Glacier National Park is a hiker’s paradise. Over 700 miles of trails lead through some of the most spectacular and wild country in the Rockies.
But this is also bear country. There are an estimated 1,000 bears in Glacier National Park – around 600 black bears, and less than 400 of the endangered grizzlies. You must know the signs to tell them apart, as black bears can be brown, and grizzlies can be anywhere from blonde to black. Tell-tale signs of a black bear are its large ears, whereas the grizzly can be distinguished by its hump back, or by its….wait for it….four inch claws!
There is a lot of “bear fear” here in the park. All signposts contain some sort of warning, and every ranger talk addresses the fact that it’s bear country. There are as many people stalking them as there are running from them. It is the question most frequently asked on the trail, “Seen any bears? “ “We saw one way up on the ridge, but you have to climb the switchbacks a good distance to even make out what it is.” And then of course, all you have to do is pull over to the side of the road and look up the mountain to start an instant traffic jam, at least a 10 car pile-up as cars in both directions slow to a stop and ask “Whaddaya see up there?”
Imagine the confusion for the poor bear. Hotly pursued by hikers and drivers alike, yet there are so many extreme measures to keep one’s distance. Push me away, then reel me back in. Chase me until I stop, then run from me. Sounds like some of the men I have dated in my life. 😉
I have seen all number of techniques, the most common being the irritating dinging bear bells laced to boots and backpacks. I think this must seem like a mere annoyance to the bear, like traffic noise. Despite that all the ranger talks say these bells are useless, (the bear will respond to footfalls and the human voice, but not the dinging of bells,) people still insist on clanging up the trail. Around the campground. Throughout the visitor’s center. I even saw one woman wearing a huge cow bell around her neck. And then there was the woman I met on the trail, clapping her hands and shouting, “It’s me, Boo Bear, it’s me!!” with every step.
And then of course there is the noxious bear spray. Worn on the chest, the hip, the base of the backpack, it is the latest in hiking accessories. Wanna know how it tastes and smells? It burns like hell, causing all the muscles in your throat and nose to involuntarily constrict, making air intake virtually impossible. Wanna know how I know? I was on a guided ranger hike with a woman who never took her hand off her canister the entire hike. She had removed the safety clip. And while we were standing there listening to the interpretive talk, she accidentally pushed the trigger. I WAS GASSED!!!
There is a daily ranger talk at the Visitor’s Center where they demonstrate the use of this bear spray. A two-handed operation, we are told “It’s a deterrent, not a repellant. Use ONLY if the bear is charging! Aim low, press the trigger to spray once. But if the bear continues to charge, unload the can.” However, if I had a dollar for every time the ranger used the words “rare,” “even more rare,” or “in the highly unlikely event,” I would have the $44.95 required to fund this little canister.
The number one question I am asked about my solo nomadic lifestyle is “Aren’t you afraid?” Yes, I am afraid. Afraid of living a fear-based life. So I seek out the facts, assess the risks, and make the most informed decision I can. I attend the ranger talk. I buy the spray. I hike with a whistle to make plenty of noise if I do spot a bear. But the one thing out of my control is “hiking solo is not advised.” So my choices are, arm myself with the facts and all the tools I can, but do not let fear dictate my decisions.
Two million people visit Glacier each year, and there have been only 10 bear-related fatalities in the park in the past 100 years. Only three of those fatalities involved hikers. I think I am sufficiently armed.
What do you suppose is the number one cause of fatalities in Glacier National Park? Drowning…. Hope that doesn’t mean I have to hike wearing my life vest. 😉