitting in the living room, pausing only briefly to look at your with mild curiosity and amusement as you discuss the day with your spouse. Then they’d go back to their tree and wonder what it all meant.

I Was Stalked by a Coyote

Colorado coyoteThis morning, during a jog with my Jack Russell terrier close to my suburban home in Westminster (Colo.), I was stalked by a coyote.

I spotted him running across the ice in a retaining pond along 108th Avenue, about a quarter mile west of Wadsworth Parkway. He stopped to look at me and I made an abrupt screechy hiss to scare him off. He was momentarily startled. He turned around and continued on his way. Five minutes later, as I glanced back over my shoulder to see where he went, I saw him coming up the embankment and looking right at me. I continue walking away and he continued to slink forward, the whole time looking at me—tentatively but with a creepy focus.

Earlier this week, coincidentally, I read an article about the increased incidence of  coyote attacks in the March 2010 issue of Outside Magazine. Apparently, eastern coyotes have hybridized in certain places in the northeast to behave like wolves, traveling in small packs and attacking animals as large as deer. Two coyotes attacked and killed a lone hiker in Cape Breton Highlands National Park in eastern Canada in the Fall of 2009. Here in the west, the article states, coyotes have not bred with wolves and still behave like opportunistic solitary animals. From what I know of recent media reports, coyotes here in Colorado are known to snatch unleashed small pets from yards, open space and suburban wildlife corridors, and occasionally (but rarely) approach or attack humans.

I had this idea that if I crossed the road the coyote would be deterred from following me if he saw cars zooming between us and him. Normally, 108th Avenue this time of the morning is heavier with vehicle traffic. Not this morning, unfortunately. Only a couple of cars drove by in the anxious few minutes during which I watched the coyote move closer—still across the street—but looking at me and Skillet intently.

Crap. Now what? I thought. I was still a good half mile away from my house. Behind me was a neighborhood of tract homes I could walk into, and hopefully find shelter on someone’s porch if necessary. I knew from reading that article that the worst thing I could do was act like prey by running. Although, that’s exactly what I felt like doing. I wanted to grab my dog up into my arms and run like hell.

Then I spotted an SUV stopped at the intersection only yards away. I knew the driver was surveying the scene because he wasn’t moving. I decided to flag him or her down and ask for a ride down the road – just far enough to get away from the predator.

The driver of the SUV pulled up next to me and offered me a ride even before I could ask. He was a nice, elderly man who in fact was watching what was happening and knew I was in trouble. He kindly drove me back down to my neighborhood.

I am guessing the coyote wasn’t after me. He was after my little white dog. Another reason not to take your dog on a contemplative hike (ha ha! Although I was just out for exercise, not contemplation). In the future, I’ll be sure to bring a cellphone and the big can of pepper spray I keep at home in case I go walking in an adjacent neighborhood that has a lot of loose dogs. I know the key here is not to overreact and not to let this incident keep me from walking my dog. Coyotes need to know that human interaction of any kind is unpleasant. When they’re successful in snatching cats or small dogs away from their owners and yards, they learn, and they pass that information onto their young.

Coyotes are being pushed out of natural habitat by development, and have learned to co-exist with humans out of necessity. Sometimes that means eating out of compost bins, hunting pets out of the grasp of their owners and scoring on pet food that’s been left outside. It’s the same with black bears and any other wild animals. They’re not out to get us, they just learn that they can get an easy breakfast without much fuss. It’s our responsibility to make sure we don’t make it easier for them to eat from our yard then to hunt down a prairie dog or rabbit.

I suppose if that kind man hadn’t given us a ride nothing else may have happened. The coyote was walking slowly, unsure if we were safe to stalk or not. Maybe I could have gotten away and that would have been the end of that. Or, he might have gathered enough courage to attack, in which case he would have had to jump me and extricate my dog out of my clutch. I don’t know, and I’m glad I didn’t have to find out.

Being stalked by a wild animal is probably the most excitement I’ll experience all day.

Here’s a video that’s funny and informative on how to haze a coyote.