Tuesday, June 13, 2017

John Muir--never attacked by a bear

Some hikers and others spending time in the wilds have an irrational fear of bears. Sure, a bear can kill you. Absolutely they can be dangerous. But consider famed naturalist, John Muir. Muir spent much more time exploring wilderness than most, if not all of us, will spend in our lifetimes. He encountered bears on several occasions, in some instances, he feared for his life. Yet to the best of my knowledge, despite those encounters, was never attacked--even though there were far more bears back then than there are now. He did, however, have some mistaken assumptions about bears. Here's one example:

"...We found our way easily enough over the deep snow, guided by the topography, and discovered the trail on the brow of the valley just as the Bridal Veil came in sight. I didn't know that it was one of the famous falls I had read about, and calling Chilwell's attention to it I said, "See that dainty little fall over there. I should like to camp at the foot of it to see the ferns and lilies that may be there. It looks small from here, only about fifteen or twenty feet, but it may be sixty or seventy." So little did we then know of Yosemite magnitudes!
After spending eight or ten days in visiting the falls and the high points of view around the walls, making sketches, collecting flowers and ferns, etc., we decided to make the return trip by way of Wawona, then owned by Galen Clark, the Yosemite pioneer. The night before the start was made on the return trip we camped near the Bridal Veil Meadows, where, as we lay eating our suppers by the light of the camp-fire, we were visited by a brown bear. We heard him approaching by the heavy crackling of twigs. Chilwell, in alarm, after listening a while, said, "I see it! I see it! It's a bear, a grizzly! Where is the gun? You take the gun and shoot him--you can shoot best." But the gun had only a charge of birdshot in it; therefore, while the bear stood on the opposite side of the fire, at a distance of probably twenty-five or thirty feet, I hastily loaded in a lot of buckshot. The buckshot was too large to chamber and therefore it made a zigzag charge on top of the birdshot charge, the two charges occupying about half of the barrel. Thus armed, thegun held at rest pointed at the bear, we sat hushed and motionless, according to instructions from the man who sold the gun, solemnly waiting and watching, as full of fear as the musket of shot. Finally, after sniffing and whining for his supper what seemed to us a long time, the young inexperienced beast walked off. We were much afraid of his return to attack us. We did not then know that bears never attack sleeping campers, and dreading another visit we kept awake on guard most of the night."

While it isn't true that bears will "never attack sleeping campers", the fact that Muir spent so many days, weeks, months, and years in the wilderness without any kind of attack should give us comfort as we make our forays into the wilderness ourselves. Using simple caution, such as safe food handling and storage techniques in bear country, learning how to avoid making bears agitated, and going prepared for an unexpected attack will all go a long ways to a safer and more enjoyable experience. That doesn't mean you won't ever find yourself threatened by a bear. John Muir was, and ended up not being attacked--but those encounters can still occur.
In Utah's Wasatch Mountains, it's rare to even see a bear and I only know of one attack.

This bear came into our picnic site at Yosemite.
We grabbed all the food we could and threw it
in our vehicle before he got too close. Then
we made a beeline for the vehicle.

There was still a skillet and stove and a few other things we couldn't
grab on our table. The bear got them.
He bit into the box of matches, but didn't find them too tasty.
I still have this box of matches preserved in a zip lock bag.

We had cooked burgers in the pan. He pretty much licked it clean.
The bottom line is that a healthy respect for wildlife and a knowledge of their habits will help keep the rare bear encounter from becoming a life-threatening event. Learn safe techniques before you need them and you will be prepared, even if you never need to use them. And keep having the adventures. They are what make life worth living.

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