Monday, June 18, 2012

Grizzly Country: The Value of Running the Trails of Teton Valley

"Lions, and tigers, and bears! Oh my!" -Dorothy Gale, The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Anyone who has ever hiked the trails of Teton Valley is familiar with the sense of fear inspired by knowing they are walking in the land of the grizzlies. The awareness that there are creatures out there in the woods that are bigger than you, creatures that are physically capable of killing and eating you, is enough to instill within trail enthusiasts a sense of complete and utter humility. Out there, you are not top of the food chain. You become aware of your own fleshy vulnerability. The effect is almost primal. It awakens within you a long-dormant state of consciousness. It was this very brand of consciousness that early humans lived with.

Man's evolutionary history is very much tied with that of the Great Bear. Both men and grizzlies, for instance, crossed over the land bridge from Siberia to Pleistocene Alaska at about the same time in history. Archeological records suggest that man might even have traveled the same southern route into the continental United States as grizzlies. If this is true, then man's consciousness might very well have been directly shaped by coexistence with grizzlies and like creatures - the man-eaters.

I remember one run in particular: a group of us went hiking and about 50 yards up ahead, a big grizzly crossed our path. It didn't look our way. It didn't stop. It just ambled on. I was stunned. Our group stopped dead in our tracks and slowly backed away. My heart was pounding. My senses were alert like never before. I was alive, such a wonderful and terrifying feeling! In that one instance, when that grizzly crossed my path - although just briefly and without incidence - I began my fascination and obsession with the Great Bear. I bought books about the beast. I read all about bear attacks. I poured over the story of pioneer Hugh Glass and his famous encounter with a grizzly that would leave him mauled and stranded in the wilderness. And in all my research, I have come to several conclusions about the relationship between man and bear.

In Teton Valley, much is made of this relationship. The front page headlines of The Teton Valley News or even The Jackson Hole Daily are occasionally preoccupied with the latest bear attack. Almost always, the victim is to blame. Still, the authorities must decide whether to issue a death sentence for the offending bear or to relocate her (I say "her" because it usually is a female who attacks because she is protecting her young from a perceived threat). The whole thing a hotly political issue. We have all the rules in place: habituated bears are dangerous bears are dead bears. We force order and logic on a situation and relationship that is very often not governable by order or logic. Still, we don't want more people to get hurt, so some action is necessary.

But the possibility of death is always present despite governance. You can feel it out there. It's part of the allure of the trail. We live in a "civilized" world (though I sometimes wonder how true that statement is). Urbanization and the destruction of the last vestiges of wilderness have made it near impossible for everyday people like you and me to have real contact with nature and the primal elements. Most of us will never see a bear in its natural habitat because we have destroyed that possibility for ourselves. We deny ourselves that experience. This is why Teton Valley and the greater Yellowstone region is such a valuable, sacred place. It is a pocket ecosystem, a last remnant of a wild, scary, exhilarating world.

It is our link to the past and our key to understanding our place in the world. Places like Teton Valley - to the extent that they offer excellent hiking, mountain biking, skiing and running opportunities - are invaluable on a psychological level as well. The humility that is forced upon us on the trails, in the land of the grizzlies, is the very antithesis of human pride and greed, those traits that have lead to genocide, war, and death.

We should all be concerned with the preservation of such ecosystems and with the protection of grizzlies. We should hike intelligently and cautiously because, it is true that a habituated bear is a dead bear. We should cherish the mountains and trails because they remind us who we are at the very core. They remind us we are alive, truly and incredibly alive!

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