“Phoebe, why don’t you walk in front?”
Yes, she was the fastest hiker in the group, but mostly I was starting to psych myself out that a bear was just around the corner, and Phoebe had the bear spray. Plus the woman grew up with the Tetons in her backyard so I had faith she knew what she was doing.
Halfway up Paintbrush Canyon and I was keeping my eyes on the dense growth lining the trail, looking and listening for breaking branches, shaking leaves, and other telltale signs of bear activity. Jamie and I share a borderline irrational fear of (though I would call it a healthy respect for) bears. And while it’s comforting to know I’m not the only one who maintains a lookout for the animals – how could anyone not after watching The Revenant – I’m well aware that Jamie and I, left unchecked, would probably feed off one another’s energy until we were in a swirling maelstrom of bear fear.
The weekend kicked off auspiciously Friday morning while driving to Phelps Lake for a short trail run to stretch the legs after a full day of travel by car. A black bear was munching on hawthorn berries on the side of the road, a favorite meal, and plentiful at this time of year, wholly uninterested in the photog-taking tourists lining the narrow road.
People say we fear that which we do not understand. I hadn’t realized until this weekend, but I think much of my bear fear stems from this idea. As a child of the Midwest, bears are simply not a part of my daily reality. They never have been.
So imagine my surprise when the trail was littered with bear signs and instead of freaking out, I felt my fear slowly retreating. Near Holly Lake in upper Paintbrush Canyon, bear scat and tracks left in the mud. Along the trail of the South Fork of Cascade Canyon, a tree freshly stripped of its bark, claw marks visible as the bear had looked for bugs to eat.
I received a tutorial on how to actually use bear spray, and felt chagrined to learn that mishandling bear spray can be more dangerous than any wildlife you might run into. I learned the proper height for a bear hang, and what a bear fence is. I learned that grizzlies will walk along the scree slopes of the alpine tundra, searching for moths that migrate from as far as away as Kansas and Nebraska, eating anywhere from 20,000-40,000 in one day.
Each lesson, factoid, and telltale bear sign put another chink in my wall of fear, so that where before it had been slick with unknowns, now there were holds, chunks of knowledge I could grab onto that led up and over the wall into understanding.
I’m still afraid of bears on trail. And I still have a healthy respect for them, as we should all wildlife. But now I’m also curious about them. And I’m learning to embrace the discomfort, because it’s a feeling that more often than not indicates to me that I’m on the right path, so to speak. It’s a relief to know a little discomfort won’t dissuade me from the adventure that lies ahead.
Written by: Heather | Photography by: Jamie
Are you afraid of bears, or have any crazy bear stories? Comment Below!