Friday, September 9, 2011

Fears: Bears

Bears are one of the things that scares me the most in the outdoors.  And I know I am not alone in my fear.  I've spent many hours lying awake at night trying to figure out if the rustling I hear outside is the wind, or if there is a bear outside about to tear through my tarp with its sharp teeth.  Yet, I've never had a bad encounter with a bear, and I know injury from bears is extremely rare.

On our trip up Gregory Bald in the Smokies over Labor Day, my hiking group and I encountered a mother black bear and her two cubs right on the trail (for a description of our trip see Sandi's excellent trip report).  I felt really scared at the time, but what I learned during the experience helps me feel less afraid. 
YIKES! There's a bear up there on the trail!
What is fear?
Fear is something you feel in response to a perceived threat.  When fear is in response to a real physical threat, the fight or flight response that takes over can save you from danger.  But fear can make you act irrationally when the danger is really all in your head. 

In the case of the bear on our trip, I knew this bear wasn't a real physical threat to us.  Fatal black bear attacks are exceeding rare (Since 1900, there have been only 45-recorded deaths that were caused by black bears in the North America).  Most (90%) fatal bear attacks involve only one or two people (and we were in a large group) and most (92%) involve male bears (and our bear was a female).   Given these statistics, my reaction was a result of the stories I was making up in my head, rather than the reality of the situation and the facts.

What to do when you are afraid
The best advice I've heard about what to do when you feel fear is to (1) take stock of the situation, and then (2) take steps to get out of danger. 

To "take stock", our group stopped to watch the bear for a long time.  All the other black bears I've encountered have run off far away immediately, but this case was different.  Still Waters figured out that this mother bear had her cubs hidden up a tree.  The bear walked over to the base of the tree where her cubs were, and we could see that she was refusing to leave the area. 

We decided to literally take steps around the bears.  Rather than continue on the trail towards the mother bear and her cubs, we stepped off down the hillside and made a large circle around the bears. 
Walking off trail around the bear in a wide arc
Becoming less afraid
Since bears don't pose much of an actual danger, how do I become less afraid?  The steps to take to overcome fears involve learning the facts about the danger and exposure to the thing you are afraid of.  One thing that really seems to work is making up new positive stories about bears.  This is my own version of the "Riddikulus" spell from Harry Potter.  To defeat the scary-Boggart (creatures that take the form of whatever scares you the most), the Riddikukus spell transforms the Boggart into something humorous, thereby making them harmless.  For example, Ron is scared of spiders, so he defeats the Boggart by imagining it as a spider wearing roller skates to make it silly.   I picture us laughing as we walked through the land mine of bear poop to get around the bears.  I also picture the memory Still Waters as "Bear Whisperer" talking to the mother bear in a gentle voice.
  It's hard to be afraid with sweet memories like that!  With each bear encounter, I become less afraid.

Remembering to respect wildlife (including bears!)
While I can't say I really "like" bears, I respect that the forest is their home, and that I'm just a visitor in the wilderness (as much as it feel like home when I'm out there).  I understand that giving animals their space prevents them from becoming habituated or stressed.  (Leave No Trace principles say that you know you are too close to a wild animal if it changes her behavior.)   I also appreciate that bears play an important role in decomposition (Just imagine where we'd be without decomposition... up to our ears in old icky dead things!).  Bears also disperse seeds and berries (Thank you for spreading around berries for everyone to enjoy!).   As someone who really loves plants and wild places, I am happy to be in an ecosystem that has bears.  But I honestly, I'm still happy if all I see of their presence in the wild is their poop.

To learn more about bears:

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