Bear

Two weeks ago, I took a trip to Katmai National Park, a remote part of Alaska. The bush pilot dropped my husband, a guide, and me off and as he hopped on to his float plane said, "If I don't hear from you in ten days, I'll come looking for you." We were dropped off to kayak and camp in the location with the highest concentration of Grizzly Bears in the world (2000 in the last census). Risk taking comes in all forms: surfing, parachuting, cliff jumping, running a yellow light, venturing out of our comfort zone. 

I knew I was taking on certain risks with this adventure and I came to appreciate my guide's keen wilderness risk management.  Whereas the public's idea of those of us venturing into the wilderness may be to perceive it as reckless, dangerous and a disregard for safety, my guide emphasized risk management. This approach is a systematic approach to minimize exposure to risk that works to identify, analyze, evaluate, address and monitor risk.

Bear

What are the optimal precautions to take in bear country? One person out of 16,000 commits murder but only one grizzly bear out of 500,000 ever kills someone and only one black bear out of one million does. We had a guide who was trained to use a gun. We walked together on the "bear highways" which they made in the thick woods when foraging for food. We stored our food in tight containers. We called loudly so as not to surprise a bear. And we prayed that we would never come between a mother bear and her cub because we were told she could become aggressive. As we were right on the coast when we camped, the waves created white noise so you could be surprised by a chance encounter. The rustle of the tent could put me on high alert. Our guide reassured us that more people are killed by moose in Alaska than grizzly bears; grizzly bear assaults just bring more attention.

How do we think about risk and safety after the tragedy of the recent Grizzly assault on a group of teens in Alaska? Any parent who has a child on an expedition must be filled with apprehension. Yet the statistical probability of this most recent attack was as close to zero as you could get - in fact, there's never been a bear attack on a group of seven or more people - until now. Thanks to the risk management practices of their group, none of the boys were killed.

I am called to explore the wilderness because of the reinvigorating majesty of nature and solitude and the test of my strength. Each time we hear of a tragedy, we are reminded of the risks that are inherent in what we decide to do (driving to work, being in love, venturing into bear country). We need to stay aware of the challenges we may confront, be they inclement weather, aggressive animals, or drunk drivers, and recognize the hazards of our risk while managing our safety as best we can. David Ropeik, instructor at Harvard University and author of How Risky Is it, Really? says that the way we perceive and respond to risk is a mix of facts and feelings, reason and gut reaction, cognition and intuition. We all want to keep ourselves alive and constantly manage risk and do our best to keep ourselves safe. Camping with roaming grizzlies wasn't completely logical, and assessing the risk wrong could be fatal, but the reality is we make risk choices all the time. The glimpses I had from the safe distance of my kayak of grizzlies lumbering on the coastline and the heavy fur blowing in the wind reminded me that they demand respect and caution.

About the Author

Nancy Rappaport

Nancy Rappaport is associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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