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.

Night Hike and Meteor Shower

Last night, Dave, Christine (a new hiking friend) and I went on a night hike in the foothills of Boulder. We had scheduled this hike a month ago for the purpose of dealing with our fear of the dark in the woods, predatory and nocturnal animals and our own internal demons. When I say “we” I mean Christine and I—not Dave—who is a typical guy and doesn’t get spooked by ambling around in the creepy dark of wilderness.

I didn’t know that  last night, coincidentally, was prime viewing for the Earth’s annual pass through the Perseid meteor shower. We were excited to include this into our agenda and decided, at the last minute, to hike much further west of Boulder than we had originally planned in order to have darker skies.

We still had a sliver of twilight left as we headed out on the trail. Ours was the only vehicle in the parking lot at the trailhead. A small herd of deer were grazing nearby. We spent the entire drive up to the trailhead talking about the dangers of grizzly bears up in Yellowstone, where Dave and I had spent time last week, as well as the perceived dangers of mountain lions and black bears. Bears are dangerous when you startle them or get between a mother and her cubs. I said that there’s really no chance of ever startling a mountain lion. They know you’re there, even if you can’t see them. They’re stealthy, observant creatures who are normally very reclusive. Black bears, on the other hand, can be easily startled if you’re downwind and quiet, but in my personal experience they’d much rather run the heck away from you than pounce on you when they see you. Grizzlies are a different story, but there aren’t grizzlies here in Colorado.

Our discussion of predatory animals persisted at least 20 minutes into our hike, which indicated to me that we were still a bit on edge and nervous about hiking around in the dark, despite being rather loud and in a group. There’s just something about how the trees and boulders became these black, one-dimensional shapes heightens my level of awareness and anxiety. As it began to get darker and the last of the sunset faded, we saw a large, mountain-sized storm cloud far to the northwest, from which occasional lightning flashed across the sky. There were no bird calls. No squirrel chatters. Just the shrill reee-reee-reeee of crickets in the tall grass around us.

I started to lose my sense of depth perception with the loss of light and started to stumble on the rutty trail. I didn’t want to turn on any headlamps or flashlights yet, because the trail was still mostly visible as a dark gray strip under our feet. Christine let me use one of her hiking poles to feel out the ground like a blind person. Occasionally we’d hear the distant barking of a dog or the rumble of a large airplane overhead. Otherwise, it was soothingly quiet and windless.

We decided to stop where a large meadow opened up the sky and allowed us a good view of the stars. We sat right down where we were standing and leaned back on our backpacks to watch the sky. The Milky Way was faintly visible—a subtle stripe across the sky that resembled a thin white cloud. If I looked in one spot long enough, I would see twinkling stars and then one faint, non-twinkling star move slowly across the sky. These were satellites, some bigger and some smaller, or perhaps some further and some closer.

Then, quick as a flash and just as bright, we’d see a meteor streak across the sky. The streak lasted less than a second, bright and dramatic like nature’s roman candle. It was thrilling, perhaps as thrilling as spying a bear from a safe distance, or seeing the crouched shape of a mountain lion stalking a deer from a half mile away. The night became all about contemplating the things we so rarely see: a popular hiking trail at night, meteor showers, bears and mountain lions.

I couldn’t shake the feeling of vulnerability, sitting on the ground and surrounded by the tall stalks of grass in that meadow, with the black silhouettes of mountains and hills all around.  What was watching us? Would something dare come out of the grass to investigate us? I was worried because I had a precedent for this.

Earlier this summer I was in Ridgway, Colorado with my daughter and we went for a walk in town after dark. Ridgway doesn’t have a lot of streetlights, probably for good reason. They want to keep light pollution down because the night sky there is black and spectacular. We were walking through a town park, barely able to see the trail in front of us, when an animal appeared and approached us in the darkness—a large, furry, light-colored animal with a long snout. Before I knew it was a dog, I screamed, and then I yelled at the poor thing, unsure if it was friendly or not. It must have been, because it slunk away, dejected and frightened too.

Perhaps that’s the experience that was steaming through my subconscious as I sat there, trying to relax and enjoy the night sky.

After a while, it started to get cold, so we headed back to the car. I want to do another night hike again soon. This is different than being in a tent while camping. This is different from walking alone in my neighborhood long after dark.  This feels more raw, more primitive. It’s like I’m privy to a secret world that most people don’t get to experience. Dave suggested we do a full moon snowshoe hike up near Brainard Lake in the winter. As much as that freaks me out to imagine, I’m going to do it. I’m going to open myself up to the possibility. I like challenging myself this way, leaning into my feelings of anxiety and creepiness to see what lies beneath.

Facing Your Fears By Hiking in the Dark

dark woods at nightDoes the idea of doing a midnight hike alone frighten you—or intrigue you?

Darkness used to creep me out. I had a house in the mountains of Fairplay, Colorado for a few years, where on a moonless night it was almost completely black outside except for the glitter of the Milky Way. Walking through the house in the middle of the night to get a glass of water was nerve-wracking for me. The flat black of night through the windows made me imagine serial killers and rabid predators lurking on the porch.

One night I decided to face my fears and I took a very short walk up the road at night. After the stiffness of my initial fear relaxed a bit, I noticed some things. There were occasional comets that flashed across the sky and were quickly extinguished. I saw stars that I had never seen before—there were so many of them. I saw the haze of the Milky Way that at deceptively looks like a thin cloud in the night sky, but isn’t.

What enchanted me most were the comets, or shooting stars. I wondered how often they hurl toward Earth when I’m not watching or even aware—like during daylight hours or on the other side of the world. The Earth is constantly and dutifully shielding its creatures from a pelting of space rocks with its atmosphere. I felt the Earth as my gigantic mother, shielding me from harm.

The experience transformed my relationship to the darkness. I saw the dome of the sky above me in a different way.  It was a window onto the universe.  It allowed me to see that which was necessary, but invisible—the protective atmosphere around our planet. I saw the sky as a time machine of sorts, since I was looking at objects that sometimes weren’t even there anymore, just their light and energy making its way steadily across space and time.

Sometimes when people are alone in the dark in the wilderness, they feel fear. They fear that something “out there” is stalking them or out to get them.  They imagine bears and mountain lions hurling out of the dark to claw at them and eat them alive. That’s how I used to feel, too. But the chances of getting eaten or attacked by a predator are pretty slim, to say the least. You have a better chance of dying in an automobile accident on the way to the campground than you do while you’re sitting alone in your tent.

When you fear the darkness, what you’re really fearing is the darkness within yourself. Darkness is uncertainty. It’s not knowing what’s around the corner or behind the tree. You’re frightened about becoming lost in that uncertainty. You fear you’ll never come out, and the darkness will eat you up. It can be paralyzing, unless you can face it and be comfortable with it.

Befriending the dark means befriending and overcoming your fears.

A Contemplative Activity for Hiking in the Dark

Most open space trails and parks close after sunset. Don’t let that stop you! There may be a large park nearby with a lot of trees, or you can try to park on a street and walk to a trailhead. If you’re motivated, you can go up into BLM land or National Forest, where there are no restrictions on what time you have to be out.

(For this hike, you might try the Flatirons Vista Trail, Mount Sinitas or Chautauqua if you live near Boulder.)

If you’re not comfortable going alone, bring a friend but stay completely silent during this activity. It’s better if you go alone because the purpose of this is to befriend the darkness, and the only way to reach deep into your inner fear is to face it alone.

Bring a flashlight so you don’t trip or stumble. You start by going as far as you’re comfortable, and walk slowly. Stay on the trail, and if there isn’t a trail, stay near the road so you don’t get lost. Stop when you start to feel a little too creeped out or frightened.

Here’s the challenge: turn off your flashlight. Stand still, absolutely still, and LISTEN. Which sounds feel unsettling and which ones comfort you? Maybe the sound of distant cars comforts you now. Take mental note.

If you get too uncomfortable, turn your flashlight back on. Try to go as long as you can and relax into the scenery.

Walk a little further into the woods or trail—again, as far as you can before getting too uncomfortable, and look up and around. Really get into your feelings. What do you imagine coming out of the darkness? What do you fear? Name it. Say it out loud.

Hear yourself saying it out loud. Does it lose its power or gain power that way?

Take several deep breaths and release all tension in your body.

If you start to feel more relaxed, find a place to sit (or stand, if you prefer) and remain there for at least 10-15 minutes. Ask yourself: What do I fear?

Say the answers out loud. The answers may change or stay the same. Keep saying it until you feel you have gotten to the core of what it is you’re really feeling and experiencing, or until you’re no longer able to remain in place.

Return to your car or home when you’re ready.

When you drive home, consider at what point you felt different and completely back to normal after your moment in the woods. Was it when you got back in the car? When you turned on the car stereo? When you returned home and turned on the lights? What makes you feel safe?

You may surprise yourself and feel comfortable in the dark. Or, you may find yourself feeling creeped out a bit longer than you thought. The key here is to realize that the woods are no different or dangerous in the dark then they are in broad daylight. What changes is your perception, and often that perception is masked by your internal fear and uncertainty.