“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
“Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.” – Helen Keller
In September, I was fortunate to travel out west with my husband Ken. His sister Mary was vacationing in Missoula, Montana for a month, so we started our adventure there. My husband loves going to the mountains. I am less enthusiastic. I fear driving on mountain roads without guard rails and walking on trails that overlook deep drops. Before we went, I told him, “I don’t want to be on the edge of cliffs!” And he respected that. Throughout our trip, we chose paths with lower elevations—maybe a 200-foot rise. Yes, I was within 3 feet of an edge at times, but never closer than that.
What I hadn’t reckoned with was my fear of bears. We hiked in Missoula at Rattlesnake National Recreation Area. Mary had seen a black bear there the week before. “I looked at him, he looked at me, and he walked away.” OK, I could deal with that. We, after all, had three people in our group and made more noise when we hiked. Bears would probably stay away when they heard us.
But when we got to Glacier National Parks, I started seeing these signs:
Sign at Glacier National Park
The sign says “Entering Grizzly Country” and warns hikers to carry bear spray and not hike alone. We did not have bear spray—it’s expensive and you can’t bring it home on an airplane. Also the day was breezy. Maybe I’d end up spraying myself instead of the bear. With a little persuasion, I hiked with Mary and Ken in two of these “high frequency bear” areas that first day.
Glacier National Park – Photo by Ken Ekins
But that night, I could hardly sleep, picturing myself turning a corner and surprising a grizzly. The next morning, I laid down the law, “I am NOT going in any of these high-frequency bear areas! You two can go—leave me in the car and I will happily read.”
That didn’t last long. The bear-warning signs seemed to be everywhere, even posted on short hikes along a lake. So I went in three high-frequency bear areas that next day. Mary and Ken let me take the middle spot most of the time. We figured a bear would be more likely to attack the first person or the last.
Hiking behind Mary at Glacier National Park – Photo by Ken Ekins
But I had anxiety and insomnia until we left the mountains several days later.
I don’t know what makes some of us more fearful than others. Neither Mary nor Ken was afraid of heights or bears. And my friend Julie had recently gone to Zion National Park. She climbed up a very steep path, two feet wide, with drop offs on both sides and only a chain to hold onto—and she described her trip as “very relaxing.”
We’re all different. I remember as a kid, driving with my family on mountain roads without guardrails, and my Mom covering her face with a hat. Maybe I developed my fear of heights from her anxiety during such experiences.
We all have different tolerances for fear depending on our histories, and that’s OK. But we can’t be afraid to live. I know people who are afraid to leave their homes. One friend suffers from chronic pain and seldom goes out. I asked her if she goes outside in her yard for fresh air. No, she doesn’t. An acquaintance doesn’t walk, even around the block—she is “more comfortable” at home.
We need to make our own decisions about what fears to confront and what risks to take. I did have options during the trip. I could have been more assertive and refused to enter areas with warning signs about bears. I could have insisted we buy bear spray. However, although we did see a couple of bears from the safety of our car, we never did see any bears as we hiked.
I am not recommending anyone take life-threatening risks. That is not a healthy way to live. But Glacier National Park says this, “Just to keep things in perspective, bear encounters are very rare. Consider that roughly two million people visit Glacier each year, and more than one million venture into the back country. On average, there are only one or two non-lethal bear incidents in a given year. And there have only been 10 bear related fatalities in the history of the park. Only three of those fatalities involved hikers, and at least two of those were solo hikers.” The risk I took was slight.
I am glad I confronted my fears and hiked in the beautiful parks out west. If I had given in to my fears, I would have missed seeing stunning scenery and experiencing fun times with Ken and his sister.
Bison in front of Old Faithful Geyser, Yellowstone National Park – photo by Ken Ekins
What are you afraid of? Are your fears reasonable? Have you faced any fears recently?