Sometimes The Bear Eats You Pt 1

 My father and I two years ago (Photo credit: Adam Edwards)

My father and I two years ago (Photo credit: Adam Edwards)

After searching the car for a few minutes I grabbed a pocketful of what I thought was enough change and made a beeline for the payphone. I fumbled awkwardly with the phone as I tried to simultaneously fish change out my pocket and dial numbers. After settling on the correct order of operations the clink of coins dropping was followed by ringing over the earpiece. The sounds of the truck-stop blared in the background  as  my mother answered the phone and I delightfully informed her of my progress northward. I was the farthest north an Edwards had ever been. Soon my father was on the phone and I repeated the information after some pleasantries.

 Denali peaking out behind the rest of the Alaskan range (Photo credit: Adam Edwards)

Denali peaking out behind the rest of the Alaskan range (Photo credit: Adam Edwards)

In truth, I had no idea if a cousin or some other family member had ever traveled farther towards the northernmost regions of our planet. I knew my father hadn’t. A joy of conquering the unknown rose in my chest. In turn my father gently stymied my joy, “I’ve been there once” he said. Another first already explored—my heart sank a bit. My disappointment on not being the first faded quickly as my parents inquired about the drive and made small talk about the pictures I'd sent.

Later in life I tried to contemplate what a Jamaican man would have been doing in the Northwest Territories sometime in the 70’s or 80’s.  If it’s true the fantasies abound. It could have been my fathers penchant for story telling. Or the lapse in recall; a subtle sign of his fading health at the time. Whatever the reason the thought was placed, I’d have to continue northward in order to be the farthest—the first.

 The farthest. The author on Kesugi Ridge (Photo credit: Matt Wild)

The farthest. The author on Kesugi Ridge (Photo credit: Matt Wild)

I want you to picture your ideal adventure: the perfect balance of thrill, uncertainty, and excitement that gets your heart going and an excited smile on your face. I imagine if we pictured our ideal adventure simultaneously we would have markedly different ideas of what that might be. At the time of that story my idea of adventure was whatever was around the bend. The objective was to drive north; through wild country I’d only read about in books and glimpsed in National Geographic; where actual megafauna—moose, wolves and bears—could lurk around every corner. While I was never fortunate enough to see a wolf in the flesh, the excitement of the unknown was enough to keep me up at night with almost gleeful anticipation of what could happen the next day.

What about your adventure? When you close your eyes what do you see? What stands apart or in line with mine? What compels us to seek out danger in the first place? At the time I wanted change. I wanted something outside of what I knew; to live life “outside of my comfort zone;” to experience the right amount of fear. So there I was in Whitehorse telling my dad that I was only a few more days of driving and camping from a whole new world my family had never dreamed of—a whole new world of fear.  

 Bear tracks on my morning run circa 2012 (Photo credit: Adam Edwards)

Bear tracks on my morning run circa 2012 (Photo credit: Adam Edwards)

Stress builds character or so the saying goes. Stress does a lot of other things as well. But it does indeed teach us lessons that may build character. And after a few seasons of that new life I ended up learning one of the greatest character building lessons in life. That is to say I developed, or rediscovered, a fear of being eaten.

I’m afraid of a lot of things. I have no shame in admitting that. And if we are being brutally honest, most of us are. Living in Alaska rekindled a very specific fear. In truth I have been afraid of being eaten for some time. By some time, I mean as long as I can remember. It likely stems from growing up in Florida fishing with my father. We would fish for perch in the canals of central Florida when I was young. These are some of my earliest memories.

I often saw alligators waiting in the reeds for fish we missed as we encroached upon their hunting grounds. I carried that fear with me. When I look back at some of my happiest memories of fishing with my father that fear was also present. And I carried that fear from childhood up to present day. 

 A grizzly bear foraging in early fall. Denali National Park (Photo credit: Adam Edwards) 

A grizzly bear foraging in early fall. Denali National Park (Photo credit: Adam Edwards) 

 I've never conquered my fear of being eaten. I’ve merely come to an uneasy truce with it. It is a low level anxiety in the back of my mind when I travel alone in the backcountry or when I’m out surfing. It is a large part of why the ocean conjures both joy and deep unease. 

I brought my fear with me to Alaska for a few seasons of sleeping in a tent in grizzly bear country.  If you were smart about how you cooked, cleaned, and carried yourself you’d likely have no problem with bears. So they said. So I discovered.    

Conquering fear does not mean its dissolution. Sometimes conquering fear means becoming bedfellows with it; learning how it works and when; letting your fear inspire lead you to smart decision making or a healthy respect for nature and risk. 

Eventually conquering fear can mean using it to your advantage: being aware of it in the moment and using all its signs and symptoms to overcome fear itself. The connection between fear and adventure is an easy one to make. Adventure can quickly spiral into a situation of fear and is often considered to contain some element of it.

But what is it that draws us to the backcountry in the first place if not fear itself and the challenge of overcoming the very thing that scares us the most? Why do we choose fear when we could avoid it easily enough by staying home in relative safety. 

 My home during guide season in Alaska. Sometimes I'd hear megafanua walk by as I lay awake daydreaming (Photo credit: Adam Edwards).

My home during guide season in Alaska. Sometimes I'd hear megafanua walk by as I lay awake daydreaming (Photo credit: Adam Edwards).

But what of the unwanted, unsought after adventure?—the kind you must endure; the kind that once you experience it you shudder at the thought and shy away from revisiting its memories. Consider what it would be like if that fear was constant and permeated your every waking moment?—a low steady hum you learn to live with and have subconscious behaviors to alleviate and avoid any increased likelihood of it occurring?—in short, a chronic stressor.

That kind of fear and adventure is more real than the semi irrational fear I've described. I’d have to travel far from home for my fear of being eaten to come close to being a reality. Then I would need to rely upon astronomical statistics and a complete lack of common sense to perhaps end up on the business end of a super predator's canines. So that fear of being eaten is easy to control, contain and confront. But other fears are not so easily overcome. 

I learned the fear of being eaten, the anxiety, and the subconscious accommodations from an early age. I  have confirmed it over the course of my life.. As I’ve grown I’ve come to recognize that irrational childhood fear as analogous to the more adult fear of being overpowered. Or more specifically the conscious recognition of the fear of being taken or having something taken from you against your will by something far more powerful than you. It is a reasonable and completely rational fear learned through experience. That’s the bear; a bogeyman that will create unexpected outcomes even if you see it coming. It is overwhelming fear—the loss of all control. The bear comes in many shapes and forms. It can be an adventure, or society or sickness. Sometimes you overcome it. Sometimes the bear may eat you.

The first bears I learned of were not the great reptiles of Florida. The first bear I learned of I venerated and held up as a Great Bear. Television shows like California Highway Patrol (CHiPs) and COPS had shown me how amazing they were. How brave, strong and true.  So imagine my surprise, my fear when that bear took my father for no reason. When it tried to eat him—one half of my earthly protectors. When the first man I saw in handcuffs in real life, was my father.