Bears without fear – that’s a challenging statement – is it possible to live and play in bear country without fear?
I have to be honest, when I arrived in Western Canada, I had a few preconceived (ill conceived?) ideas about bears being large, scary and dangerous. They would be lurking behind every tree, ready to pounce on an unsuspecting – or even suspecting – PlaidCamper, ruining his lovely checked shirt because they couldn’t possibly have anything better to do with their day.
As a teacher, I did what I tell my students to do when they (and I) don’t know something – look it up! So the first book I read in Canada from the public library was “Bear Attacks” by Stephen Herrero. I was trying to reassure myself that my favourite pursuits of hiking and camping would be unhindered by bears…and a book entitled “Bear Attacks” was how I sought that assurance. Hmm. If you’ve read Herrero’s excellent book, you’ll know it is very informative, well researched, extremely entertaining, and full of case histories that are almost certain to discourage an old PlaidCamper from ever going into the woods.
Almost, but not quite. I do make lots of noise, travel in a group of four or more, and, most importantly, make sure there is a more overweight and slower member in the party. Preferably someone I don’t know or I might dislike. Not survival of the fittest exactly, just the slightly fitter. Anyway, I’ve had a few very distant encounters with bears – usually from chairlifts and cars – always respecting that the bear has more right to be there uninterrupted than I do to take its picture. Hence the grainy (cell phone) image that is the header to this piece, and the poor quality photo below – why get closer?
What are those reasons for not getting closer? Is fear one of them? Yup! Arguably, an encounter with a bear, as with many wild animals, could be a cause for fear (and a reading of Bear Attacks can support this argument). Bears are large, will fight to protect themselves, and may be unpredictable. Does this sound rather human? Is respect a better reason? Yup!
I recently read another wonderful book about bears, “Bears, Without Fear” by Kevin Van Tighem. He suggests many reasons for respecting rather than fearing bears. He uses his own experiences, wide research, and stories from people who have had many and varied bear encounters, to create a compelling argument that the way we view bears has been distorted. This is because many early and subsequent European settlers to North America used these magnificent creatures as a repository for all their wilderness fears. These fears, combined with the place bears have in storytelling and myth making in many cultures, as well as the relatively recent phenomenon of allocating bears cute or clownish traits – Van Tighem cites Yogi Bear and teddy bears – create an unfair yet popular picture that is widely accepted today. The spread of human beings into what was once almost exclusively bear territory has increased the number of bear encounters, generally to the detriment of bears. Taking a lack of knowledge, a fear of the unknown, and a willingness to adopt a human-centric view of a wilderness that has been a habitat to bears for as long as, if not longer, than it has been for humans results in a terribly skewed perception of what bears really are.
Van Tighem’s book is certainly worth reading, if only to challenge many preconceived ideas about bears. He doesn’t sentimentalize the issues, and he certainly acknowledges the possibility that a bear encounter is not always a safe encounter. He does, however, reframe the context of how we as humans exploiting the wilderness might want to view our relationship with bears, and see them for the wonderful and unthreatening creatures they might actually be if we would only respect rather than fear them. We could also accept that bears existed and exist without actually owning any of the baggage we assign them. Read the final story Van Tighem relates of a bear encounter between a group of excitable children and a grizzly for an example of what really happens in an encounter once the potential for drama and preconceived ideas have been removed from the telling. It is less interesting in the telling, but more accurate – and safer? – for the bear.
This coming spring, summer and fall, old PlaidCamper will be hiking and camping armed with bear spray (as always), but also with a little less fear and rather more respect. (This coming weekend, I might go and see the movie Paddington, secure in the knowledge that as a realistic depiction of bear behaviour, Paddington will likely be on a par with the rampaging grizzly in The Edge).
Do you have any bear stories to share? Thanks for reading, keep your guy ropes secure.