I am pleased to report that during my 10 days in Montana, I was not mauled by a bear.
This happy outcome is not what I was led to expect. Bear warnings are everywhere in western Montana. This sign greeted us as we drove to Missoula:
There is a bear warning at every trail head:
This second one, to be fair, focuses not on bear avoidance, but on which kinds of bears one is allowed to shoot.
And then there is this throwaway line, in the instructions pinned to the fridge at our VRBO. The hosts explain that it is possible to hike right from the house up a nearby mountain. But “bring your bear spray. We have seen bear and mountain lion on the property.”
This grammatical construction gives me pause. Are they talking about “bear” and “mountain lion” in the singular sense, as if they have seen exactly one of each? Or are they using these words as mass nouns – indicating that they have seen the ENTIRE SPECIES on their property?
We buy bear spray. It is not cheap – close to $60. It looks like a fire extinguisher that someone put in the dryer by mistake.
The Bear Aware website offers these helpful tips on bear preparedness:
When hiking with a friend and a charging bear suddenly takes one of you down, there is no time to hesitate. You need to immediately start spraying both the person and the bear. Continue spraying until the bear stops its attack. Be prepared for the bear to change its attack to the person spraying. Continue spraying downward at the front of the bear until it diverts its charge.
I’m thinking Clint Eastwood in the The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and I’m thinking: my reflexes are not quick enough for hiking in this part of the world. Fortunately, there is less alarming information on other websites. The World Animal Foundation declares that “The majority of bear attacks occur because bears feel threatened or are protecting their young.” No worries, then. I have long been aware that as a middle-aged woman, I am the least threatening creature on the planet. Strangers on the street sometimes ask me to hold their phones while they stop to tie their shoes. And what creature would think of me as a threat to their young? Rather than haul out the bear spray, I could just offer to babysit.
We do make it out on hikes, many of them, which is a good thing, because the hiking is spectacular.
It’s also a great chance for me and Steve to reconnect with each other, after a busy year. You can really talk out there on the trail.
Mostly, we talk about whether the bear spray would work on mountain lions.
We talk about why, on a particular hike, we do or do not need to have the bear spray readily available in a belt holster. Steve, who was a Boy Scout and thus Knows about the Great Outdoors, maintains that we do not need to carry bear spray on frequently-traveled paths through open fields. I maintain that we need to carry bear spray in the five feet of driveway between our front door and the car.
On one hike, people on the trail ahead of us see a moose. I am truly sorry not to see this moose. We discuss the moose with a couple we meet, who relocated to Montana a couple of decades ago from the coasts (he from MA, she from CA). They are a bit older than us – and judging by the speed with which they zoom along the path, also in a bit better shape. (I am pleased to see that they are carrying our brand of bear spray – obviously what all the cool kids use.) They hike this particular trail all the time; in the winter, they do it in snowshoes. One winter, they tell us with relish, they saw mountain lion footprints in the snow!
I, personally, would not like to see mountain lion footprints in the snow.
We discuss the moose. Moose are no joke, they say. An agitated moose makes a grizzly bear look like a pussycat. I am fairly sure the moose would just laugh at the bear spray.
But the warning signs are not about moose: it's all bears, all the time. Bear attacks are, of course, extremely rare. Only 40 people are attacked by bears annually around the globe. The National Park Service maintains that an NPS visitor has a mere one in 2.1 million chance of being attacked by a bear.
Obviously, I have been worrying about all the wrong things. I should have been worried about moose, based on the fact that I was only three hikers twice removed from an actual moose encounter. Or bison—they have been getting quite frisky lately! This very month, there have been two bison gorings at US national parks. The bison are obviously pissed. And why shouldn’t they be? The bears are hogging all the attention.
Within a week of my return to Boston, I have two somewhat terrifying encounters with electric bicycles that people are riding, at alarmingly high speeds, in conventional bike lanes. There should be a spray to slow them down! The blended aromas of cappuccinos and croissants, perhaps? Pot smoke and patchouli? No matter: the bikes are crazy fast and my reflexes are lamentably slow; I could never deploy it quickly enough anyway.
But I could offer to babysit.