Walking With Bears

I just spent a week in Glacier National Park, Montana. It is a rugged and beautiful land with towering mountain peaks thrusting from pine covered glacial valleys that follow crystal clear streams to pristine mountain lakes. The weather was perfect, getting pleasantly cold at night while the days were warm in the valleys and chilly on the mountains. I was with a group of men I am privileged to call my brothers, and we talked and watched sunrises and sunsets and ate great food. We also hiked in the forest and along the ridges with access to some of the most breathtaking views in North America—in bear country.

In North America, there are about 55,000 grizzly bears (Ursus Arctos Horribilis—yes, the Latin word for horrible is part of their name), also known as the North American brown bear or simply grizzly. Approximately 1,500 of these bears are in the United States, with more than half of those residing in Montana. Grizzly bears are notoriously bad tempered. Bears kill a few people per year on average, compared to more than a dozen people killed per year by dogs. However, interactions between humans and bears are rarer and turn deadly far more easily.

When we entered the back country last week and started hiking the trails along the streams and lakes, we were entering the home of grizzly bears. They are the dominant species in that space. As we hiked, we intentionally made plenty of noise to avoid surprising a bear, and we carried bear spray in case we did encounter one.

When you hike where there are bears, you carry yourself differently. It changes how you walk and how you perceive the space you are in. You act from a defensive position because you know that an interaction with a bear could end very badly for you.

Two of the men on the trip were black. As we talked in the evenings, I was deeply saddened to hear about the ways they must purposefully carry themselves to avoid creating situations and interactions that can become harmful to them and the people they care about. I was shocked to hear about them being called vulgar names from passing cars, being harassed and not believed by the police while gardening in their own front yard, and even their practice of intentionally smiling all the time so they appear less threatening. I cried as I listened to an expectant father tell us how he would have to tell his child the same stories and cautions his mother told him.

When you are not safe in the society where you live and work, you carry yourself differently. It changes how you walk and how you perceive the space you are in. You act from a defensive position, because you know that an interaction might end very badly for you.

For these men, walking through our society is like walking through the woods where the bears live. It is dangerous, and they must be careful and carry themselves differently to avoid being harmed or even killed. This reality changes the way they live. The difference is, they are not choosing to go into the wilderness and potentially encounter wild animals. They are simply going about their lives, working, raising families, being part of communities. However, for them, each day carries the potential for danger and harm from other human beings.

I cannot think of words that adequately describe how wrong this is. Like the grizzly bear, Ursus Arctos Horribilis, horrible must certainly be part of its name. I cannot imagine how tired the people affected by this reality must be of all the ways the conversations we need to have keep getting hijacked by politics and other agendas. I cannot imagine how heartbreaking it is for day after day, week after week, and year after year to go by with no real change in the environment.

When people believe that everyone is intrinsically and equally valuable, they work to make everyone feel safe and cared for. Walking through our communities should not be like walking with bears for anyone.

Here is an interesting fact: bears have never attacked a group of seven or more people. There is strength in unity. If we stand together, we can create a society where every person is safe.

That is what is right.

That is what is good.

That is what generations to come deserve.

That is The Kimray Way.