Being Prepared in the woods
I’m not alarmist but I would say that under certain circumstances I may have a tendency to be somewhat cautious. Especially when it comes to matters involving personal safety. Even as a kid and young adult I was never one to throw caution to the wind. Suffice it to say I missed Nike’s memo urging us to “just do it” and I’m certainly not going to start doing it now (takes way too long to heal). I definitely give the matter of “potential” threats to my well-being some serious consideration and one such potential threat facing some or even many of us when we participate in our favorite outdoor activities is aggressive wildlife. Be it bears, mountain lions, a cow moose with a calf or—even less likely—the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog, the threats are potential.
This blog entry isn’t a call for everyone to arm themselves with a gun, knife and/or bear spray when venturing outside into the woods. Nor is this intended to start a debate about one form being more effective than another, or whether we should even carry any form of defensive device: there is plenty of debate to be found elsewhere on that matter. The point of today’s blog is to offer some potentially helpful information if you’ve already thought about it and made the decision to carry one or more forms of the aforementioned defensive items.
In addition to not being an alarmist, I am also far from being a fanatic survivalist. If anything, perhaps I have a slight tendency to (sometimes) go a little bit overboard on matters of preparedness (though not excessively). I can’t help myself: I
was am an Eagle Scout (1976), and the Scout’s Motto has always stuck with me: Be Prepared. My time in the Scouts introduced me to a love of camping, hiking, backpacking and generally being out in the woods. It’s what appeals to me about fly fishing, and my favorite places to wet a line are in the backcountry, or at least as far from human activity as can be managed at the time.
Last Spring I began exploring a local area that has a network of trails used for hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking. Considered part of the Cascade foothills, nearly 400 acres of this area is owned by King County Parks and butts up to vast expanses of private timber land, and not much else. A local river runs through this remote area, and for some time I’d wanted to find a means of accessing the river there. A fair bit of Internet sleuthing uncovered a route to a section of the river, and upon my first visit one thing became obvious: while it’s no secret honey hole, neither is it frequented by humans. Only a 6 mile drive to the trailhead from my home, to get to this particular spot on the river requires a two-ish mile hike or bike (or a combination of the two) on trails that grow increasingly less traveled the farther one goes. Once at the river, it feels very remote. Very lonely. Kinda perfect. I hoped the catching might be good due to a lack of angling pressure (thus far that hasn’t proven to be the case, unfortunately).
Despite the relative closeness to human inhabitation this area is prime wildlife country. Deer are plentiful and where there are deer there are other critters that eat deer. Bears don’t typically hunt deer, though they will feed on a carcass, but cougars (mountain lions) are a different story: they’re predators of the deer-hunting kind. It’s not too common, but neither is it altogether unusual to see a bear
shit in the woods. It’s even less likely that you’ll see a mountain lion. In fact most people never see one in their lifetime, which is not to say these same people haven’t been seen by mountain lions. They are there, and not always deep in the woods. It’s roughly estimated that Washington state has a population of 2,100 mountain lions. Approximately 46% of the land area in the state is considered to be cougar habitat. The Cascade foothills is undeniably cougar country. My home and many of the areas I enjoy recreating are within this region, but I’ve never seen a mountain lion in the wild.
In May of this year two people from Seattle were riding their bikes on gravel forest roads near North Bend, WA (about 25 miles from my home). Tragedy struck when the cyclists were attacked by a mountain lion. One of the bikers was killed; the other escaped with injuries and was able to call 911. Even if you’re not from the state of Washington you likely heard about the incident as there was no shortage of news coverage. Do a quick search for Washington mountain lion attack and you’ll discover myriad news stories about the incident. Here is one article that discusses the attack and raises some interesting speculation as to why it may have occurred. The devastating incident was big news because it was the first fatal cougar attack in Washington in more than 90 years. According to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) there have been only 20 recorded cases of mountain lion/human contact where injuries of any kind were sustained. The odds are highly in your favor that you will never encounter a mountain lion, let alone one that acts aggressively toward you. The chances of being killed by a mountain lion are so slim that it’s not something most people ever considered a remote possibility. Until last May.
The May 18 attack shocked a lot of people who typically venture into the woods to recreate. It struck fear into many who hike and bike in the general vicinity of the incident. It got a lot of people thinking about their safety, and outdoor forums were abuzz with discussions of the attack in particular, and mountain lion threats in general. On a mountain biking forum which is focused on one particular area that I’ve ridden several times in recent months, talk of the attack had people describing non-aggressive encounters and sightings that they’d had on trails. I was surprised at how many people had actually seen cougars here. The attack definitely got me pondering the potential threats that lurk in the outdoor areas where I enjoy playing. Just this past September Jimmy and I were riding our bikes up an access road toward an area of trails we’ve many times ridden since. As we pedaled up the road a log truck approached and came to a stop. The driver jumped down from the cab and informed us that the logging crew had seen a “300 pound cat” observing them just up the road where they were cutting (and where we would be riding past). While mountain lions don’t get that big, I don’t doubt that it was a big cat. We never saw the lion, but it served as a reminder that they are there.
I’ve carried bear spray in Yellowstone, British Columbia and remote Idaho, but never gave it much thought elsewhere closer to home. Following the fatality last Spring I began carrying a canister of bear spray with me when I ventured out to the remote section of the local river (which is only about 12 miles by way of the crow from where the May 2018 attack occurred).
On one occasion in June of this year I was standing near the bank of the river when a bear emerged from the brush 80 yards below me and proceeded to cross the river. Another bear followed fairly close behind. The first was fairly small, likely a yearling cub. The second bear was much larger, and wearing a radio collar. Probably the mother. Why was she wearing a collar? Had she caused previous problems? What sort of problems? Yes, my mind went there pretty quickly.
Clutching my trusty 3 weight in one hand, with the other I slowly removed the bear spray from the holster on my hip and removed the safety tab. I watched and waited as the bears nonchalantly made their way across the river and up the steep hillside before vanishing into the woods (in the same direction I would be going on my return trip). Fortunately their poor eyesight failed them and the wind was in my favor so they never detected me. Chances are they would have been in a greater hurry to leave had they been aware of my presence.
When we in the western states think of dangerous bears, most often grizzlies come to mind. We don’t have grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) here in western WA, and the black bears (Ursus americanus) are not typically known to be aggressive toward humans (Homo sapiens). However, though very rare, there have been documented cases of black bear attacks in Washington, some fairly recent. As I climbed the steep trail back to where I’d stashed my bike, I made plenty of noise so as to avoid a surprise encounter on the trail with the two bruins. As I rode the trail out, my Timber Bell jingled all the way. Was I worried? Not terribly so. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a tad relieved when I arrived back at the trailhead without having seen a single critter.
Except for when they’re raiding neighborhood garbage cans at night, or backyard bird feeders, black bears tend to avoid humans. Most wild animals do, but that doesn’t mean we should be complacent when we’re in their world. And the line between our world and theirs is being blurred as suburban sprawl pushes further into their territory. More and more people recreate outdoors as well, and as we continue to encroach (even temporarily) on their habitat, wildlife begin to get more comfortable in the presence of human activity. Ten years ago I caught a brief glimpse a black bear that had been hanging around our home for several days, no doubt foraging on late summer berries. The next day I got a good look at the bear, and it got a good look at me. Apparently the bear didn’t like what it saw because it quickly turned on its heels and darted into the woods. I never saw it again, though neighbors did report seeing what was likely the same bear. It was a healthy adult, appeared to be rather well fed. That year I picked blackberries elsewhere.
Back to the more recent day on the local river: it felt reassuring to have the bear spray with me and I was glad I didn’t have to use it. And I’m particularly glad I didn’t encounter the bears while riding the trail, with my bear spray strapped to the handlebars. This got me to thinking that there had to be a better means of carrying a canister of spray while riding my bike.
Turning to the Internet I soon learned that carrying bear spray on a bike requires some careful consideration. One could strap it to the handlebars, as I had done, or keep it in a frame-mounted bag, or use a “Bear Cozy” in the water bottle cage. But what if you were to fall or get knocked off your bike? In this instance the bear spray becomes inaccessible, and bear spray isn’t much use if you can’t get to it in a couple of seconds. The rapid deployment rule means that carrying it in your backpack isn’t a viable option, either. Having it on your person is the only way that truly makes sense, with this important caveat: if the spray is strapped to your hip, you risk injuring yourself on the canister in the event of a fall. Considering these points, I delved further into the great Internet Abyss before arriving at what I found is perhaps the most effective, safest means of carrying bear spray: a chest pack.
I first learned of Hill People Gear while perusing discussions on a mountain bike forum. Among other things, the company makes a series of what they refer to as “Kit Bags”. These chest packs come in a variety of sizes and configurations that are designed specifically with carrying a handgun in mind. The people behind Hill People Gear are avid outdoors folk and it’s no coincidence that their kit bags are perfectly suited to mountain biking applications. The bags seemed to make a lot of sense, so I ordered up their V2 Original Kit Bag SAR (Search and Rescue) Version. What I like about the pack is that it has loops, or more technically correct, PALS (Pouch Attachment Ladder System), on the bottom of the bag—seemingly a perfect place to attach a canister of bear spray. The bag also has diagonal PALS webbing down the front, to which Search and Rescue personnel would typically attach a radio. A survival knife with the proper MOLLE (Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment) strap can also be attached here. I could have attached the bear spray holster to the front of the pack but I wanted to keep the profile as slim as possible.
Next I had to find the right bear spray holster to use with the Hill People Gear pack, so once again down the rabbit hole of the Internet I went. FHF Gear makes exactly what I was looking for: an Expandable Bear Spray Holster. It’s perfect because it is MOLLE-equipped and will accommodate a variety of different sized canisters of spray (I carry a 10.2 ounce can of Counter Assault). Mrs. UA was quick to point out that the blaze orange holster clashes with the bright red of the kit bag, but that’s just something I’ll have to live with. Besides, there’s another motto worthy of consideration: Be safe, be seen.
When loaded, the kit bag is comfortable, though admittedly not as comfortable as, say, not wearing it at all. Worn while riding my bike, it doesn’t impede pedaling and most of the time I hardly notice that it’s there. The harness is breathable and it’s easy to put on and remove. Proper adjustment of the straps is important (and easy) so that the bag doesn’t ride too low or flap loosely against your chest. There are three spacious pockets capable of holding a wallet, phone, snack bars, a knife, multi-tool, whatever. The main (rear) pocket is padded and intended specifically for carrying a handgun. If that interests you, the Hill People Gear website lists which handguns will fit in each of their packs. While it’s a great setup for biking, the kit bag also makes for a nearly perfect chest pack when walking and wading a river. In addition to the other items mentioned, a couple of fly boxes fit nicely and are easily accessed without having to dig into a backpack or sling pack. After all, when there’s a hatch coming off you want to deploy the right fly quickly.
So there you have it. Be prepared when you venture into the woods. Whether you’re hiking, biking or fishing it’s also a good idea to do so with someone else although admittedly many of us enjoy solo excursions from time to time. Make sure that whatever you are carrying for defensive protection is done so in a safe manner that is efficiently accessed should you ever need it. The odds of a dangerous wildlife encounter may be astronomically low, but statistics mean nothing when it happens to you.
Have fun out there, and be smart.
Just do it. Be prepared.
Disclaimer: I did not receive any of the products from Hill People Gear or FHF Gear or Counter Assault for the purposes of a gear review. Purchasing these items was my own decision and full retail was paid. I was just another internet order; these companies don’t even know who I am or that I am writing this blog.