I was recently hiking on some unmaintained trails in Grand Teton National Park hoping for some wildlife encounters since there were plenty of ripe berry bushes at this particular location. Given the opportunities, I was specifically hoping for some bear and elk, knowing both were in the area.
I had been hiking for roughly a mile, but hadn’t seen any wildlife yet, and found myself exploring a new trail I hadn’t been down before. There were lots of downed trees in one location and visibility was fairly limited in my immediate surroundings. Of course it’s recommended that people make noise to scare away wildlife, but I didn’t want to scare it away. I wanted to see it. I also feel comfortable enough with my knowledge of wildlife to avoid any unfortunate encounters, and I had my bear spray as a last resort, which is its intended use anyway.
I began to notice that even though I had knowledge of the area and knowledge of the wildlife I was likely to see, there was still fear running through me. I began to dig a little deeper into the feeling. I realized it wasn’t the kind of fear that says, "This is a bad idea and I shouldn’t be here." It simply seemed to be more along the lines of, "Be alert."
Many people live their lives in the comforts of their home, eliminating any form of fear that comes their way, something I can hear reflected in the comments of guests I take out on wildlife safaris. When these types of people come to visit an area rich in wildness like Jackson Hole, they can’t tell the difference between the "bad idea" fear, and the "be alert" fear. Both should always be listened to, but both yield completely different results. For those who can’t tell the difference, however, it often leads to uncomfortable situations for others who encounter them along the trail.
This was made annoyingly obvious to me as I was introducing a friend that was relatively new to the area to the Amphitheater Lake Trail a couple of years ago. The trail is a favorite of mine because of its dramatic views over the valley and its grand reward at the end: Amphitheater Lake tucked away in a mountainous, rocky bowl below the Grand Teton. I did not enjoy the hike on this particular day though. We caught up to a group of people who were blaring music from their cell phones audible from nearly half a mile away for the entirety of their hike. Knowing we’d be keeping pace with them, we stopped and let them get ahead, taking an unnecessary break so they could gain a substantial distance. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the last time we encountered them.
They were simply experiencing the "Be alert" fear, but had absolutely no idea how to cope with it. Their solution was to drown out any chance of allowing the natural world to penetrate, and thus inspire them. Unbeknownst to them, they completely missed the entire point of their hike and most likely went away experiencing a fraction, at best, of what they could have. In the process, they distracted and annoyed everyone else out on a relatively crowded trail who was hoping to see and hear all nature had to offer and to get away from technology and artificial sounds.
The same fear was the undoing for a beloved grizzly bear in the area. Grizzly Bear #587, one of the first cubs of the famous Grizzly Bear #399, was living peacefully in northern Grand Teton National Park and the Teton Wilderness. On occasion, he was known to pass through the Pacific Creek neighborhood, a secluded and remote development miles away from any civilization, even as the crow flies. Most residents didn’t mind him passing through, as was typical for other bears, wolves, elk, moose, and all sorts of other wildlife. According to a Jackson Hole News & Guide article, "Residents of the neighborhood said 587 was guilty only of being there." Yet new residents to the neighborhood took one look at him and completely panicked. <sarcasm>How could this wild grizzly bear have gotten into a secluded remote, mountain development?</sarcasm> They took it upon themselves to deal with the situation, immediately calling the authorities to have the native resident removed, rather than taking the time to ask neighbors about the actual danger, or to even educate themselves on how to coexist with natural inhabitants of the land. Later, Grizzly Bear #587 was found preying on cattle, but not by breaking into anyone’s private land. These cattle were the product of welfare ranching: openly grazing on public lands where wild animals freely roam. Not knowing the area, this was the easiest prey he could find in a foreign environment, and was subsequently put to death for following his instincts.
The person to blame was so against experiencing fear of any form, that they took it upon themselves to (and may still) alter anything in their surroundings to make them feel more comfortable, no matter how many lives it takes.
Though many people do their best to eliminate this fear from their lives, it’s actually one of the most valuable feelings to experiencing life in a richer and more fulfilling way. Those not experiencing it are living a tame, almost numb form of life that prevents a true feeling of being alive from manifesting. After all, you couldn’t truly know happiness if you didn’t have sadness and boredom to compare it to. Without knowing fear, you can’t really feel its opposite of being ecstatically alive.
I continued hiking along that unknown trail. A squirrel would scurry through the brush, its sound amplified by the fear. Birds would fly to and from branches, their sounds amplified even more since they were initially out of sight. It was a growing tension and fear that actually felt good to feel, though I began to feel sorry for people that never allow those feelings in. In a short walk, tucked away in a forest with no exceptionally majestic sights to see, I was potentially feeling more alive than someone hiking high up in the Tetons surrounded by a cathedral of granite.
As I hiked along that trail, not knowing what, if anything, was around the next corner and pondering these thoughts, I couldn’t help but smile. I was feeling fear, but it was keeping me alert. A better word would be ‘aware,’ something easily lost in the day-to-day routine that I had been experiencing too often this summer. The more aware you are of your surroundings through your own senses, the more likely you are to have a rewarding experience, both in the short and long-term. It builds up your awareness of your surroundings and of what you’re capable of feeling and experiencing. Feeling and embracing fear is one step to living that more regularly.
Of course not knowing how to cope with fear is a lot better than not even knowing you have fear.
Ultimately, I saw two black bears on that hike once I had wound back to the Snake River. I came upon one a few dozen yards away who was (mutually) surprised by my presence and began to move off. Wanting to know if I had completely scared it off, I moved in a circular pattern from where it last was, ultimately reaching the river to see clearer. About 100 yards away, I saw a black bear walking down toward the water to get a drink. I was very confused at this point because it didn’t look like the bear had moved that quickly. I took a few steps up the river to get a better look, and on the other side of a tree next to me I saw that I was actually next to the first bear I had seen. Up the river I had seen a completely different bear quenching its thirst. Knowing I was pushing my luck at this point, my thumb hovering over the bear spray trigger, I backed away and gave it its space as it studied my movements. Satisfied with the distance I had given it, it walked into the brush and began eating on the berries that were readily available, but out of any good potential angles for shots. With both bears now a safe distance away, I sat by the river to enjoy the scenery for a while, then headed back to my car to go home, satisfied by a fulfilling day, despite not getting any shots of wildlife.