On Bears and Alaska!

AT Staff28 Jul, 2011

I am certain you have seen the media coverage on the bear attack on a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Group of teenagers up in the wilds of Alaska. I know it made parents of any student still in the outdoors with us a bit nervous. The good news is that everyone will fully recover. As the person ultimately responsible for all of our students, it certainly made me a bit nervous. I wanted to better understand this incident before we published any comments (though of course we have communicated with Alaska parents.)

Anytime there is an accident or incident in our industry or at Adventure Treks, we try and study it, learn from it and figure out ways to prevent it from happening at Adventure Treks. Initially this bear attack made me extremely nervous because it contradicted our heuristic that there had never been a documented bear attack on a group of four or more. (This group size was 7) In Alaska we do everything in groups of four or more. We also have bigger hiking groups than we do in the 48 (12 (including instructors) instead of 10) primarily to make us more intimidating to bears. Over the years we have had very few bear encounters. We figure they hear us coming from miles away and lay low until we have passed. Of course we also carry bear spray, just in case. So far, in 13 years of running programs in Alaska, we have never had to use our bear spray.

NOLS is an excellent company and one of the safest. They didn’t do anything wrong and it seems like their students were very well prepared. This was a different type of trip than we do in Alaska in that it was an off trail section, it was a student led section and the students were hiking in an area known for bears. None of this would have created a problem except the students discovered that going up stream drainage was the only way they could move through heavy underbrush. Unfortunately it was early evening and even more unfortunately a momma Grizzly happened to be coming down the drainage. The consensus now seems to be that the students were a little spread out and the grizzly had no idea the group size was designed to be big enough to supposedly intimidate her.

Could a bear attack like this happen at Adventure Treks? It is certainly less likely at Adventure Treks but it is still possible. Our mission is different than NOLS. We do not do student led sections in Alaska; we stay on developed trails, and hike in larger groups. That doesn’t mean, however that it couldn’t happen to us. Bear and nature are unpredictable …as is life. The alternative to a risk free environment would be staying home in a padded room playing video or virtual reality games all day. We believe that ultimately the latter would be more risky to the mind, body and spirit. We have to accept an element of risk if we want to truly live. We at Adventure Treks and our partners in the outdoor industry like NOLS, do everything we can to minimize risk so people can enjoy the Adventure Treks experience. Whether driving in the suburbs or hiking in Alaska, we face some risk each day as soon as we get out of bed. Many philosophers will even argue that risk is an essential part of the human experience and to not have risk is to not be human. Our mission is to minimize risk, we know we can’t eliminate it completely and we thank you as parents for understanding the risks associated with our programs and activities.

We are ecstatic that all the students in the NOLS bear attack will recover. We have relocated our last backpack in Alaska which was going to be about 35 miles away from the NOLS incident. We feel a little bit better staying far, far away from that area this year. We always like to err on the side of safety.

And if your friends say you are crazy to let your children hike in the woods, raft the rivers and climb the rocks, you might remind them that they let their children drive in cars. 42,000 people a year die in car accidents. We know the outdoors is safer than driving, even in bear country!

Best, Dock


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