Last week, Candace Berner, a 32-year-old special-education teacher in Chignik Lake, Alaska, was out jogging when she was attacked and killed by a pack of wolves. A couple of years ago, Timothy Treadwell, who had become notorious as “The Grizzly Man,” was found dead in Katmai, Alaska, by the bush pilot who had arrived to fly him out to civilization. Along with Treadwell’s partially eaten body, officials found the remains of his girlfriend, as well. It isn’t clear whether the couple was eaten by one or two bears.
In addition to the two recent wolf kills, in the past few years, there have been more than 30 fatal bear attacks in North America, along with five documented mountain lion kills and five deaths attributed to snake bites.
Although the huge brown bears and grizzlies get all the publicity, actually almost half the human deaths have been reliably attributed to black bears. Just in July, a California woman out walking her dogs in the mountains east of Bakersfield was attacked and seriously injured by a black bear. Experts think recent California wildfires have driven bears into new areas in search of food. In the southern U.S., there have been about a half-dozen fatal alligator attacks in the past decade, while sharks have killed about a dozen people in the same time period.
Golly gee! The woods must be teeming with danger, what with so many folks being killed and all.
Bull! With close to 500 million people in North America, your odds are about a million to one against being killed by a wild critter. Of course, there are dangers in the wild, but I’d venture that you’re more likely to get killed in a drive-by shooting or run over by a drunken driver.
I once heard a cute vignette about how a city slicker remarked to an old wilderness guide, “Gosh, there are things out there that can kill you!” — to which the oldtimer replied, “If there ain’t somethin’ out there that can kill you, it ain’t a wilderness!”
While there are indeed things out in the wild that can kill you, a few simple precautions can greatly improve your odds. Keeping a clean camp is probably the simplest way to avoid bear trouble. Wash your dishes as soon as you’ve finished eating, and store your food in bear-proof containers or suspended high in a tree out of reach. Never take food into your tent or sleeping bag.
When camping, even when it’s not hunting season, I keep a handgun close in case I need to scare bears away. If absolutely necessary, you can dispatch a bear with a handgun. When I once expressed reservations about the wisdom or effectiveness of shooting a bear with a handgun, a longtime bear hunter said, “Son, you just stick the gun in the bear’s ear and pull the trigger. It works every time.”
I suspected the old boy was pulling my leg, until I found myself up close and personal with a very angry bear. Darned if he wasn’t right!
Do I recommend carrying a big hog-leg strapped to your thigh whenever you are out in the woods? Not unless you know how to use it and feel comfortable carrying one. While backpacking years ago with my young wife and my parents, I rounded a bend in the trail and surprised a large rattler who decided to come straight at me. Fortunately, I had my handgun on my pack, and a single shot killed him at a distance of 6 feet.
Although that particular snake was shot with a solid bullet, snakeshot in a handgun is incredibly effective, even if you’re a lousy shot. You just instinctively draw and fire, and the snake’s head vanishes. I use a revolver with snakeshot because it never jams. The first round is snakeshot, and ensuing rounds are solid bullets. That way, if I encounter a bear or boar, I can quickly rotate the cylinder past the shot cartridge and have a round suitable for dropping a large critter, if necessary.
If you’re uncomfortable with a gun, you can carry pepper spray for bear deterrence or for two-legged snakes. Other precautions include keeping a snakebite kit with you in the wild, along with a cell phone or GPS locator with which to summon help.
Probably the best safety precaution of all is to pay attention to your surroundings. Watch where you walk and you’ll avoid a lot of trouble.
Another great safety feature is a dog. If you are along the stream and your family dog begins to growl while the hair stands up on the back of his neck, you might be wise to unsnap the safety strap on your gun. I’ve had that happen before, and the dog stood close to me and kept growling for almost half an hour. I never saw the critter and don’t know if it was a lion, a bear or even a whacko human, but that old dog earned his keep that day.
Don’t let me scare you. Statistically, you’re far safer in the wild than almost anywhere else. Just take a few simple precautions, and your outdoor experience should be a great one.
Until next week, tight lines.
• Don Moyer is president and CEO of a consulting firm and has more than 20 years’ experience working with the outdoor recreation community, including anglers, hunters, backpackers, environmental groups and the public. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.