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[Essay] Don Quixote’s Bear Spray

By Sean Stiny


A hiker strolled past us with a baby on his back and a Glock strapped to his chest. We feigned nonchalance, gave a trail “Howdy!”, and continued up the mountainside. I suppose he was going to some sort of wilderness battle, making a stopover at the nursery school first. A peaceful spring hike along a fast-moving brook. Better lock and load.


Others trundled past us in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana with red cannisters adorned to their REI packs, all of them placed strategically for quick draw, as if they were a functional deterrent and not plainly a chic hiking accessory.


Bear spray. For when Ursus arctos (brown bear and grizzly) comes barreling down and you have approximately six seconds to fumble out the can, flip the plastic safety off, and carpet bomb him back to the high country with a concentrate of mace so powerful it’ll melt the bark off a pine (and bowl yourself over from the blowback).


The jutted peaks of the Bitterroots cleaved the sky as we approached the ridge, the valley floor awash in sodden foliage. With each hike into the backwoods I’m suddenly a steep cliff sommelier, wanting for every promontory and high alpine lake, sussing out the lesser known granite formations and lowland streams. Everything in its right place back there in the highland, placid and unsullied. Except, of course, the double and triple bursts of rifle fire reverberating onto the trails from the back-forty far below. No matter, the black rifle reports don’t deter the curiosity of three red fox kits who dart and stare and cock their heads at us.


Minutes after we passed the Glocked hiker with child, the gray lacquer sky opened up after threatening a tempest all morning. We hastened our gait and double-timed it to the overlook just as a thunderbolt hit somewhere further up the ridgeline. We gawked from atop the canyon, a few photos between the waves of rainfall, then another crack of thunder. We threw a look back and forth that said, “better get a move on,” and did just that down to the trailhead and back to our rental hatchback.



Bear spray can do many things: eradicate a patch of weeds (it’s an EPA approved pesticide after all), touch up some chipped paint on your red eaves, ward off a racoon threatening your Dinty Moore, and spice up your pizza. It can ease your mind in bear country, though the threat is hardly from the bears and largely from oneself while armed with a cayenne cannon.


Some of the most popular Montana trails (the dazzling ones in Glacier) have entire cavalries of hikers ready to exert the force of a thousand habanero peppers on the native grizzlies. I pity the griz who tempts a trail crossing on a Saturday morning there in June. Some western parks, like Yosemite, prohibit spray, surely so that hapless amblers aren’t macing each other on accident throughout the summer.


Nor is this temperament limited to bears. When a mountain lion on the edge of a mixed forest suburb swipes a trifling dog for an evening snack, we want him and his cohorts killed with extreme prejudice. If they’d allow it, we’d stick his head on a pike and pay the HOA fee for using an unauthorized pike.


The mountains in the Bitterroot fold over one another like an alpine accordion. The crows ride updrafts and caw across the canyon to their mates. And somewhere out there a young griz perks her nose at the scent that radiates from us. The air is sharp, the boot crunch melodic, and our senses taut and on-point.


Hiking with bear spray is not unlike battling windmills with Don Quixote. His are imaginary, giants he believes. Our notion of bears is similar, imagined beasts ready to scrape and maul and devour at every twist of the trail, as though every meadow holds a cubbed mother, every scabrous hillside a cantankerous male, all thirsting for blood. We load up with multiple cannisters and nary a bear is ever seen. Instead, the trigger gets caught on our pack or a wayside Douglas fir branch, or we fiddle with it while waiting for the park shuttle after a tiresome day of wandering and use the can on ourselves.


George Washington Hayduke, er, Doug Peacock, recently said, "What you don't know you tend to fear, and you hate what you fear." So, we decimated them over the last century, our rivals, the bears and wolves and lions. Their cunning and canines approach us on the food chain so we must cull and collar them to our control. And spice their eyes with an easy-to-carry delivery system if they get too close on the trail. But these brutes are no myth like Quixote’s windmills, like portrayed in recent Montana soap opera. They live and die in the Bitterroots. They maim and kill their mostly huckleberry prey, as their numbers dwindle and our fear of them persists.


And still, we decimate them with a .30-06 or by warming their planet and the scant few places they have left. Even the diminutive whitebark pine nuts they so rely on to fatten up before winter slumber are under extreme duress. Now, surely these critters can’t be more afraid of us, because we’ve become terrified of them. So point and spray and empty your cannister, Don Quixote. Bombard the darkened forest you have entered and its seedy figures who threaten your walk.


On the final descent to the trailhead, we hurdle lodgepole pine that bisect the trail, blowdowns from recent gusts. We stumble into our small rental, flip the heater on blast, grab a pair of dry socks, and unseal a bag of jerky. The return from these wilds to my lifeless nine-to-five is a swift punch to the gut. Traipsing all day to buttes and creeks and overlooks makes responding to vapid emails a task worthy an asylum.


There are many tales of Montana and of its bears, who succumb to the cold, to their starving bellies, to a broken leg, a fall through the ice, a cold snap that catches them on the move and vulnerable to the sub-freezing mercury, a sliver of chance that their young make it to spring runoff. There are other stories of flyfishing and mining, brotheled women and open skies. But the land and critters and big sky are no myth, no television soap opera. They face true peril in the wilderness, unlike our imagined sort.


Don Quixote tilted at windmills, fighting what he thought were giants. “Take care, sir,” hollered his ardent squire Sancho Panza. “Those over there are not giants but windmills. Those things that seem to be their arms are sails which, when they are whirled around by the wind, turn the millstone.” The brown bears are not blood lechering beasts worthy of fear, but dwellers of these ranges which, when witnessed in the wild, turn the stone of reverence.


A scant time ago we armed ourselves with arms (biceps, elbows, forearms) and made ourselves big to bewilder brown bear back to the steeps and ravines. But in the recent evolutionary record of out-of-doors Homo sapien, fear distilled and trail weaponry emerged. The jump from Homo hiker to Homo handgun took place, from back country pacifist to DEFCON 1. What was flailing our arms and shouting is now a battery of paprika artillery, perhaps a firearm holstered to the chest. So go ahead Don Quixote, fight those windmills if it makes you feel like the conqueror. The bears will think you mad and rightfully keep their distance.


Sean Stiny’s work can be found in various publications including Catamaran, LA Review, and Grit Magazine.


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