Afraid of Yogi: The Complexity of Fear
Can anyone tell me the names of some famous bears?” A pause.
“Yogi?” a woman in a halter top asked.
I nodded, “That’s right.”
“Smokey Bear,” came from a nine-year old in a ball cap.
“Yes, that’s a good one. Any others?”
I waited for an answer, as a good naturalist should, but when much of my audience rose and walked past me, I stopped mid-sentence, turned, and spot ted a black bear browsing behind us, undisturbed by our presence, munching on vegetation and nosing the ground. Recently, this bear had been spotted eating tuna out of wasp traps and was suspected of eat ing unattended trash outside of the North Cascades Lodge. I tried to startle the bear by clapping my hands and yelling; she didn’t even raise her head. I called a ranger to “shepherd” the bear, which is a fancy way of saying move her away from the crowd, and when I returned, two men were snapping photos about 20 yards from the animal.
“Could you please rejoin the group?” I asked.
No response. I walked over to them.
“Please rejoin the group,” I said more firmly, but they continued to ignore me.
A few visitors were backing further away saying, “Listen to the ranger.”
I looked one of the picture-takers directly in the eye, a man of about 50 with black-rimmed glasses, and said, “You are putting yourself and the bear in danger.”
“Why?” he finally responded.
“Because this is dangerous, not only to you, but to the bear. Getting close to bears, staring at them and snapping photos, seems innocent, but actually desensitizes them to human presence. Becoming too comfortable with humans makes a wild bear a ‘problem bear.’ For the bear’s safety, yours, and the safety of others, you must move back.”
The man responded by moving slightly closer to the bear, turning a shoulder away from me. His face was still and his gaze was not on me, but on the subject of his photograph.
I realized his why? actually meant, there is no way you’re getting me to move. When the ranger startled the bear away, I decided to stop trying to convince him and to carry on with my interpretive program.
I remember thinking, this is going really well, when a girl of about three walks up to me, touches the bear pelt and asks,
“Is he sleeping?” In a flash, I saw myself, her age, at my great-grandmother’s open casket funeral, relatives saying, “It’s like she’s sleeping.” I was afraid to go to sleep for years after that.
So, I answered the little girl, in the gentlest voice I could muster, “No honey, the bear died.” At that, she burst into tears,
“He’s de-ead. He’s de-ead.”
Her mother rushed to retrieve her as I gasped in horror. What had I done? I felt guilty, but I was only trying to help by being honest with her. I was aston ished and wondered if the child thought the inert fur on the table was a teddy bear or a cuddly pet? I also wondered if she would have been less sad if she understood the bear was a wild animal and had the potential to be as scary as Godzilla. Maybe. Maybe not. My great-grandmother was plenty scary; she was not nice to my grandmother, the sweetest person on the planet, and she often growled nasty comments at others in my presence, but I was still shook up at seeing her dead. Grief, like fear, is so damned complex.
In the moment, I was annoyed and confused by the many responses to the bear, especially those numbskulls with the cameras. But as I thought it over, I found that although I have the title, “Natu ralist” I am not immune to behaving in weird ways, since my other title, “Human Being” takes prece dence over any role I might temporarily assume. When confronted with danger, real or imagined, behaving rationally is difficult and often impossible. I should know. For most of my life, I was scared to death of bears.
In 1982, on my first solo backpacking trip – 24 years old and terrified of bears – my fear almost cost me a tremendous life-altering experience. I had accepted a job as a U.S. Forest Service Trail Inspector, a job requiring multi-night trips into the backcountry alone, and I was so frightened that I nearly quit. But I didn’t want to quit; this job was a plum: hiking in the North Cascades near Lake Wenatchee, overseeing contract trail maintenance in accordance with contract specifications. The best part: getting paid to hike the breathtaking 30 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail between Stevens and White Pass. When I was offered the job, after years of trail crew mem ber status, dragging chainsaws, loppers, Pulaskis, and brush whips up steep trails, I was thrilled. Why hadn’t I realized that the job would include camping alone in the wilderness, just me and all those bears? It must have been denial, because during my first week at work, when my boss told me about the job details, I tried to hide my wide-eyed shock.
I called a friend the night before my first trip. I sobbed into the receiver at the outdoor phone booth near the end of the lake,
“Oh God, I am so afraid. I can’t help it. I want to come home. Oh God. I’m so scared.”
I kept picturing a bear tearing me apart, consuming me, and stripping flesh from bone. I could see myself as spirit, looking down at my own dismembered body. My friend Dena, on the other end of the phone line, tried to calm me, first with logic, then sympathy. I’m sure she didn’t know what the hell my problem was. I was like a toddler waking from a nightmare, shaking with fear, crying uncontrollably, wanting comfort and then being unable to take in the comforting words. I knew that no one in the district had been killed by a black bear and that attacks were rare. I just couldn’t stop the crazy fear.
I was embarrassed and angry with myself, but I didn’t have a clue as to why I was behaving that way. From where I sit today, I can speculate, but I’m still not exactly sure. It might have been due to television or movies where bears are often portrayed as menacing killers. Perhaps it was just one of the many garden-variety phobias, like the fear of heights or fear of speaking in public, both of which I have suffered in the past. Maybe my very visual imagination and my tendency toward anxiety partnered to totally freak me out. All of these factors must have played a role in my irrational, almost obsessive fear.
I knew a bear attack was improbable. This was not Yellowstone or Glacier where grizzly bears, a more aggressive bear, roamed the campgrounds search ing for food, which they often found due to camper neglect. Black bears are known to be more timid, often climbing trees or running away to avoid contact, and with fewer visitors and more wilderness in the North Cascades, encounters were rare. I had even experienced encounters with many bears in daylight, alone or with others, nearly all resulting in a quick glimpse and then the disappearance of a furry back-end. Once, I saw a blonde black bear (the species can come in many shades) at the same moment the animal saw me. We startled simultaneously, and the animal’s features seemed to lengthen, eyes widen, mouth open, just before flipping around to run away. It was like a cartoon reaction and I’m sure I mirrored his comic expression. One time, a beautiful cinnamon bear climbed a tree and shook like a wet dog above me, obviously frightened out of his mind. The truth is that I had experienced little danger in actual bear contacts. The exception was my very first encounter.
A few years before I was a trail inspector, I had worked as a “Timber Beast” in the Glacier Ranger District of the Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest. I was a member of a crew that prepared timber sales, which included a variety of field work, such as marking boundaries, running profiles, cruis ing timber, and conducting stand exams. One day, while our crew was having lunch in the middle of a young stand of trees, we heard a loud rustling in the distance. I was eating a shrimp salad and stopped mid-bite, concerned that the rustling was a bear, so I yelled, “Hey!” Tim, a long-time Forest Service timber beast with short-cropped blonde hair and deep-set steel-colored eyes, shushed me. Before I had the presence of mind to yell again, a young two-year old black bear charged our group. With no time to think, I was on my feet, shrimp salad and fork in hand, running off into Doug fir, vine maple and alder. In front of me, forging a path ahead was my supervisor. Stupidity ensued in the panic; I dropped my fork and unbelievably, stopped to pick it up. Right then, I heard a loud roar. And I would’ve climbed a tree or wet my pants, but that roar was not animal but human. I stopped running immediately. My supervisor stopped, too, and we stared hard at one another before cautiously slinking back to the lunch site.
We found one crew member – an enormous, macho guy – huddled in fear on a stump, and the other, a dispassionate Tim, calmly eating a sandwich in the exact place we left him. Apparently, once the bear had reached within a few yards, Tim roared with a force sending the young bear reeling, frightened out of his paws, in the opposite direction.
Likely, this encounter contributed to my fear of camping alone in the backcountry. I had reacted in the worst possible way and I believe, even now, that, if not for Tim, I might have been mauled by a bear. Without a background in wildlife behavior or even a half-dose of common sense, I let my instincts have their way and ran like hell. Fight or flight. Although, I always fancied myself the brave warrior type, it seems that my supervisor and I were clearly in flight mode and Tim (and perhaps Mr. Macho) remained to fight. Maybe Tim made a conscious decision to roar like the MGM lion. I never asked him, but I know that I made no rational decision. I was embarrassed to dis cover that my first impulse was to run (and appar ently tidy up as I did so). It turns out, running is the worst response as it sets the predator/prey response in motion; I would have been the prey. The best response would have been to make noise (as I first attempted), so the bear could avoid us. But if a bear is charging, it is best to hold your ground, and if you think it has not seen you, let it know by your loud voice that you are there. These are all facts I learned later, after my first wrong turn, literally, running like a madwoman with shrimp. Yet, knowing the facts is not the end-all answer; sometimes it doesn’t help at all.
Eight years after my first solo camping experience, I am working my third summer season as a Park Ranger in the Stehekin District of North Cascades National Park. I am an Interpretive Ranger in a district with a healthy population of black bears. It is common to see bears on a trail, near a river, in the historic apple orchard, nearly anywhere.
On one of my days, I decide to hike alone up to Purple Pass, a seven plus-mile uphill trek. The pass is gorgeous: snow, little gnarled trees broken from avalanche, rocky slopes with views of surrounding peaks, blue-green Lake Chelan below. The hike is strenuous, but worth the effort. On that day, after hiking more than two miles of switchbacks, I spot a bear (I’ll refer to the bear as “he,” although I do not know the animal’s sex). He is a beautiful cinnamon-phased black bear, eating berries along the trail. At first, I stop and make noise, alerting the bear to my presence. He appears unconcerned, so I make more noise. The bear continues eating as if I am not there. For what I do next there is no good excuse. I know, more than most, that a bear can be a dangerous animal. I know better than to threaten a bear so obviously absorbed in feeding and showing no indication of retreat. Ironically, I lecture visitors daily on proper bear behavior. I should hike off-trail, giving the bear a lot of space, or turn back to hike the trail another day. But instead, in a show of I’m not sure what (I could not plead ignorance here); I pick up a rock and throw it at him hard. And when he still doesn’t move, I actually throw another one, harder, and nearly hit him.
Unfortunately, it does not end here. I am so focused on my destination, the lovely broken silver trees, snow, and gla cier lilies, that when the bear responds to the second rock by slowly edging only a few yards off the trail, I tighten my hip belt and walk right by him. Fortunately for me the bear only watches me. Perhaps, he is a tolerant sort. My luck, and it is only luck, is that the bear lets me pass and then presumably goes on with his lunch.
Why did I respond like that? I was not ignorant, I knew the dangers well. I was not clinically insane. But I had desensitized, from the experience of seeing many bears flee. All I wanted was to get that bear to move his ass, so my focus turned away from my own safety to getting up the mountain, and may have had dangerous consequences.
Sobbing into a telephone like a child, running from a bear with a shrimp salad in hand, and throwing rocks at a bear have one thing in common: these behaviors are stupid as hell. I have seen the same responses in others: people either in a panic about bears, avoiding the backcountry or hiking without enjoyment; or approaching and even feeding bears to bag a photo. Before my own rock-winging experience, I would shake my head and think, stupid visitors, but after I had acted plenty stupid, I had to admit something more complex was at work. I wondered how to behave rationally when the interplay of instinct, culture, and experience often causes impulsively irrational acts. Is it possible to transcend these impulses?
On that first solo trip, I swallowed my fear and spent my first night alone in a tent five miles away from my truck, afraid of the phantom bears I imagined would roam outside as soon as night fell. The hike in was easy; it was sunny and warm and the river sounds were soothing. I kept telling myself, “See? It is a beautiful day, and so far, not a bear in sight.” I felt almost happy, but behind that feeling lurked a dark and dormant something else.
During the setting up of camp and a dinner of freeze-dried chili, shadow began to dominate, light waned, and I crept into my tent at last light, terribly, irrationally afraid a bear would eat me. But I survived that night alone, and the next and subsequent nights. I learned all I could about protocol in bear country and ended up putting it to use. When I saw a bear again – and of course, I did – depending on the situation, I made a lot of noise, backed away, stood my ground. Like a scientist, I would experiment with new information learned about bears by trying it out and finding it worked. My confidence grew and as a result, I enjoyed the backcountry more. But I became too confident at times, as in the rock-throwing encoun ter, and surprised myself. I often wonder if those of us with no experience at all with bears, having gained our knowledge from zoo-captive animals, cartoons, stories, or teddy bears, come away with a false sense of security when we see the animal in the wild. When cuddly bear myths are punctuated with others about brutal attacks, do we become eternally frightened or simply confused? Can I help others, I wonder, like a recovering addict? “Hi, I’m Linda, and I’m a bear-phobic.” Maybe not, but I can try.
I have returned to Stehekin as a Park Ranger after having been away for fourteen years. This morning, I put on the same uniform, surprised it still fits. It is time for the bear program and I grab my flat hat, a bear pelt and jaws, and go to the picnic table where visitors are settling in chairs, standing, or leaning on the fir pole railing nearby. I introduce myself and begin,
“Today’s Naturalist Talk is entitled ‘Bears and Humans: Kinship and Competition, Fascination and Fear.’ How do you feel about bears? Name an emotion you feel at the thought of bears.”
“Exciting,” from a boy of about twelve.
“Yes, bears can be very exciting to learn about. Anything else?”
“Powerful,” from a man in his forties, the boy’s father, I presume.
“Yes, bears are quite powerful animals. Exciting and powerful.”
“Mean,” the boy’s younger brother offers.
“We often see them as mean, yes, but sometimes this comes from what we see of them on television or in movies. I think as you learn more about them, their behavior will seem less mean and more necessary to their survival. Good. What I am hearing is expres sions of the fascination we feel toward bears and some of the results of the myths about their behavior. Any other emotions?”
“Fear?” A woman in a sunhat says with a frown; she seems to be hiding beneath the brim.
“Yes, I was wondering when someone would say it.” The visitors laugh, all but the woman who is now worrying a straw between her teeth.
“I was once so afraid that I ran from a bear with a shrimp salad in hand,” I said. Laughter again, but the woman is dead serious.
“What do you do when you see a bear out there?” she gestures in the direction of a stand on the forested hillside.
Normally, I would stall my answer and carry on with my program, describing the differences and similarities of humans and bears, building the audience to empathy and appreciation for the animal first before getting to safety information near the end, but this woman looks so scared, the information seems crucial to her, so I answer right away, in detail, before continuing with the rest of the program.
“First step and this is important. Do not run like a certain naturalist once did.”
As I explain the current ideas on how to be safe in a backcountry full of bears, I find that although each visitor knows the names of the famous, harmless bears, few know what to do in an encounter with the real thing. I watch them, but I also watch myself, armed with scientific knowledge and personal experience answering their questions as a kind of expert on the subject. I also watch, through the lens of memory, myself in contradiction, sometimes backpacking alone in unnecessary and debilitating fear, other times backpacking with a false cloak of security. Perhaps this is just the human condition. Perhaps tomorrow morning I will wake from a nightmare where a bear is eating me from head to foot, and decide to stay inside where it’s safe, warming myself by the fire. Or maybe I will (heaven forbid) toss another rock at a bear, imag ining the world as ever safe and predictable, where bad things happen only to the foolish or crazy, happy that I am nothing like them.
“Do you feel a little better now?” I say to the woman as I pack up the bear pelt and jaws while the other visitors rush down the path to catch the boat heading down lake.
“I guess so,” she says, not convincingly. I know exactly what she means.
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