The World Is Not Dangerous. So Why Are We Afraid?

“Ben.”

I lay on my back, staring upwards into blackness. Water dripped steadily from the heavy branches above, pounding repetitively on the fly sheet of my new 1-man tent, invisible and paper-thin. The shelter felt small. Inadequate.

“BEN!!!”

A brief pause. Some muffled movement from his pitch a few metres behind my head. Then, groggily:

“What?”

“There’s a bear outside.”

Bear baiting at Lake Quinault

One of the most popular articles on this site is a beginner’s guide to wild camping, which receives thousands of visits each month via search engines and sites like StumbleUpon. “No animal will come to you looking for a fight,” I wrote, “because random aggression hasn’t generally been an evolutionarily stable strategy.”

CLANG!!!

The hollow metallic sound — which could be nothing but my new ultralight cooking pot being tossed down a rocky bank — echoed across the small clearing where we’d made camp for the night. It was the second day of riding; the second 60-mile day of endless evergreen timber plantations masquerading as forests, of log-laden juggernauts and lumberjacks in huge empty pickup trucks and silence and drizzle. And we’d camped within one of the remaining islands of untouched habitat that comprised the Olympic National Forest in the far north west of Washington State. After a long day in the saddle, we’d been hoping for a good night’s sleep.

But now in the depths of night I was wired, every fibre of my being alert yet motionless, ready to spring into action. All was silent, and, unable to exist in ignorance, I grabbed the headtorch and zipped open the tent door and shone the weak beam through the falling rain in a long horizontal arc, until I spotted what I’d been expecting to find — two glittering eyes on a pitch black backdrop.

The eyes stared at me for an instant. Then the animal raised its head.

“Ben. There’s a fucking bear outside, and it’s stolen my cooking pot.”

I continued to give Ben a running commentary, assuming that the more noise I could make the better, while the poor lad, whacked from spending his first two full days of riding ploughing through silent wilderness and tree farms, merely grunted tiredly in response, obviously far more interested in going back to sleep than in the presence of a wild animal with teeth.

Was this fear? Of course it was. When we sense danger and we don’t know what to do, we panic, freeze up, run, fight, or a combination thereof. Our hearts pound, adrenaline fires along the limbs.

I sensed all of this happening to me, in that instant. And with a weird duality, I also saw its absurdity. I’d been in too many situations to seriously entertain the notion that this was a dangerous one. While my animal instincts conjured up images of a primal stand-off, a fight to the death, of sprinting half-naked through the rain with a monster on my tail, my rational mind sat back and laughed. It was nothing but a nosy little black bear rooting through our rubbish bag. I might as well make a mental note to string my food and trash bags up a tree next time and go back to sleep!

Tent zipped up again to avoid a mosquito invasion, I lay back down and waited. A few minutes passed. Then a thunder of footfalls towards me, a rustle of plastic, and silence. The trash bag, clearly, had just been disembowelled. Again I wondered what had happened to the cooking pot that I’d heard rolling down the bank and into Lake Quinault. It was a lovely new model from MSR. I’d only used it twice. What a waste!

There’s no getting away from fear, the most basic of survival instincts. It’s something to be acknowledged and treated with respect, for it’s the very thing that prolonged us for millions of evolutionary steps and ultimately allows us to exist today.

But it’s also important to put fear into perspective. Almost all natural threats to human life have been eradicated, and the world has never been a safer or more peaceful place, yet far too many otherwise well-educated people go through life with a warped sense of what they should and shouldn’t be afraid of.

And we are unfortunate enough to live in a world where fear is now used as a sales tool, where mainstream media outlets compete to sell us what looks deceptively like information but in fact provides us with little more than prejudice and paranoia.

This has been especially apparent in recent weeks, during which I’ve been screening Janapar to a broad spread of people, watching their reactions to the situations depicted in the film, and answering the questions that follow. Unfortunately it seems to be very difficult to meaningfully teach the lessons of the road, and I’m beginning to think that the best thing anyone in my kind of position can do is encourage people wholeheartedly to experiment and to gain that experience themselves, as Ben is now doing. What kind of a world that might lead to is anyone’s guess, but it seems to make more sense than sitting back and keeping it all to myself.

Drizzly morning at Lake Quinault

I lay awake in my tent for another hour, observing my imagination effortlessly warping the sound of sloshing waves into wading bear-legs and twisting the patter of water droplets on leaf litter into twigs cracking under big bear feet. And I was glad that the animal had paid its visit, for the lesson itself, for its confirmation of my wild-camping precepts, and for the sense of perspective it had offered some of my remaining fears.

My U.S. Pacific Coast ride is kindly supported by Kona Bikes, Cascade Designs and Schwalbe. Read more about the gear they’ve supplied.

15 Responses to “The World Is Not Dangerous. So Why Are We Afraid?”

  1. Adrineh

    You mean you didn’t string your food and trash bags up a tree?! Oh, Tom, I do that when I go camping and I’m still afraid — and being confronted by a bear is by far my biggest fear when I go camping. Nevertheless, I love following along on your travels, especially this time when you are in an environment that’s so near and dear to me :)

    Reply
  2. Stephen Chapman

    Good job you didn’t keep any food in your tent. That might have been a different story.

    Reply
    • Tom

      Or no story at all…

      Luckily I learned not to keep food in my tent a very long time ago!

      Reply
      • Stephen Chapman

        I guess the world is not so dangerous, as long as we’ve already learnt (and applied) a few important lessons. Shame about the pot.

        Reply
  3. Amaya

    Now, Tom, I whole-heartedly agree that the world has never been safer. That’s an undeniable fact.

    But BEARS! Even cute little black ones…those creatures you don’t want to mess with. In some parts of Canada you can even be FINED for leaving out food or cooking gear.

    Get yourself a can of powerful bear spray (which I’m sure you will never have to use) and stay safe!

    Reply
  4. Tim Moss

    With so much at stake Tom, your glib and frivolous tone hardly seems appropriate. I mean, it sounds like that pan was TITANIUM.

    Reply
  5. Justin + Emma

    I agree with Tim please let us know the status of the pot. Was it salvageable and even better does it now have any bear shaped tooth imprints?

    Reply
  6. Tim Moss

    Or, if said pot was not located and may still be out there, what is it’s approximate monetary re-sale value and is it worth me flying over there with a metal detector to invoke salvage rights?

    Reply
  7. Tom

    You guys are hilarious :)

    Come back next week to find out what happened to the pot…!

    Reply
  8. Tiago

    Shame about the pot? Tom, I wish you the best for your trip. But your irresponsible behaviour probably cost that bear’s life. Most bears that are fed on human food or rubbish end up having to be put down. Bears are really smart, and this one will now hunt down for human tents, as it can find food there.

    Hang your food well away from the ground and tree branches, or use a bear canister. And also, cook away from your tent to dissipate the odours. Talking to the bear and making noise in general is a good idea. Most bear attacks occur when the bear is surprised by humans, and if they hear you they generally keep out. Forget about the bear spray, common sense will do much better. As these are black bears, never run away from them, stand your ground, make noise and if necessary, fight. Most of the bears picking up fights will be young males that just want to scare you off.

    As a California resident, I should remind you that black and brown bears are common, especially in the Sierra Nevada and in the northern regions, so it is not a matter of you being on an ‘untouched habitat’. In Yosemite you’d be fined for leaving food out.

    Reply
    • Tom

      Hi Tiago, thanks for the comment. I’ve never travelled in a part of the world where bears are a common occurrence before. Even so, I knew well the measures for camping in bear country and was prepared to employ them if need be. I simply wasn’t aware that bears hung out in state campgrounds on the Washington coast — we’d pitched in one that was closed for winter, with the locals’ permission, and nobody mentioned them. Needless to say we’ve hung our food and trash every night since and will continue to do so in the spirit of responsible camping.

      Reply
  9. Wim & Tine

    Another quote: “And humans don’t roam the fields and forests at night brandishing lethal weapons.”

    We totally agreed till last night on our wild camping spot in western Turkey: at midnight we were awoken by the sound of voices (very close to the tent), rocket flares, gunshots and to make the suspense complete automatic riffles. Without realizing we probably ended up in an area where the army held a night exercise. Nobody saw us in our green tent, nothing happened but we didn’t have a good night sleep and left at 5.30 in the morning with the launch of new rocket flares.

    Reply
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