Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

In the dark, everything sounds like a bear

This post is dedicated to bears, for reasons that will be explained later. It is also going to be a much heavier post than I usually make, but I hope everyone will find it interesting.

As some of you know, I have been thinking about traveling for a long time now... ever since, in fact, I started looking at grad schools. Because looking at grad schools made it very clear how ambivalent I was about attending, which made me think about what on earth I was going to do with myself in the fall of 2010 if I didn't go to grad school. In fact the answer is obvious. Consider that I

(A) am unencumbered, having neither children, spouse, significant other, pets, nor an apartment or house
(B) currently have no job, and am not in school
(C) have been saving money for a long time, and
(D) love to travel.

At this point it doesn't make any sense to do anything else. Of course things are non-ideal; ideally, I could have more money, I could have a better car, I could have a significant other who was free at the same time... but to split hairs now would be to decline an opportunity that's been practically handed to me.

And so I will travel, in my car, camping and seeing the West, for I don't know how long. As long as makes sense. People keep asking me where I am going first, and that is Glacier National Park.

Most of the pictures in this entry were not taken by me, by the way, because I haven't been to these places yet.

I have had this life goal to visit Glacier for the past few years. It has been stuck in my head. Is there some significance to the way my mind has kept returning to the place every time I think about where I'd like to travel? I'm not going to give it one; I'm both naturally inclined to and trained for science, and I know of no evidence that a "feeling" that we should be somewhere is any indication that we actually should. Nonetheless, the feeling exists, and has for a long time, and there are certainly many worse reasons to visit a place. So I am going to Glacier first because it is the most important to me, but also because it's the coldest of the places I want to see, and the park's amenities start to shut down in mid-September.

Do I know where else I'm going? Sort of. I am flexible, but I have in mind some destinations:

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota, above; below, Badlands National Park, South Dakota...

This is going to be a trip exploring the geologic wonders of the west. Not because I'm a geologist; I admit, I can barely force myself to read interpretive signs about the rocks I'm standing on. I hate reading about science. I do love actually doing geology, but the opportunities for that on this trip will be limited; you can't exactly go to a National Park and just start digging. Rather, I'm very much into beauty and photography, and I like the look of exposed rock a lot more than forests or oceans or buildings, or other things you might want to take a picture of. I love what is exotic, and being in places like this makes me feel like I'm on another planet. It can't be beat.

I also suppose I'll visit the front side of this prominent monument, since I'll be in the area...

...and then return to the Bighorn Basin of Wyoming, to visit all the places I loved during field camp last summer and see a few new ones as well. It is a fantastic place and I expect I could spent a whole month in the Bighorn Basin alone, if I chose. There are so many beautiful rocks. Also, it's largely BLM land. Remember the BLM?

For one thing, the Bureau of Land Management allows collection of invertebrate and plant fossils on its land. During field camp I had filled a box with the fossils I found and had them shipped back to Rhode Island, but they never arrived. My finds have been lost. I am going to correct this, on my own time this time, no need to wait till the professor isn't looking to scrounge for whatever fossils are close by because I'm "supposed to" be working on a map.

Also, like the Forest Service, the BLM allows what is called "dispersed camping." This means that if you follow certain rules, you can camp almost wherever you like on their land, for free. On our land, I should say, as it's public land. This is not necessarily convenient--I will need to bring my own water, and dig my own latrine--but it is cheap, and is, in fact, what will make this trip affordable enough to actually be possible. So, thanks, Uncle Sam.

Above, spot my tent, hidden from the road in a small drainage on BLM land, when I visited Katie in Montrose.

Talk of camping inevitably brings up the same questions from my listeners:

1. Aren't you afraid of animals?
2. Aren't you afraid of people?
3. Aren't you afraid of having an accident when you're alone in the woods?

The short answer to all three is no, I am not afraid. But I am concerned. I will skip #1 for the moment and handle #2 and 3 first. I am duly concerned about other people mugging me, breaking into my car, stealing stuff from my tent, and generally being creepy; or, if you want to go that far, committing unspeakable acts then chopping me to bits with a machete and burying me in the woods. I am aware that I am a woman traveling alone. Other people will be aware of this too.

And I know that some of my listeners... and now, some of my readers... especially other women... will never develop the ability to portray risk in their own minds as a vast gradient of grey--less risky to more risky--rather than dividing the world's activities into "safe" and "unsafe"; nor the ability to fully recognize how much control we can exercise over that level of risk by choosing to educate ourselves and take appropriate action. I mean that I can camp alone with some confidence not because I believe I'm safe, but because in most cases I know something about the dangers and am making decisions to protect myself. I have a sense of control, and so a sense of comfort, that some people never allow themselves to develop.

It begins with education. I don't shy away from stories of untimely or even horrifying deaths in the woods. When I'm talking with people about my upcoming trip, someone will eventually say, "Did you hear about that woman who got attacked in Montana last week?" and then "Never mind, I won't worry you with that!" And I have them tell me, because I actually want to know this stuff. It might be useless to me, but then it might help reinforce something I already know... say, leave the trail before sunset so that you're not entering a parking lot after dark. And that story, remembered, will help prompt me to make the right decision on days when I'm feeling tired or lazy and inclined to take shortcuts.

#3. Accidents. This is Aron Ralston, who for a long time was known (to everyone around me, it seems) as "the guy who had to cut his own arm off when he got trapped under a boulder." This guy was brought up every time I talked about backpacking alone. Nobody knew his actual name or, for that matter, his actual story. But of course I had devoured everything I could about him. Aron Ralston didn't have to cut off his arm; he chose to, because the arm was already dead and because he was not in denial about his situation. His lack of denial was in fact helped by his being alone. There was no hiking partner who would, theoretically, be returning some time (in enough time?) with a rescue team. He knew he was responsible for himself. And so he's still alive.

We can't prevent bad things from happening to us. My traveling with companions is not going to prevent everything bad from happening with me. And, importantly, my staying in Golden and getting another job is not going to prevent bad things from happening to me. All we can do is gather all the facts we can and make informed, conscious decisions. This is why I go into the wilderness; preferably with companions, but alone if I have none. I could say here that we are not really whole or fully alive until we willingly research the consequences of our actions and begin to make conscious choices about who we travel with, where we sleep, what we eat, and generally how we go about our day. It might be true. It is certainly true that unless we're pressed to it, we tend to sleepwalk through much of our lives. And it is certainly true that I want to be wholer and aliver.

#1. Animals.

I lied above when I said I wasn't afraid of animals. I am, but only at night. Something about the human brain doesn't work quite right when it's dark out. All the things I know--how rare bear attacks are, how much I've done to reduce or eliminate food smells on myself and my belongings--suddenly don't matter; the only thing that matters is that I can't see and I keep hearing noises.

There are both grizzly and black bears in Glacier.

Above, a grizzly; below, a black bear.

Bear attacks on humans are strikingly rare. For instance, the chance of being mauled by a bear in Yellowstone... perhaps the place where humans and bears come into contact most often... is still reckoned at only 1 in 1.9 million. Compare this, to, say, your risk of dying in a car crash this year, which is about 1 in 6500. Cars don't terrify me, and I've already been hit three times in accidents of varying severity. I've been hiking alone for years and never seen a bear. But humans didn't evolve with cars. We did evolve with large predators.

In the dark, everything sounds like a bear. My God. Mice, deer, twigs falling from the trees, your tentmate... so, this is the thing. I am sitting here right now planning my trip remembering how I often feel alone at night in the woods, and it's spooked. Profoundly spooked. Everything is eerie, I can't quiet my nerves, and there's no overhead light to turn on. Nothing but a flashlight that makes the blackness outside its cone even blacker. (Never mind the prospect of seeing eyes shining back at you, an experience I have yet to enjoy.) The fact is that despite my general confidence I do still experience many moments of intense discomfort, exhaustion, misery and fear when I'm in the wilderness. I know there will be some on the trip ahead of me. I don't know if you'll hear about them because it's not the sort of thing I typically write about. The point is that the experience of being in the nation's wildest and most beautiful places is so tremendously worth it that even a large helping of the awfullest moments doesn't keep me from coming back.

One of the choices I can make to lower my level of risk while hiking in the woods.

I went to the USGS map store yesterday and spoke with one of the workers there at some length about Glacier... he had been there ages ago, hiking with his wife and very small daughter, when they came across some old, dried bear scat on a rock. They continued hiking. On the way back, there was fresh scat on the rock. They soon became aware that a grizzly was following them through the woods. When they could see the end of the trail below them in the distance, they noticed the land appeared to be moving... binoculars revealed it was full of people with their own sets of binocs, looking in their direction. A ranger soon met them on the trail. The bear that had been stalking them was a problem bear and had to be put down. I was grateful to the guy for his story. (He also said he'd been to Glacier in September and gotten 10 inches of snow, so we'll see, but I am certainly prepared to camp in such.)

What I have discerned about bear safety from everything I've read:

1. Bears can run as fast as a horse.
2. Bears can climb 30 feet into a tree.
3. Though they have Super Speed and Super Strength, bears are apparently not possessed of Super Hearing, being relatively easy to surprise on the trail.
4. There is no evidence that bear bells, designed to warn a bear of your approach, work. In fact, some have speculated that the non-natural sound makes bears curious.
5. Bears are curious. They are more likely to be drawn to a garishly colored tent than a camoflage one.
6. There is some evidence that polar bears and grizzly bears (but not black bears) are drawn to odors from menstruation, but then, bears are curious about odors in general.
7. Bears will be curious about bear spray, if you try to use it like mosquito repellant and spray it all around your campsite.
8. Used correctly, bear spray is better at deterring bears than shooting them with actual bullets.
9. Playing dead works with grizzlies. It does not work with black bears, whom you should always fight back.
10. Since black bears can be brown, you may not be able to tell whether the creature attacking you is a black bear or a grizzly bear. Guess.

I am not even going to bother talking about mountain lions right now. The post is too long already.

I am certainly not going to backpack in Glacier, and I am going to take advantage of their ranger-led hikes to enjoy the backcountry... and, soon, the Montana-woods portion of my trip will be over, and I will be spending as much time as possible in canyon and mesa and badland country, where I'm not likely to see much of anything besides antelope.


Mom said...

I was right! I thought what a perfect opportunity to travel. You'll be combining many of the things you love to do. You can also sing while you hike!

Glacier, beauty-wise, is my favorite NP.

Love, Mom

Kristin said...

Jo - I will be headed to the cheese state next month in much of the same outfit as you are travelling, plus my brother and 3 dogs. And from there, perhaps west. We will look for you!


Mom said...

Love you new heading and picture.

Love you, too.