Archive for February, 2016

To Fear or Not to Fear. . . That is the Question

Grizz and WhelenGrizz and Whelen


Something caused Miss Nancy to look up from our supper preparations.

“That’s a bear,”  she said. A moment passed for her to focus on the beast with the shoulder hump before she followed up with more vigor, “That’s a fucking bear!”

All eyes followed her gaze to the silver-backed  grizzly that was ambling towards our camp.

Our party of six canoeists was descending the remote Wind River in Canada’s Yukon Territory. We had made camp at the base of a long steep ridge that ran parallel to the river.

The moment we saw the bear, our fight-or-flight response kicked in. The amygdala, that almond-sized feature deep in the center of our brain, signaled the threat. This ancient part of our brain creates instant responses — sometimes good, sometimes bad.

In this case our prefrontal cortex vetoed the amygdala’s first response: to flee. The prefrontal cortex is located directly behind our forehead. It is the planning center where decision-making and mental processes take place. Unlike the primitive character of the amygdala, this forefront of the brain is a relatively late feature in the evolution of  humans. These two brain loci often wrestle with each other, sometimes causing delays or a poor decision. Ill decisions can result in serious injuries or death.

We knew that you never run from a grizzly bear. Our flight might trigger an attack. Knowing that, all of us merged together resembling a twelve-legged oddity.We picked up a nearby bear spray and realized that the other two cans were in the tents, some fifty yards away. So like a moving football huddle we slowly shuffled towards the tents and recovered the other two cans of high-octane pepper spray.

By this time, the bear was thirty yards from us. Nothing about the bear’s body language appeared threatening. . .yet.

Luckily for us and perhaps for the bear, a gust of wind caught a loosened corner of our tarp lean-to. It cracked loudly, like someone snapping a towel at the bear’s derrière. The sound sent the bear running.

For hours afterwards, we all experienced a welcome blend of feelings. There was a rush of pleasure tempered with a splash of nervous giddiness and sweet horror.

As I worked on writing the four regional editions of Things that Bite: A Realistic Look at Critters that Scare People, it became clear to me that we humans often wallow in unfounded fears.

While bear attacks on humans make the front page of newspapers across the continent, bees and wasps are responsible for far more deaths per year than bears. Their stings can trigger anaphylactic shock and potential death in approximately 2% of our population. Yet have you ever seen a front page story about a bee attack?

And now, as if bees and  bears  aren’t enough, we are fed daily doses of fear from the media. We are supposed to think that disease carrying mosquitoes and shadowy terrorists are lurking right outside our door. As a result we become paralyzed instead of exercising critical thinking skills in our brain’s prefrontal cortex.

I recently saw a clever photo of a sign that was altered by changing one letter.  It said, “Please Don’t Feed the Fears.”  I wish all media outlets would post that sign in every journalist’s cubicle.


The reality is that while you are enjoying a summer parade you are statistically more likely to be killed by a lightning strike than by a terrorist, bee sting or a bear attack.

So get outside, take a deep breath, embrace your lightning quick amygdala and exercise your prefrontal cortex.

Embracing Winter


Perhaps it’s my Nordic lineage that requires frequent doses of frigid temperatures and crystalline landscapes of white and deep snow. In my opinion this winter has been tainted with unseasonable warm weather and too little snow. It looks like General Winter has been outflanked by the tag team efforts of El Niño and Climate Change. One descriptor I would use to describe the last few months  is, well, feeble.

Yet, in the few days when  air temps have actually dropped, barely, below zero, it has been embarrassing to hear television news and weather folks feed the “wimpifying” of society. Listening to them you would expect that the impending weather might cause social collapse. Sadly, folks eat it up. Social networking conversations and grocery store and coffee shop banter often lean timidly towards the doomsday forecast. It’s pathetic that a simple forecast can lead to such trembling and hunkering down indoors.

We in the Midwest used to take pride in our stoic view of winter. Bud Grant wouldn’t be caught dead in a stocking cap and his team of Vikings would take to the football field in bitter temps with no sideline heaters. School girls  wore slacks under their dresses when going to school, took them off in the restroom and then put them on for their walk or bus ride home. And I’ll bet there were far more tongues stuck on metal playground equipment when kids played outside, regardless of the temps. More and more we are divorcing ourselves from winter’s  embrace.

Deep cold reminds me that I am very much alive. The squeak of sharp-edged snow crystals grating against each other as I walk out to fetch kindling. The burn of frigid air being drawn into my lungs. The sting of thawing fingers.

The week after Christmas we hosted our dear Canadian friends Beth and Dieter, visiting from their remote Yukon cabin located 25 miles north of the nearest road. Their roadway is the Yukon River. During the summer months they fetch supplies and mail from Dawson in their 19-foot Grumman square stern canoe powered with a small outboard motor.

During the winter, without a snow machine or a dog team, they snowshoe, ski or hike to get around. Dog mushers occasionally pass their home while running on the Yukon River to Eagle, Alaska.  One winter, when Beth had some health issues, Dieter scribbled “Help” on a piece of cardboard and placed it along the dog mushing trail. Within a day or so a musher came by and carried Beth into the medical clinic in Dawson.

Like most Canadians, they are unpretentious, polite and refreshingly understated. After finishing supper the discussion came around to Beth’s work as a fibre-artist. She occasionally flies across the Canadian Arctic, particularly to remote villages to teach her skills to others. She shared how a year ago she walked on the frozen Yukon River into Dawson to catch a flight the following day. Remember, it’s 25 miles to Dawson and winter days that far north are brief. As an afterthought she shared, “It was pretty cold.”

I asked, “How cold?”

Very matter-of-factly, she answered, “Minus 40.”

“Yikes!” was my wide-eyed response.

She played down the stroll by adding that Dieter walked with her for two hours to keep her company before he headed back to their small boreal cabin to tend to the fires while she was gone.

“In my pack of clothes and art supplies I had a spare pair of boots and a mess of moose meat. The trip took twelve and a half hours.”

She paused and smiled, “I have to admit I relished the hot shower at the Dawson hotel I stayed in that night.”

In northern Norway, the town of Tromsø has played host to studies looking at the role of winter on human attitudes. Folks in this community, located well above the Arctic circle, actually love the polar-dimmed landscape of winter.

Pessimism is one of the greatest contagions on the planet. If someone gripes and whines about the cold, it’s always easy to agree and before you know it everybody says the cold sucks.

I  urge you to rebel against others in your shivering tribe and sing praises of the quiet cold.  Backyard trees, shrubs and many
flowering plants depend on the mid-winter interval of cold to thrive in the summer. It offers them needed dormancy.

Winter is suited for our own sort of dormancy and quiet introspection. There is no better place to embrace the quietude than to get outdoors, at ALL times of the year and silently marvel at those abundant natural systems that make it possible for you and me to thrive.


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