Dealing with Wildlife and Other Risks on the Trail: Some Unconventional Thoughts

 

I found myself responding to queries from fellow Youtube hikers on dealing with animal danger on the the trail. This is my unconventional advice on dealing with wildlife and other risks on the trail. Follow my advice at your own peril. I can't be responsible for your fate. I am here just to inform you of mine.

I have spent most of my life hiking in the woods or paddling in bays/oceans of Western US ... alone. I have been face to face or tracked by or surprised by cougars, (black) bears, elk, deer, goats, marmots, sea elephants, dolphins, sea lions, sea otters, small and large whales, porpoises, harbor seals, turtles, many birds etc.  I  think most animals want some relationship with us, especially when you are anonymously hiking/kayaking through woods, beaches, oceans . Even the few times I have turned and stared down cougars in the bush who were tracking me, I felt ultimately like they were sizing me up in some way beyond my status as prey or threat.  They were curious and wanted some moments with me. In none of those few encounters did the mountains lions want seriously to attack me. They turned and disappeared into the bush with eye contact. Personally, I think cats track prey the same way humans watch network television. These are activities we do as species almost by unconscious reflex. 


There's something existential about our relationship with animals. Something you can't describe or print up in a guide book. Some animals just want to talk to you: Crows are an excellent example of this. Some animals intuitively see you as friendly like many female deer and their offspring.  Some want to swim with you and your kayak: Spinner dolphins if you can keep up! Some curious sea otters go out of their way to get in your paddle space and you have to observe the  marine mammal 50 yard distance rule which is hard when the sea otters want to curl up in kelp right in front of your kayak and stare at you while they spin! Other animals make a big display out of their size if you get too close like male sea elephants, Stellar sea lions or the front guard of a herd of Roosevelt Elk. When you suddenly come upon the 'red eyes' of those bull Elk staring at you, just keep walking. They no bother you if you no bother them.

One of the most interesting animal encounter books I have read is Mary Getten's "Communicating With Orcas: The Whales’ Perspective" (https://marygetten.com/marys-books/). The book describes our spiritual and intellectual relationship with another telepathic species on our planet. No matter what you think of the possibilities of animal communication, Ms. Getten's book is worth a read on many levels and for many seekers of truth. I almost have never really have a bad experience with wild animals. Except for one snaggle toothed old black bear too familiar with my campground or maybe another testosterone laced bull with a group of cows he was jealously guarding.  And neither bear nor bull got to me. Close maybe, but no.  The few black bears I have met hiking really wanted nothing to do with me. Although one was apparently a mother with a cub that wanted my food bag I hung high in a tree. The only animals on the trail that have ever really threatened and scared me are the dogs some owners carelessly let off their leash and I have been bit by dogs. So I would say learning to speak calm and non-threatening to a dog is important. Dogs aren't wild animals but most are protective of their owners by instinct. Most canines want to be your friend.

I have had dangerous experiences on the trail but the worst have always come from inanimate forces: rising tides, collapsing hillsides, cold slippery ice falls, poor trail maintenance, low blood sugar, hypothermia. Bad experiences can come from unpredictable natural forces or poor planning. The cold North Pacific ocean is no place to dump your kayak into the ocean or be swept from the beach. I know this from personal experience. I would concentrate 'risk prevention' on the trail or in the ocean on prevention of these types of experiences. This involves understanding weather reports, trail knowledge, preparing for an injury, or an open ocean dumping, appropriate communication gear, filling out the local permits or at least telling someone where you are going. I will admit I am not very responsible about all of this. I actually hate planning too much for catastrophe. It disrupts my pursuit of a 'beta' state. However, I do not like hypothermia, numb digits or any aspect of the hypothermic experience. I do not like cold, shivering low blood sugar moments. I do not like falls on the trail especially onto ice. They leave me stiff and shaken, the more so as I have aged. 

I know personally all these experiences I have described. I know when and how they happened and I take pains by equipment to help me to avoid all of them. The pursuit of beauty and calm precludes these types of experiences from being useful for me. There is no sense or value in being reckless for me, but each of us marches to the bear of a different drummer. When I see the river kayakers bombing down the freezing Nooksack in January, spinning into a whirl pool and then coming out... Or when I see the off course snow boarders dropping down some apparently near vertical fresh powder near Mt. Baker, I have nothing but admiration and wonder. Risk is a personal decision.

Although I have kayaked Sitka Sound and hiked Admiralty Island some, I will admit the only brown bears I have seen are from a tour boat. I haven't spent much time in Brown Bear country but there is possibly a plan to reintroduce them in the Northern Cascades.  Certainly they can found and are hunted in British Columbia. So maybe I will see brown bears here someday. Certainly they can be found in Canada. My advice would be don't worry about becoming prey or an attack. Do some reading, take precautions as necessary. But so few people are injured by wildlife say in comparison to 15K (??) homicides each year in the US. I will also admit that I grew up in a rough neighborhood. East Oakland was a tough place to be during the crack cocaine crisis. It is probably still a tough place to live. I spent my youth walking in the hills of Oakland alone to be at peace. I am not sure how much of the time I really was, but nobody has ever shot at me walking in the woods. Not once.


Almost every time I have found myself surprisingly next to wildlife on the trail, I have felt for just a moment like we recognized something inside each other: some sentience, some sense of struggle or perhaps even shared universalist trauma. As if we lived in our own solipsism and the universe needed, just for that brief moment, to have us touch each other's bubble. I do remember all my close animal encounters. Somehow, they meant something to me. But to be real, I am not sure how any of that might apply to a brown bear attack.

Perhaps wildlife encounters are almost something to not think about except maybe as to how to best photograph or remember your encounter. *Proper* training and preparation must be important. But I have never carried bear spray, a buck knife or a gun in the woods. I suppose one bad experience could change that. But maybe not. All of us have to remember that our sense of fear and paranoia is only worth so much attention. Life is about beauty, grace, serenity and transcendence and these ideal states preclude us from over protection and worry about the value of our own lives.  If you read this, I hope my advice to absolve yourself of fear of wildlife doesn't get you killed. Anyway...that's all I got.

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