You Are In Bear Country

A few weeks ago, I went for a ride with some people whose job it was to manage bear jams.

What, you’re asking, is a bear jam?

It’s a traffic jam caused by bears.

This, of course, could only take place in a wild place, and this wild place happened to be in Banff National Park, home to about 40 black bears, and 70 grizzlies. It also happens to have the Trans-Canada Highway pass through it, and more than half a million tourists a month in the summer, which creates the perfect conditions for bear jams.

Picture it. You’re driving through the beautiful mountain landscape, on vacation for a few weeks to see some wilderness, and you round a corner, or come over the crest of a hill and there’s a big bear by the side of the road, head down, rooting around for some food. A bear!

You hit the brakes, stop to get a closer look. Of course you do. How often, after all, do you get to see a bear? This is precisely why you came here.

As scary as bears are, as dangerous as we all know (from a very early age) they can be, it’s hard to resist wanting to get as close as possible. It really is.

We saw a bear on the day I went out with the bear jam managers. He ambled across the road and into the forest behind a picnic area, where a dozen or so people were munching away on their lunches, completely unaware.

And I did not envy the bear jam people. They had to let the picnickers know that the bear was around, but as soon as they did, everyone wanted to see the bear and take a picture of it.

The bear jam supervisor remained calm, and made sure everyone else remained calm, that no one got too close, but afterward she told me that in the past couple of years people have become more aggressive about getting closer to take pictures of bears. She suspects it has something to do with Facebook and Twitter, that it’s more important for people to take the photos to post on their social networking websites than it is to consider what a bear could do to you if it wanted to, and how close is too close.

Now, I generally think we humans are smarter than we often give away, but this one let me down a bit. I also think we have a built-in instinct, that we generally know when we’re doing something that puts our lives at risk. OK, sometimes we listen to it, and sometimes we tune it out a bit and escape by the skin of our teeth. But it’s when we don’t realize the instinct is there that we get into real trouble. And no amount of Facebooking or tweeting will help.