For years and years I'd wanted to visit Alaska. I was in my mid 50s when Bud, my husband and I camped at Fort Richardson's Military Base's Black Spruce Park in Alaska with Bob and Judy, another couple. Our two tents were next to a small lake surrounded by spectacular mountain peaks. The morning sun's red orb was reflected in the glassy surface of the lake. After breakfast I told Bud, “I'm going for a walk.”
“I wish you wouldn't,” he stammered looking at me quizzically.
I glanced up and said softly, “I need my daily walk. I''ll be careful.” I knew Bud would have joined me had he not been handicapped by his bad knees.
“OK” Bud sighed.
As I left I overheard Bob growl, “Are you really going to let her go. There's grizzly bear scat everywhere!”
“Bob, she has a mind of her own!” Bud said gruffly. From their raised voices I could tell they were having a lively debate.
My tiny bear bells tinkled as I continued along the rocky trail around the small lake. Fear put my senses on high alert. The air was cool, crisp and clear. It felt good. I pressed on feeling even more aware and alive. When I came to my second pile of fresh bear poop I wondered why Americans are so afraid of the natural world. Bear, shark and snake attacks don't even make National Geographic's list of the top 24 ways Americans die.*(see below to view the complete list)
I told Bud earlier when bear attacks become as common as car accidents and disease and no longer hit the papers I'll consider carrying pepper spray.
I saw no bears on my three-mile hike around the lake. I was disappointed. My desire to view a bear, moose or other animal overwhelmed my fear.
We saw our first wild grizzly bears on a bus tour in Denali Park. We were traveling on an 8-hour 64-mile wildlife bus among the tundra of Denali's Thorofare Valley. Since we're from Georgia we were shocked when the bus driver recommended we get off the bus and hike portions of the park. He said we could hop off and get on anywhere along the road. A number of people already roamed the banks of the glacial fed river across the broad flat valley. Some had backpacks and planned to spend the night. We were told the backpackers get a large bear-proof food box when they get their permit.
The passengers fell silent when we spotted a young sandy colored bear cavorting among the willows. We were wide-eyed when a couple of older bears trotted up the bank and crossed the road in front of us. They acted as if we were invisible.
Although Denali has more than a million annual visitors there have only been 23 cases of bear induced human injury since the park was opened. There has never been a human fatality caused by a bear in Denali.
Back home I continue to ponder why people are more afraid of being killed by a bear, shark, alligator, snake or other predator. Especially when the top six killers of Americans are heart disease (1 in 5), cancer (1 in 7), stroke (1-24), medical errors (1 in 10), motor vehicle accidents (1 in 84) and suicide (1 in 119).
A friend from Canada who is a professional big game hunting guide expressed concern when I said I did daily solo hikes in Alaska. He told me a number of horror stories about people being attacked and killed by bears. When I said I believed the viciousness of bears and sharks was overblown he became alarmed. We talked about Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend who were killed and eaten by a rogue bear in October 2003. Since my friend had not seen the movie “Grizzly Man” about Treadwell's life I shared what I had learned. Treadwell had studied and become a part of a family of bears each summer in Alaska for years. Another bear who bullied the others took up residence with them. It was this bear that killed Treadwell and his girlfriend.
We also discussed the CBS's 60-Minute May 25, 2010 program where Anderson Cooper interviewed Mike Rutzen a South African who studied great white sharks. Rutzen said overtime he discovered most sharks are “players.” They are basically curious, calm and relaxed. They have a nice personality, wake up on the right side of the reef and are willing to interact with him. To illustrate he threw “chum,” a mixture of bait and fish blood in the water to attract the sharks. Rutzen could tell if they were players by how they responded. When he determined all the sharks were “players” he and Cooper swam safely in the shark infested chum bloodied water without protection. Rutzen said sharks are not the man-eating killers of our nightmares. We swim with them all the time without incident. Both these stories illustrate how every species has their bullies including humankind. Sadly it's the bullies and killers that get the press.
My hunting guide friend was not convinced. Unfortunately, his and most of America's message of fear is having a major impact on how we relate to the natural world. A recent study found the average American spends 90% of their time indoors. Twenty years ago it was 80%. Most people say they don't go outdoors because it's too hot, too cold, too buggy and too dangerous. They are afraid of muderers, rapists, snakes, alligators and sharks.
If I had listened to the fears of my friends I would not have had the extraordinary experiences of backpacking alone in the Georgia mountains, hitchhiking on sailboats in the Bahamas and canoing the Everglades' 100-Mile Wilderness Waterway with a total stranger. The adventures led to the writing of my book, “Earth, the Forgotten Temple: A Spirit Quest in the Wilderness.”
I tell people, “Asking me to stop going outdoors is like asking a butterfly not to fly.” I recommend they not be fear conduits by demonizing certain animals. Yes, attacks do happen and people do get killed by animals but many more lose their lives at the hands of man. The Denali Park literature says black bears are no more dangerous than grizzly bears and the threat from any bear can be substantially reduced with proper human behavior.
Studies overwhelmingly show being in a natural environment is good for us. Our heartbeat, blood pressure, muscle tension and brain-wave activity are lower. People in hospitals who have windows overlooking greenery go home a day earlier and require less pain medication. People with pets at home recover faster after surgery. Inner city kids who live near greenery do better in school and with friends. A study by NASA looking for ways to reduce stress and boredom for astronauts showed even pictures of nature reduced stress.
Although I have a BA and MS in Psychology and was a children's therapist for 20 years I knew something was missing in Psychology. When I discovered Ecopsychology I realized what it was. We have ignored the natural world in our practice of health and healing. We would never study another species out of context of their environment—yet we have done so with humankind. In Psychology there is no mention of our emotional bond with nature or how we cannot have life, or nourishment except as it comes from the earth. The earth is a living system and humankind is an integral part of that system. We evolved in concert with all life.
I believe "love of nature" is as ordinary as "love of family." When we awaken our bond of love and loyalty to nature we begin to take care of the ourselves and the earth. Getting in touch with our larger self enables us to access an "inner compass." The wisdom of the larger self is built into all of us, waiting to be uncovered. Now when I struggle with choices I remember there is a healer who is holy and wise right at my doorstep. Her name is Mother Nature and her counsel is free.
From the revelations of Jesus in the desert to Buddha’s enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, nature remains unsurpassed in her power to transform.
Acknowledging our interconnectedness and interdependence with nature redefines "sanity" as if the whole world matters.
Next time someone you love says they are going outdoors, do them a favor, tell them to have fun. Enjoy the grizzly bears!
*National Geographic's list of the top 24 ways Americans die.
Heart disease: 1 in 5, cancer:1 in 7, stroke: 1 in 24, medical errors:1 in 10, motor vehicle accidents: 1 in 84, suicide: 1 in 119, falling: 1 in 218, firearm assault: 1 in 314, pedestrian accidents: 1 in 626, drowning 1 in 1,1008, motorcycle accidents: 1 in 1,020, fire or smoke: 1 in 1,113, bicycling accidents 1 in 4,919, air/space accidents: 1 in 5, 051, accidental firearm discharge 1 in 5,134, accidental electrocution 1 in 9,968, alcohol poisoning: 1 in 10,048, hot weather: 1 in 13,729, hornet, wasp or bee sting: 1 in 56,789, legal execution: 1 in 62, 468, lightening: 1 in 79,746, earthquake: 1 in 117,127, flood: 1 in 144,156, fireworks discharge: 1 in 340, 733.
U.S. homicides were not included in National Geographic's list. There were around 17, 050 homicides in 2009. (There are 5.5 homicides for every 100,000 Americans.) The 2010 census shows the U.S. population at 310, 230, 905.