A few weeks before my wedding, my mother-in-law-to-be phoned me with a whispered horror.
“Lorelahhh,” she whispered. My name is pronounced Laura-LIE, rhyming with stupefy, but Marion’s Virginia drawl turns any long I into Ahhh.
“Lorelahhh. Ahhh am worried about this hike you’re plannin’ for your honeymoon in ANWR. Ahhh don’t mean to be…” she cleared her throat in embarrassment, “… indelicate, but bears are attracted to… to… menstrual blood.”
Her voice began rising in volume and hysteria. “You need to get on the Pill to stop your period, Lorelahhh, or else you and mahhh son will have bears stalkin’ you the entahhhre hahhhke! Ahhhh am so worried; ahhh just can’t sleep. Ahhh am going to have a heart attack!”
Bearanoid. Characterized by an extreme and/or irrational fear of bears, i.e., any of the mammal family Ursidae, having coarse, heavy fur, rudimentary tails, and plantigrade feet, and feeding largely on fruit and insects as well as on flesh.
Despite Marion’s warning, I did not get on the Pill, but somehow the bears did not stalk Jason and me on our honeymoon trek in the Arctic. Incidentally, we never saw a single hunk of Ursidae on that trip, only plantigrade bear tracks in the river bar.
To be clear: there is no scientific evidence suggesting that menstrual blood attracts grizzly bears, or black bears, for that matter—only polar bears. I should know; I googled it. 1 So, I doubt I would’ve been stalked by any grizzlies on my honeymoon, even if I had painted stripes of menstrual blood across my face. And really, I haven’t done that since college.
I hope I don’t sound bear-flippant, because I’m actually not that far down the bearanoia scale myself. In fact, I would be quite happy if I never saw a bear on a hiking trip again. I like knowing they’re there—just, you know, one valley over or something.
Take my last backpacking trip in Denali National Park. Jason and I were hiking upstream along the Teklanika River when we saw the first three bears: a grizzly mama with two cubs, about 500 yards ahead, at the river’s edge—exactly where we wanted go. The adrenaline spiked; menstruating or not, I have no wish to encounter a sow defending her cubs. But no big deal, we told ourselves. They hadn’t seen us, and we were still far enough away. We climbed 1000 feet up to a bench above the river, keeping our sights on the bears, then moved upstream from above, at this point 1000 yards or more away from the family.
A mile or so later we spotted the fourth and fifth bears. They, too, were down in the river bar, 1000 yards away, and unaware of our presence. Call us bearanoid, but we fretted, wrung hands, gnashed teeth, and altered course again to stay far, far away. The bears never saw us, but they were a stressor I personally did not savor.
Up to the Teklanika headwaters we walked, over a pass, and down the Refuge Valley to the Sanctuary River, where we planned to hike downstream a bit and then get in our packrafts to float languidly to the park road. But before we got to the river we saw our sixth grizzly of the trip, lolling about on the river bank, exactly where we wanted to be.
By this time, we were feeling less bearanoid and more bear-annoyed. I mean, c’mon, really!? A sixth bear?! Why can’t the Park Service just FedEx these bears to a zoo or something so that we hikers can enjoy our wilderness in peace?!
The line between bear-aware and bearanoid is subjective for sure. I think I’m appropriately cautious on a hike. The bear spray is always just a hand-twitch away. Overnight I always store food in a bear-resistant, odor-proof container. When bushwhacking I like to sing “99 Bottles of Ginger Ale on the Wall”—loudly and off-key. Studies show that grizzly bears are repelled by bad singing. 2 For that reason, I never hike with singers from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
But for all these precautions, my mom thinks I’m just plain crazy for hiking in bear country at all. I think my mom is crazy for driving a car in Manhattan. My mother-in-law, Marion of the Menstrual Warning, thinks I’m crazy for leaving my front door unlocked during my period, lest a really perverted bear seek me out. I think she’s crazy for shopping on Black Friday.
And I don’t think your bearanoia is just a function of how long you’ve lived in bear country. My realtor, a life-long Alaskan who grew up in Dillingham, is aghast that I’d hike in the Arctic without a firearm. She tells everyone this—really, everyone. She interrupted an otherwise intense real estate transaction to tell the escrow officer all about it.
I’m not going to get into the debate about whether you’re safer in bear country with or without a firearm, but I can promise you that if I ever tried to shoot a charging bear with a gun, I’d wind up accidentally hitting my foot or something.
Now, I can see how your bearanoia may be a function of your troubles with bears. If I were one of those NOLS kids recently mauled by that grizzly, I’d never go into the woods again. Ever. I’d take up coin-collecting and the Jane Fonda Workout.
I have a friend, born and raised in Alaska, who swears he was stalked by a grizz for hours one time up and down Bird Ridge in the Chugach. A few years later I went backpacking with him, and he was yelling “Hey Bear!” every three counts on the dot, in forest and tundra alike. I could’ve played a spritely Chopin waltz to his metronome of bearanoia.
This friend has since retreated to Florida, where he has only to worry about alligators and the truly fearsome humongous flying cockroaches.
By the way, I have hiking friends who certainly consider me bearanoid in turn. I admit it: on that last Denali trip, our detours around those bears were probably extreme. But again, what’s bear-aware, and what’s bearnoid?
I know people who sleep with their food bags, because who can be bothered with heavy bear-proof containers and storing food away from camp? They think bears in Alaska generally aren’t acquainted enough with human food to enter a human camp. But remember that woman who was mauled in her tent in Gates of the Arctic in 2008 by an obviously food-seeking bear? I think about that horror story when I carry my food every night 100 paces from where I sleep and 100 paces from where I cook (the so-called Bear-muda Triangle Method).
I know another woman who does store her food away from camp, but in a flimsy, smell-porous nylon stuff sack. I don’t want to meet the bear who sniffs out the unprotected food in her bag and gets a taste for Cool Ranch Doritos. Just one crunch, and it’ll shake down every picnicking hiker in the state, looking for more.
I have another friend who leaves bear spray at home when he’s hiking with three or more people. The argument is that bears leave large groups alone, which may be true most of the time, but try telling the seven people in that Gates of the Arctic group to ditch their bear spray on their next group trip. They used bear spray to chase the grizzly off the aforementioned woman who was mauled in her tent.
As I write this, I’m talking myself into Jane Fonda and coin collecting. Apparently the US mint is releasing a Denali National Park coin in 2012. I wonder if there’ll be a bear on it?
No, really, bearanoia won’t keep me indoors, won’t drive me to the NRA, and certainly won’t get me on the Pill. For the record, I jest about the whole FedExing-the-bears-out-of-the-national-parks idea. Truly, I think humans have a responsibility to respect and conserve wildlife, including predators, and besides, UPS is so much more reliable.
But no matter what you say, I’m not abandoning my bear spray, or my bear-proof food container, or my Bear-muda Triangle Method; they’re worth the weight on my shoulders and the small inconvenience.
I guess I am pretty bored with singing “99 Bottles of Ginger Ale on the Wall” through every stretch of alder, though, so here’s a ditty I wrote on a trek last year through the Talkeetnas, to be sung to the tune of “God Bless America.” Sing it badly and off-key to better repel the Ursidae.
God, bless the grizzly bear,
Beast that I fear!
Please don’t eat me,
Or beat me.
I’d like to live to hike another year.
You are hairy,
And so scary
With your claws as
Sharp as spears…
God, bless the grizzly bear!
Please stay away!
God, bless the grizzly bear
‘Cause I have bear spray!