I was nervous.
We were in thick willows, pushing aside branches and clambering over twisted limbs, trying to make our way upriver. Our visibility was limited to about 5 feet in front of us. Everything else was a tangle of low trees with no open path, and we’d just seen fresh grizzly bear tracks on a sandbar.
All three of us carried bear spray in our hands and every few steps someone would call out: “Hey bear,” “Yabba-dabba doo,” or something equally inane but loud enough to be heard over the sound of the river.
We were hiking in the Brooks Range in Alaska, where the idea of an unexpected bear encounter is very real. We saw three bears on our eight-day trip, two of which ran through camp while my husband and I were out for a day hike, leaving our third alone. As expected, she was terrified, but the bears just sniffed around and moved on without showing much interest.
In fact, none of the bears we saw were the slightest bit threatening, but their potential threat made a palpable difference in the feeling of our expedition. We were not the top of the food chain, and we needed to act differently to ensure we stayed safe.
It wasn’t only bears. One day we came upon a pack of wolves, seven dark-colored ones and the apparent white alpha. They checked us out for a minute or so and then turned and, as a group, disappeared behind a ridge. We continued heading toward a small saddle. Moments later the wolves reappeared, silhouetted along the top of our pass in classic B-Western ambush formation.
I reminded myself that wolves rarely attack humans, but still, the odds of eight against three felt intimidating. The situation had shifted from a cool wolf sighting to feeling like prey. I’d never been hunted before, and it’s not a great feeling. The three of us began to make noise and wave our ski poles. The wolves quickly decided we weren’t yummy caribou, and, as one, all eight of them turned and disappeared.
Feeling like prey changes your relationship to wild places. Suddenly everything is scary. Every rock a potential bear; every place where your sightline is limited, a place for a surprise encounter.
I remember once playing a predator-prey game on a NOLS course that gave me my first taste of that vulnerability. I was a mouse, and almost everyone else in the game was out to eat me. I spent most of the time slinking between hiding places, trying to get food, worried about every movement, every sound and every opening where I might be spotted.
That’s kind of how I felt in the Brooks Range. I wasn’t really afraid all the time, but I was hyperaware of my surroundings in a way I’m not always aware around here.
Of course, we do need to be aware of bears, mountain lions and wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and people definitely have had encounters with predators here that have left them scarred emotionally and physically if not dead. It happens. I know I’ve felt vulnerable hiking around here at times.
But for some reason that feeling was amplified in the Brooks Range. Maybe it’s because most of the accessible wild places around Jackson Hole are full of people, so I still feel as if we are dominant in a way I didn’t feel up there.
The only sign of humans we saw on our hike was the occasional bush plane. There were no trails, no campsites, no litter, no footprints, nothing that would indicate a person had passed that way before. That isolation seemed to heighten my sensitivity.
But regardless of whether it takes a trip north of the Arctic Circle or a hike into the Bechler River in Yellowstone to raise the hairs on the back of my neck, the presence of predators changes the way I feel in the wilderness, and I think that’s good.
Years ago, before grizzlies had made their way back into the Wind River Range, I worked a NOLS course there with an instructor from Kenya. His previous outdoor experience had all taken place in areas inhabited by animals that could kill him or his students, and to him, the Wind Rivers felt safer than a city park.
The hazards we encountered were almost all choices. We chose to cross boulders, rivers and snowfields. We chose to climb mountains and cliffs. Those activities brought excitement, adrenaline and even fear into our days, but they were somewhat in our control. We knew when we were putting ourselves in danger, and we came prepared and ready to face it.
With animals there’s no predictability. You come prepared, of course, but you don’t know when or if you are going to have an encounter, so in some ways, especially in places where encounters are highly likely, you are always on edge — always waiting for something to happen — even at night in your tent.
Right as I was leaving Alaska, I heard a news report about a couple mauled by a bear while sleeping in their tent in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. That happened a little over a week ago, and there are no reports yet as to what may have provoked the attack. The couple, fortunately, survived. What I still can’t get my head around is what it must have been like to wake up to a bear attacking me in my tent, in my sleeping bag, for no apparent reason. The couple had bear spray handy, but were unable to deploy it.
Their experience sounded terrifying, and I’m glad I hadn’t heard it before we headed into the mountains. Such attacks are exceedingly rare, but that doesn’t make them any less scary, especially when you are in bear country.
I don’t ever want to be attacked by a bear or a mountain lion or a wolf or whatever, yet, despite that obvious fact, I actually appreciate the intensity, the vulnerability and the humility their presence brings. It’s kind of like staring into space and thinking about how insignificant we are as humans despite our ability to mess things up on planet Earth.
Having wild animals around that frighten me, that make me feel small, that make me feel vulnerable, is actually pretty cool. It’s a sensation that humbles me, makes me feel less all-powerful and controlling, reminds me that humans, despite the power we wield over the state of our world, can still be toppled by a wild, beautiful animal that doesn’t care who we are, what we do, how we look, or where we go.
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