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.

3 thoughts on “The grizzly bear, my mostly imagined nemesis

  1. One of the first I read when moving out here. I conquered our library's entire bear section before going out into our awesome natural playground. Though I feel much more confident hiking and doing other activities as a result of this reading, it didn't help with my fear of sleeping out there in a tent. Who knows when a bear in your area has been habituated to humans and might strike for no other reason? Recent Cooke City attacks may be a case in point.

    I haven't seen the Treadwell movie, but it is now in my netflix queue. His story was included in my original bear reading.

  2. It was certainly a book you'd enjoy, Becky — especially the first half. Check it out. But it does have a bit more of an instructional bent than your typical death-in-the-wild books.

    Sheryl, I still agree about the tent thing. No one can know in advance. If I were headed for back country and going to spend the night at low enough elevations to make bears a potential problem, I would still stick to the FS cabins or would be bringing along one of those portable electric fences. And definitely checking in with the nearest rangers prior to going out.

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