Grizzly bear attacks : fear in bear country and in life
A book excerpt from the spiritandflesh.com religion and spirituality online library.
On one reconnaissance trip, far away from the rabble, looking for a remote building site, a couple of buddies and I took a floatplane into the mouth of one of the long, fingerlike inlets which carve up the BC coast, where we hiked up the river ten miles or so, firstly along an abandoned logging road, then onto an overgrown path, and finally we were meandering through grizzly trails which, in the thick knot of the rainforest's salal and brambles, were only as high as a bear walks, and therefore you had to crouch right over to use such paths, so these weren't the most physically- not to mention psychologically- comfortable thoroughfares to negotiate.
I remember reading the Alaska State Park's pamphlet on grizzly attacks the first summer I had gone up there. It stated, in perfect, bureaucratic, now-you-can't-sue-us-jargon, that if a grizzly charges you, you should not run but only look away from it, wave your arms about, and slowly back away; if it continued to charge, and attacked you, you should not fight back but instead play dead; and if now it persisted to maul you, you should consider it as a 'predatory' attack, and fight back with all of your might. I finished reading the pamphlet and was thinking- isn't this a wonderful piece of perfectly American advice- wait until you're damned and then try to save yourself.
During a large part of that first summer in Alaska, I was camped alone under a tarp in grizzly territory, and was piss-scared half the time and would be startled into anxious alertness at the slightest noise in the forest- of which there was an endless supply. And what with the short, northern nights- about three hours of partial darkness at best- and the perpetual rain pounding down, I didn't rest very well at the outset of that summer. But something happened after a while which allowed me to sleep comfortably; I suppose I just inductively grew weary of leaping up whenever a branch snapped or some other sound startled me but did not produce the ursus major I had expected, nor any other frightening beast for that matter. And so eventually I just stopped reacting to the ever-present, benign noises of the forest and forgot that these might signify a bear. I got so used to sleeping out in the open like this that I remember finding fresh cougar tracks near my camp in British Columbia one time, and as I was dozing off that night I suddenly questioned myself as to whether I should be worried or not, and I remember only the slightest response inwardly, lackadaisically negating the necessity of fear, and then I must have fallen into dream because I awoke the next morning fully intact.
Occasionally a friend would confess to me that their fear of bears and cougars prevented them from going into the wilderness alone- which, being alone in the wilds, was a rewarding experience that I had declared was singularly important and a life altering necessity. And then the friend would inquire whether I was still afraid of such animals or not. My answer was, "Yes, of course I'm afraid of them." But then I'd explain an important change which had happened to me, and apparently not to them as yet, which was this- I was not afraid of potentially meeting a bear or cougar, for I had learned that at every moment there is a false alarm if you're willing to allow fear to give you one. However, were I to actually come upon one of the carnivores, of course I was scared, but the difference between useless fear and jungle sense was what gave me, a coward, the opportunity to bask in the glorious outdoors, and stole the same experience from those others. And that is a terrible tragedy.
I recognize this dichotomy- this liberating or imprisoning nuance of fear- in many aspects of my life now: fear of potential harm, potential loss, or potential sorrow, all of which are limiting to life, as opposed to honest-to-goodness self-preservation fear, which is life affirming.
I had come to accept that life is not complete without some fear, and that trying to avoid what I feared was impossible without concomitantly building up walls which would bury me, because to avoid fear was to avoid life. I had to learn to discern between true response to a true situation, and false response to an imagined one.
I can say these things with great humility, for I was a born and bred, hopeless neurotic- a living authority on the crippling effect of the mind. I once had a dream in which it was shown to me that there was an incurable, pathological coward within me, discoloring everything I did, and everything I thought, and I awoke knowing that I could not get rid of him, for he was a part of me. I could only take into consideration the fact that his voice was a part of the chorus of voices motivating either my fulfillment or abandonment of life, and I had to make sure that he didn't win, because to him even the clerk at the convenience store was a grizzly, and the world was a terrifying, dark woods within which he sat cowering while the rest of me wanted to sing out and dance.
(excerpted from In and Of: memoirs of a mystic journey, by Jack Haas)