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The Mountain West is a hard, unforgiving country. It’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security by its disarming beauty. How could anything bad happen in the midst of these majestic mountains? I often find myself in remote canyons marveling at this stunning, wild land, giving no thought to the many ways these mountains claim lives. But spring runoffs can trap you for days; rock slides tumble without warning; summer’s flash floods riot through slot canyons without a cloud in the sky; winter’s avalanches whisper down slopes, flattening and covering everything in their path; and unpredictable mountain weather can surprise and kill at any time of the year. But I hear the mountains’ siren call and go, giving little thought to their dangers.
Twenty-one people lost their lives to flash flooding in Utah last year—in one day. There were others lost: some fell off trails, some became lost and died of hypothermia, some were killed in back-country avalanches, and at least one I know of walked into the high country and just disappeared (those are the ones I envy). To walk into majestic beauty and disappear, become a permanent part of the country I love, fade into a mystery. What could be better than that?
The mountains hide their mysteries, like Everett Ruess, who in 1934 went in fully equipped with two mules and all the gear never to be seen again. They found the mules and gear, but they never found him. He loved the country he wrote about—loved it, walked into it, and became permanently part of it.
I like to think I’m prepared to survive the high country when I’m up there, but there’s really no way to be totally prepared. When the mountains claim lives it’s always sudden, and nature’s awesome power seems inevitable, as if it’s your destiny.
Surprisingly, flash floods aren’t the number one killer in the backcountry. That designation goes to gravity through falls and avalanches (40%). I would have thought lightning the number one killer, as that’s what I see the most of and what gives me the greatest concern. But death in the backcountry mostly boils down to unfamiliarity with the country (which leads to unpreparedness), stupidity (nature has a way of culling the stupid), and bad juju (being in the wrong place at the wrong time). While only 1% of backcountry fatalities are due to animal attacks, bears do take a few here and there—about one every five- to seven-years nationwide. The bear population in Utah has doubled in the last 15 years, going from 2,000- to 4,100, so the number of bear encounters will likely go up. It’s been a while since a fatal bear encounter in Utah, but not that long sense a mauling. It’s hard to know who’s at fault when it happens. Last year 91 bears were euthanized for aggressive behavior—no humans were put down for stupidity, as far as I know.
I don’t know anybody who doesn’t get the bear boogers from time to time in the backcountry—that feeling that something’s watching you. The good news is bears usually un-ass the area if they know you’re around—what’s watching you is probably just a mountain lion. They don’t run away; they hide and watch. I ran into a sport from California at the fly-shop who thought what was needed was a bear repellant similar to mosquito repellant that you could just smear on and be good to go. I told him there was some stuff called bacon grease . . . but it only worked on people from California and New York City.
Although I’ve camped and fished in bear country for over thirty years, I’ve only seen three bears in the wild. One crossed the road in front of me when I was on my way to go fishing and camping and I had to slow down to keep from hitting it. It was a huge cinnamon colored black bear that went from ambling along fat, dumb, and happy to an impressive burst of speed that demonstrated, indeed, there’d be no outrunning a bear if one was after you. I knew that area had a substantial bear population from the many bear encounters I’d heard about over the years. One incident in particular stuck with me, as when it happened I was sleeping under the stars in my bedroll just a few miles away.
A bear broke into a camper shell, grabbed a twelve-year-old girl, and was dragging her off when her grandfather managed to beat it off with a flashlight. I learned later that she’d went to sleep with chips and snacks in her sleeping bag, which is always a bad idea in bear country—unless you’re from California or New York City.
Last spring, I topped out on a rise and spotted a bear hauling ass up the opposite ridge—nothing runs like that but a bear. The speed and ease with which that bear navigated that steep slope was impressive, and I was glad it was headed the other way.
Another time I was driving up a road that parallels a river I regularly fish and came up on a guy and two children approaching a bear that was busy devouring a road-kill deer. The Guy and his children were within twenty-foot of the bear. The guy was snapping pictures and encouraging the children to stand closer. The bear was totally focused on what it was doing and unaware of the spectators. It reminded me of a bumper sticker I once saw that read, “Stupid kills, but not enough to really help.”
The high foreheads say we don’t have grizzlies in Utah, but they have them in Wyoming and Idaho, so I’m left to assume they stop and turn around at the state line. And we all know what happens when we assume.
I spent one summer in Wyoming fishing an area known for its grizzly population and found the blasé attitudes of the locals interesting. A rouge bear was killing cattle in the area, and the local newspaper had a contest—“Name the cow killing bear.” That fall a local bow hunter was mauled and chased up a tree by the bear.
I was fishing a small creek in the mountains above Star Valley, Wyoming that was loaded with twelve- to fourteen-inch brookies and had decided to keep three or four for supper. I’d forgotten my creel and was just tapping them on the head and dropping them into the leg of my hip waders. I ran into another fisherman coming from the opposite direction who asked, “Did you see those bears?”
“A sow and two cubs just crossed the creek right behind you.”
“Cool,” I replied.
I started to head on up the creek when I remembered the dead fish stuffed inside my waders. I was a walking fish Taco. I decided to get my fish smellin’ ass back to the truck most ricky tick. My pucker factor was off the scale as I made my way back, and I wondered just how much stupid a guy could get away with before it did kill.
On one drainage I fished that summer, I ran into a wild-eyed fisherman who was babbling about a bear chasing a yearling deer right through his camp, which gave me the boogers for the rest of the day.
The more you learn about bear attacks the easier it is to booger yourself. For instance, most people are attacked from behind after being stalked and never know the bear is there—comforting to think about when you’re hiking down a trail. And bears don’t lumber through the woods like drunken sailors. They move silent and cat-like—especially when they’re stalking. Again, tidings of comfort and joy. If you frequent bear country, the best thing you can do is embrace the old maxim—sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you.
The forest service thoughtfully puts up notices informing the public that they are in bear country. I hadn’t paid much attention to them—I already knew I was in bear country. I figured they just passed on the most basic of information like, “This is moose country. Don’t you eat that yellow snow!”
Once, when I stopped to use the last facilities between me and the howling wilderness, I found one of these notices tacked to the door of the shitter declaring this bear country and warning menstruating women to be especially weary. I’d never given that much thought until then, but I could see the hand of God at work. I started thinking I should’ve done more camping when I was married.
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