The grizzly bear, my mostly imagined nemesis

Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, Stephen Herrero. For a book that seems to be the most well regarded, practical, 250-page look at bear-human interactions for the person that is living in or visiting bear territory, this book is readable and, I hesitate to say, entertaining. Herrero’s writing is matter-of-fact, including his recounting of dozens of black-, brown- and grizzly-bear attacks, but the subject requires no added drama or embellishment. The author is well qualified, having worked with bears in the field as an ecologist and lived in bear country, yet he writes with a humble appreciation for the unknown about bear behavior. In many cases, Herrero provides what is known of the history of a certain type of situation (bear actions, human actions, responses on both sides), presents his best recommendation for how to handle it based on the history, and leaves it up to the reader to decide which way to go if confronted with such a situation.

It may be that appreciation of this book is enhanced if the reader has already a mild fear of bears and some memory of how he felt being alone in bear country, not knowing if there were bears around or what the hell to do if one turned up. Reading this book, I found out that I should have been more prepared and more careful in most situations — with pepper spray, some knowledge of bear sign, better clean-camp and food-hanging preparations. I definitely should have been noisier on the trail, especially in windy conditions. I should have been cautious in thick undergrowth and aware of the nearest trees to climb when in the open. And I should have felt at least a reasonable amount of caution toward the black bear; instead, most of my caution went out the window when I found out that the places I have frequented were not inhabited by the grizzly. (On a side note, back in Minnesota growing up we should have been much less tolerant of black bears getting into garbage and therefore hanging around the house. They do drag off small children occasionally, along with other aggressive actions.)

That said, though, this book isn’t meant to scare the reader. Knowledge of this information and attention paid to situations that may involve bears would primarily free a person to enjoy the wilderness more, not create unreasonable fear. I think I have spent more time unnecessarily worrying about Big Bad Bears than enjoying the wilderness that is their home, and the hope in reading this book is to learn enough to know how to enjoy while being cautious. Bears are not out to get me or my food, but they will do both if encouraged by humans.

I highly recommend people read Herrero’s book before heading into the outdoors wherever there are bears of any type. Those who live in areas where they and their neighbors regularly have experience the presence of bears have, of course, learned to deal with it; however, this book has some details and lessons to share for that type of situation as well. The first few chapters are mostly stories of bear-human interactions and their results; the latter half of the book talks more about bear behavior, diet and management; it is all worthwhile and important reading. I am keeping this one close with the intention of re-reading it just prior to my next trip.

Reading this book raised two additional points: First, I had to rewatch Grizzly Man, the Werner Herzog documentary about Tim Treadwell –bumped it to the top of the Netflix queue and finished it the same night I finished this book. I shall just state the obvious: Treadwell and Herrero have different perspectives on how people and bears should behave around each other. Also, I wish that some scenes were never included in that movie, such as most of the appearances of the Crazy Coroner Man. Yet other scenes make my heart race each time, like when the last reel of Treadwell’s footage changes so much or when the Float Plane Pilot Man (as opposed to the Crazy Helicopter Pilot Many) sings at the end.

The second thought raised by reading this book (and by our recent trip to Montana) is that groups of people going to the wilderness together, whether to climb a mountain or just to hike around, need to be on the same page and need to be more prepared than our group was this last time around. With that in mind, I’m thinking I will not travel in the wilderness and in bear country with people again unless we have a certain common level of recent reading — for starters, these books:

The Backpacker’s Field Manual (recommended by my sister Becky)
Leave No Trace: Minimum Impact Outdoor Recreation or a similar book on LNT principles
Bear Attacks
– The best guidebook available for the destination, if there is one

If someone was going on a guided trip with a qualified leader, this would be less necessary, nor would it be if it was a very small group or if everyone was experienced. But on a trip among equals with no formal leadership, I’ve realized that it is important to accumulate a shared foundation of knowledge and guidance. The use of group compacts, while it may sound overbearing or unnecessary, is also something I’m considering for future trips.

Summer reading

As I watch the second-to-last match of the 2010 World Cup and look forward to tomorrow’s win (hopefully) by the Dutch, it’s time to wrap up the first part of summer reading. There is nothing ground-breaking here, nothing that a lot of people haven’t already read, so here are brief summaries of each book:

Sin in the Second City, Karen Abbott, occupies the same shelf as Devil in the White City and Carl Smith’s The Plan of Chicago, as all are very accessible and entertaining but non-fiction accounts of Chicago history around the turn of the century. The topic this time is madams, along with the politicians protecting them (for bribes, of course) and the puritans trying to shut them down. There’s nothing left today of what was a raucous and successful Chicago vice district, nor of the Everleigh Club — the world’s most famous house of its kind and apparently the source of the term getting “laid” (“I’m going to get Everleighed tonight,” was the original). Quite entertaining and a good look at the ancient art of corruption in Chicago.

Radio On: A Listener’s Diary, Sarah Vowell. This book, read fifteen years after it was written, was quite a flash back to my days of listening to Rush Limbaugh (yeah, I did). Vowell listened to the radio at almost every opportunity for an entire year and muses about it in this delightful and memory-inducing book. NPR features heavily, and she recounts, among other things, an early taping of Ira Glass’ This American Life. Rush was in the height of his popularity, having found a great foil in President Clinton, and Vowell recounts quite a bit of the political discourse of the time. It’s amazing how much of it is virtually identical to the discourse of today — especially amusing to me was rediscovering the thought that the ’90s were to be the “end of liberalism,” that “liberalism has failed” in governance, given that the same things are being said today following the failure of the government the other side elected. I read this too late, probably, but it worked out in a nostalgic way. I’d recommend it if you want a look back at 1995 along with some radio and social criticism.

Dexter in the Dark, Jeff Lindsay. Anyone remember Frank Peretti’s psycho-christian-thriller series? And have you watched Showtime’s Dexter series? Combine the TV show and This Present Darkness, and you have the third in Lindsay’s series. Somewhat suddenly, we learn that Dexter’s inner “dark passenger” is not his intuition or a metaphor for a part of his psyche; instead, the dark passenger has personhood. It’s a demon, and it has raised the ire of the more mainstream of its demonic extended family. This, of course, gets Dexter into no end of trouble, and — unlike the first two books — the trouble is not limited to flesh-and-blood serial killers. Not a bad way to take the series, I suppose, and I’m looking forward to grabbing the fourth book of my shelf soon.

Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut. This is an excellent book, though strangely disappointing. I had no idea whether the book would be good or not, and I read the first two thirds quickly, not giving it the time and attention it deserved. Then, in the last third, things moved so quickly and it was over. I need to read it again and take more time with it. It’s great. The ending, while refusing to satisfy the reader with neat tie-ups and happy resolutions, must be perfect because it amazed me. The last page leaves a haunting desire for more story. Like I said, I’ll read it again.

The Dark Side of the Pyramid, Patrick J. Smith, including a reprint of Fake It Til You Make It by Philip Kerns. Smith’s book itself is too general in scope and almost disdainfully common-sense to be of much interest. It’s not hard to see the lunacy behind most small pyramid-style companies, and Smith spends most of his time there. On the other hand, the reprint of the hard-to-find Kerns book is worth the cost of the book with its recounting of a serious effort in one of the Amway-associated organizations. This and similar books are widely criticized and sometimes hard to find, but with all of the written and audio materials published on the other side as part of “the System,” what little balance this type of writing can provide is invaluable. Merchants of Deception by Eric Scheibeler is a similar, but more detailed, more recent and more heartbreaking, story of one couple’s experiences. It predictably hard to find, though there are some copies on Amazon (for up to $269!) and PDFs available online (with the author’s blessing) if you look hard enough.

The Official Rules of Hockey, James Duplacey. This was an entertaining and educational book but, damn, I am tired of hockey — what a long (though fun and successful) season. Right after the Hawks parade and rally downtown I pushed through the last few pages, and I resolve not to think of hockey again until the pre-season starts in a couple of months. Growing up skating in Minnesota and playing hockey (mostly in our boots), I knew the basics, but I was a bit unclear on some of the more obscure rules. This book is an informative look at the rules and some of the stories behind them. If you like the second-most beautiful game in the world, it is worth learning some of this history and hearing the the old stories. However, if you insist upon the latest rules verbatim from the NHL rulebook, buy the latest season’s version of Official Rules of the NHL instead.

Up next in my summer queue are grizzly bear attacks, Dylanology, cultural views on sex and relationships and coal mining in Illinois.