Friday, August 12, 2016

My thoughts as a solo hiker...

A few weeks ago, a bicyclist was killed by a bear of undetermined species in my old stomping grounds of West Glacier, Montana. The man was not only a Forest Service Ranger but also the cousin of a friend of mine. It was determined to be a surprise encounter and the decision was made to spare the bear's life. The incident forced me to face some hard questions and forced me to answer them.

As a primarily solo hiker, I'm well aware of the risks of venturing alone into grizzly country, especially the risk of encountering a mother with cubs or surprising a bear at close range. Not only do I solo hike, but I tend to hike silently. For me, wild country - and especially grizzly country - is healing and therapeutic and I frequently crave the solitude it brings, so I feel that making a lot of unnatural noise disrupts that solitude. Obviously, this puts me at greater risk of startling a bear and possibly getting attacked and I have in fact startled a grizzly at close range in Glacier National Park on two separate occasions. One on the Siyeh Pass trail three years ago and one just two weeks ago at 6:30 AM on the Iceberg Lake trail. The bear in the first encounter did an abrupt about face and bolted back down the trail. The other ran down the hillside huffing and crashing through the brush. Both incidents happened too fast to react to. So what if I were to run into the wrong bear at the wrong time? What if I were to be the unlucky one and it were to happen to me? 

Although I accept the risk of hiking alone in grizzly country more than I accept the risk of driving an automobile down the Interstate (arguably much more dangerous), I still ask myself the "What if?" question, and the tragic death of Brad Treat helped me find some answers.

Two weeks ago on the Iceberg Lake trail I encountered dozens of hikers decked out in bear bells, clapping and yelling around every corner, and I became so annoyed by their presence that I had to bite my tongue each time I passed these noisy intruders. That said, I completely understand their mindset. I was once so terrified of bears that I wanted to make all the noise I could on a trail but was so paralyzed with fear I could barely make a sound. Now that fear has been replaced by fascination mingled with a healthy respect, so I snap sticks, kick rocks, and loudly clear my throat to announce my presence around blind corners or in thick brush, sounding like a larger animal moving through, and wonder why people who feel the need to wear tourist scams like bear bells and shout at everything are even venturing into places like these. If their goal is to never see wildlife, they're on the right track; I, however, go out with the hope of encountering something. 

So if I were to be killed by a bear - be it surprise, defense of cubs, or even predatory - I would want no action taken against that bear. While I definitely don't go hiking with the expectation of never returning, I would rather die in the woods and mountains than in a chunk of metal on the highway or in the kitchen of the restaurant I'm working in.

When I was younger, I had a nightmare that something happened to me and everyone thought I was dead but it turns out I wasn't and I awoke buried alive in a coffin. Recalling that I can say with certainty that when it comes my time to go, I don't want to be buried in the ground in a coffin. I want to be driven far up into the deepest, thickest grizzly country imagineable and thrown out for the bears to eat. I can think of no greater use for what's left of me than to fuel something else's survival.

How can I get this legally put into writing?