Sometimes The Bear Eats You pt II

Getty Images

Getty Images

The key to avoid being eaten by a large apex predator is simple. Just don’t go where they live. If you can’t do that do the following. Travel in groups. Make a lot of noise. Don’t leave out items that are desirable or of interest. The list goes on. But in the end if you choose not to enter the environment, that fear is highly unlikely to become a reality. Simple enough. But we all know life is more complicated than that.

In my early twenties I went to visit my family in Phoenix, Arizona. The super bowl was in town that year, and it coincided with one of my best friends' birthdays. When I left my parents house that night my mother chided me to be careful and to make sure to stay out of the way of Phoenix Police Department. I was the designated driver that night. We watched the end of the game at a local sports bar then made our way to downtown Scottsdale to try and see the after-party and ceremonies. As my two friends and I walked back towards the main strip we stopped at a four way crosswalk. There were people at each corner. We shared our corner with a small group of similarly aged boys, though they were a bit further down the street than us. They were all pretty well intoxicated and in the process of ripping down signage from a local business. 

My friends and I saw the vandalism happening. We also saw the police officers within sight in all directions. We put together our collective experience as men of color and decided we needed to be farther away from them immediately lest we... Bam. We were suddenly surrounded by six fully kitted out officers of the Phoenix police department. Officers with AR-15s and tactical gear as well as  plain clothed officers. No real questions were asked just immediate accusations.

 So you like defacing property?

Why do you kids get so drunk and rowdy that you have to destroy stuff?

Mind you we had been standing at the corner, waiting for the light to change so that we could cross. Wanting to leave to avoid this. They tightened the cordon around us; two officers to each man-boy. We kept repeating we had done nothing.

We were waiting for the light. We had nothing to do with that.

Go talk to those guys over there. We are just trying to leave.

Do you want my ID?

 They just kept hammering us. At one point I turned to spit, ill advised I now realize, and nearly spit on a the shoe of a seventh officer who had been standing behind me. He too lit into me, with his first and only justification, for the near meeting of his street shoes and my spittle. Finally, two more officers approached and stated they had observed the whole incident and that we were not to blame. They physically escorted us away from the other group of officers sending us on our way.  At that point the other group of boys had wandered off and the police ambled in their direction. 

We went back to our car, shrugged it off and went home. After dropping my friends at the house they were staying at I passed through a  DUI checkpoint on my way home. I was stopped again. This time I was told why. It was not because of the check point but because my truck and I “fit the description” of a suspect in a crime in progress. Part way through that stop an officer of color came over, listened to me recount my evening and decided I should go. Turns out the suspect was Caucasian. I shrugged it off again and relied on my affable demeanor to get myself out of  a situation I had little control of. The truth is I did not escape of my own power. The bears just decided to stop playing with me.

There is a major difference between challenging yourself in the outdoors and the everyday white knuckle fears many face. Why face the bear if you know you may be eaten?  Why run waterfalls? Why climb mountains, climb anything, hike into the unknown, stroll down that dark alley. The answer is not complex. We choose fear. We choose a controllable and manageable amount of fear. We ascribe a value to its intensity, measure our skills  against that and then face or walk away from it. Sometimes we are wrong in our assessment and we suffer the consequences.

Running Spirit Falls always get's my adrenaline pumping. It's exactly the sort of controlled fear experience I intentionally seek out in the Outdoors.

Running Spirit Falls always get's my adrenaline pumping. It's exactly the sort of controlled fear experience I intentionally seek out in the Outdoors.

This is just one interpretation of what it looks like to deliberately seek out fearful situations in the Outdoors But it is the why that holds weight. I kayak because I love to kayak. I love the contemplation, I love the scenery, I love the thrill of it. The challenge of placing myself within turbulent water and trying to move with it. And there is a healthy amount of fear and respect. The fear that comes from kayaking differs from the fear of the bear. It differs from the fear of being overwhelmed, out of control and beyond help. Yes, that can happen in kayaking, but if it does, we have chosen to be there. That choice is what makes those experiences sacred. Win or lose, that is where you wanted to be in that moment. 

But there are other fears; the fears we learn based on our life experiences. Our interactions with the world based on the bodies we inhabit, the way we speak, dress or carry ourselves. Some are simply insecurities,
Will I do well in my presentation today? I'm afraid of speaking in public.

Others are based on multiple life experiences that we each carry as individuals:

If I speak in public and don’t speak “properly”  will others make assumptions about my upbringing, my intelligence, or the color of my skin.

They only listen when I speak like them.

If I get pulled over it will be 10x worse simply because of my skin color. 

Those fears initiate the same response we seek when we challenge ourselves in the outdoors. First, the euphoric rise of adrenaline and clarity. Which is quickly followed by anxiety and dizziness as we contemplate the unknown and, finally, accomplishment. Consider a stressful social or physical challenge. Your heart races, palms may sweat, or perhaps you become hyper focused. You are sharpened, you react and rely on instinct. The fear fills you but you are in control. And the task comes to completion, in victory you celebrate. In failure you, barring injury, rue the attempt and eagerly await the next adventure. That right there is where the lines diverge. The adrenaline, the heart racing, and the activation all are the same initial insult to the psyche. The difference is the outcome. 

Contemplate a different scenario.  What if the normal fight or flight response didn't stop? What if you were always on edge, always hyper focused, constantly hyper vigilant.  A pervasive fear. What if your adventure went from bad to worse and kept spiraling downward?

Think about a time you were afraid for your life. Not a fender bender but legitimately afraid for your life. If it was for only a second, extend that second. Sit in it for a few minutes. And then try to snap back to your reality .  Go on with your day, forget it happened or better yet, accept it as normal. Now think about it what it would be like to do that for a week. A month. A year. Every day, without warning you will contemplate the end of your existence. Truly contemplate it, whether you are ready to accept it or not. How would that make you feel? Would you sit in fear of everyday or would you learn how to endure that contemplation at the very least.  Could you learn to accept it as an inevitability?

I worry about being pulled over for the same reasons that any other person worries about being pulled over. Was I speeding because I was late to get somewhere? Did I signal long enough? It is a low level and generally innocuous fear.

But in my experience there is an another level of that fear.  I’ve had enough experiences where I’m on the receiving end of an officer's projected anxiety and unconscious or subconscious, aggression. Guns unclipped, voices raised, wide eyed and twitchy. Enough experiences like that and you would start uncomfortably at the sight and sound of a police officer as well. I am hyper-sensitized to their presence. I search for police when I’m driving. I make a small mental note when I see police officers on the road or the street. How far away are they, which way are they headed or how long has he been behind me. That anxiety snowballs into self doubt and fear.

Will it be me this time?

 Even if  lights and sirens do not come on. That is because of all my experiences with police officers I’ve only really been in trouble a handful of times. I own those incidents and paid my tickets and so on. I am able to separate those instances from the others. The others being ones where I have been afraid because I know I’ve done nothing to warrant the interaction that is taking place, but there is nothing I can do about it. Instances like the one I started this article with. They are not unique. I've interacted with far fewer bears, knowingly, than I have police officers. And I've gone looking for bears, of many sorts, often enough in my adventures.

But that doesn’t sound like an omnipresent or pervasive fear does it. It could only happen if I do something to interact with the police.  An institution that is a lynch-pin of our community protective services. That I would call in a heartbeat if I needed help. But would also immediately be afraid that I would be perceived as a perpetrator when they showed up. To help me. Does that sound like a complex and pervasive fear?

To put it in perspective consider that over 25 years I’ve created an entire system of behaviors based around and upon interacting with police. All the skills I learned to navigate such a complex dance without dying were things I learned from my parents and brothers as well as from my own experiences. And a fair bit of dumb luck. These learned behaviors share a large amount of crossover with how I interact with a life threatening or injury causing challenges in the outdoors. So here in no particular order is:

A Handy Guide to Avoid  Being Eaten/Keep Bad Things From Happening to Me

Disclaimer: This guide is of the author's creation for the author's use. Always make good informed choices for yourself with the resources you have available.

  • Above all avoid interaction with said dangerous thing ("Danger" is subjective)
  • Take all steps to avoid unwanted interaction with danger
  • Don’t leave out things of interest that may attract the dangerous thing
  • Avoid stumbling unknowingly into dangerous places
  • Travel in groups
  • Make your presence known
  • Do not aggravate dangerous things
  • If you're in a dangerous situation do not escalate it
  • Do unto others as you would have them do to you
  • If confrontation is unavoidable stay in the group
  • If separated and attacked; play dead or run*
  • Cooperate. Don’t speak unnecessarily.
  • Unless it's an apex predator, then fight for your life
  • Don't run from apex predators. They will chase, catch and hurt you.

That may seem like a pretty common sense list of things to do to avoid injury or negative outcomes. But they also say, common sense isn’t so common anymore. It also takes two to tango.

So with respect to those colloquialisms most of my ideas about how to avoid negative interactions with things that might kill me are simple. They involve situational awareness and hopefully informed risk assessment aka common sense. It involves having an understanding of what you're about to interact with. But when common sense and risk avoidance fail you what can we do? How do you keep a feeling of control in the face of total fear, in the face of something you cannot overcome but have to deal with?

That's the kind of fear that makes you sick. That keeps you up at night gnawing at the edge of your psyche. Whether you are aware of it or not, it influences your every waking moment. Some of us develop a sense of humor surrounding the fear. Some suffer greatly from the side effects of maintaining that high of a stress level indefinitely. Some act out. And some of us find other fears, other challenges. Things we can control even if it takes years of practice to master. Because the ability to control the outcome is a significant part of how we prefer to experience fear in the first place. 

The lack of control, perceived or otherwise, is what separates pervasive fear from chosen fears. That lack of an off switch. We choose some fears because we can control and master them. And in turn that practice of control steels us and prepares us for enduring the fears and confrontations we cannot hope to control.

2015 camp on the Nelchina. No bears in sight, yet.

2015 camp on the Nelchina. No bears in sight, yet.