"One of the enduring legacies I think of is that whenever I look at my Facebook stream I see people hiking together that first met on a Random hike. Maybe they would have always hiked and maybe they would have met other ways, but we’ll never know."--Michael Blair
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: So you just "retired" as organizer (along with your wife Monica Trust), of Random Group of Hikers, a Meetup hiking group. How did you become involved with Random?
MICHAEL BLAIR: One day in February 2007 we were skiing at Killington and shared the gondola with a couple of guys from the Philadelphia area that were on a ski trip with a Meetup group. We had never heard of meet up before so we went home and investigated. What we found looked interesting so in March 2007 we each joined a bunch of different groups. Most of the groups we joined focused on outdoor activities like skiing, hiking, and kayaking, but we also joined a few that focused on things like getting together to go to the movies. Our first few activities with various meet up groups didn’t go well – there wasn’t anything wrong but there also wasn’t anything right. Our first event was almost our last - we went with a group for ski trip to Waterville Valley. It ended up being an excuse for most of the participants to just get out and drink - they spent more time at the bar getting drunk and trying to hook up than out on the slopes. There were a few more meet ups with different groups but nothing overwhelmed us. Then in July 2007 Monica found the Random Group of Hikers and signed up for a hike to Jennings Peak and Sandwich Dome. I was actually her guest on that hike. We had a blast - the event organizers made it fun . . We were hooked. The next weekend I went on a hike to my first 4K peak (Mt. Jefferson) with a different group, and then the weekend after that Monica and I went with that same group to Eisenhower, Pierce, and Jackson. There weren’t a lot of events on the Random calendar because the group founder had gotten injured on one of the first hikes that she led. Most of our early hikes were with this other group just because they had events on the calendar but we liked our time with Random more. So in order to get more events on the calendar with the people that we enjoyed, we started organizing our own events.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Did you and Monica do much hiking before that? What inspired you to join a group hike?
MICHAEL BLAIR: Not really. I had done quite a bit when I was in the Boy Scouts but not much after that. There were a few field trips with the kids to Monadnock but not much else. Monica had done a few family hikes as well but not much else. We each have kids from previous marriages (six combined) and they were with us on the same weekend, so on the “off” weekend we were looking for things to do. The ski meetup didn’t work. The movie meetup didn’t work. We figured we’d try a hiking meetup. We ended up on a group hike because the planning had been done for us - we had no guidebooks or maps. There weren’t a lot of options back then. . .the Random Group seemed like the more interesting option. While we have been totally focused on Random for the past 14 years we each both climbed our first 4K on hikes organized by Diane Mancino of the [former] New England hiking Meetup group. I did Jefferson the week after our first Random hike, and then two weeks after that first hike we did Eisenhower, Pierce, and Jackson. In fact, my first backpack trip was also with Diane a month or so later, and then I led my first ever trip (Tecumseh) with the New England group two months after that first Random hike. We learned about the [4,000 Footers] “list” on Sandwich during that first hike (“this one won’t count for your list” … what is this list that you speak of?) and it intrigued us. . .
Above, a gallery of Random hikes
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: And you grew up in the shadow of Mount Greylock, highest peak in Massachusetts--and just about on top of the Appalachian Trail. Is it strange for you to now think about growing up there, not knowing at the time that you'd become a pretty serious hiker later in life?
MICHAEL BLAIR: Guess I never really thought about it. I hiked it a few times growing up - they used to have an event called the Mount Greylock Ramble. It was a big deal and everyone did it. They still have it each year but now it climbs up from Cheshire - when I did it we climbed up from Adams. Other than remembering doing it I don’t remember much else. I’m sure I was going up in jeans and sneakers. My best friend Brad and I were active in Boy Scouts because we liked the camping, hiking, backpacking, and rock climbing/rappelling. A little too much it turns out. We were asked to “leave” unless we started earning merit badges. We would do all of the “field activities” but we never finished any of the “book learning”. That was kind of the end of our outdoor adventures because none of our other friends were into that type of stuff - most focused on the usual stuff like baseball, basketball, and football. I was aware that the AT passed close by but had little knowledge or understanding about what it was. We’d see hikers in town or hitching a ride but didn’t know what they were doing.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: So what initially drew you to hiking was the social aspect of it-- you and Monica looking for things to do with other people in your weekends without the kids. And then also the goal/achievement aspect of it--the challenge of completing peak bagging lists. Were there other motivations that kept you returning to hiking or are those the two primary ones?
MICHAEL BLAIR: If I had to rank things at the start it would be (1) get out of the house to get some exercise, (2) challenge myself mentally and physically, (3) meet some new people, and (4) achieve some goals. I have never really cared about the “views” … seen one tree you’ve seen them all. It was always more about seeing what I could do, and then doing more - one peak on a hike led to two, 10 miles led to 15, summer led to winter, one hike in a day led to two or three in a day, etc. We enjoyed the social aspect and remain friends with many of those who ventured out with us during those early years. While achieving goals was always there and it was part of the initial lure, it wasn’t the driving force. In fact, I never set out to finish the 48 Grid or even contemplated the 67 or 115 Grid. It just kind of happened - I kept track of what I’d done but didn’t even acknowledge the 48 Grid until I reached 50% and then I set the physical and mental challenge of finishing it. This led to climbing more than 350 peaks in a two year span. Over the past few years I’d say the order has changed - (1) and (2) are still there but (3) and (4) have switched places. Over the past few years I’ve become less interested in hiking with other people - I’ve come to enjoy the freedoms of being solo and listening to music or podcasts. There is also less pressure to keep up or slow down and I can go at my own pace - some of this may also be the result of the concussion*. I guess (2) and (4) are almost the same thing. My current project is finishing the 67 Grid (only 4 have done it) and if everything lines up I could finish in November. . . I’ve been thinking about what the goals for the summer and beyond will be. I’d like to get back out to Colorado (I’ve done 1/2 of the 14ers) and visit the 14ers in California (have not done any). We have the van so we’ll likely visit some national parks and things like that.
*[I think Michael is joking here, but he did sustain a serious concussion while hiking in the Adirondacks in 2021].
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: In taking over leadership Random Group of Hikers What year was that?) you and Monica organized a heck of a lot of hikes how many?). You didn't have to do it that-- but you did-- and the result is that you introduced a lot of people to hiking the high peaks of New England--or to winter hiking those same peaks. Even for experienced hikers, you facilitated an enjoyable social hiking experience for those people. When you look back on all of that organizing, all the time you put into it, all the people you met, what thoughts come to mind?
MICHAEL BLAIR: The first hike I organized was in 2007 after going on a hike where the person who organized it was clueless - they didn’t know where we were meeting or the route we were taking. They were just looking for someone to go with them I guess. I figured I could do a better job so I asked if I could organize a trip and things took off from there. For a while I was organizing 4-6 trips a month all year long. At one point I added up all of the trips I led for the Random Group of Hikers and the Boston Chapter of the AMC and it was over 500 trips. I’m guessing the current number is likely 600-650. The average number of people on each trip is probably 8-10 so that’s about 4,000 - 6,500 “people”. That’s a a lot. Obviously there were many repeat customers along the way. I know of four marriages that came about after people met on a Random hike. One of the enduring legacies I think of is that whenever I look at my Facebook stream I see people hiking together that first met on a Random hike. Maybe they would have always hiked and maybe they would have met other ways, but we’ll never know.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: And with regard to Random, it's the hikes that you and Monica organized that really set the tone and standard for the group. Random quickly developed a reputation for being a professionally run, responsible hiking Meetup group for "serious" hikers. What is it that you think set Random apart and/or made it unique among other hiking groups? Did your own professional background in insurance/ risk management inform the standards you set for Random?
MICHAEL BLAIR: I took, and still take, a lot of pride in the reputation of the group. . . . I tend to be no-nonsense about my activities - kind of an “act like you’ve been there before” approach. I do my own research, I’m prepared for whatever I might encounter, and I factor in risk when I make my decisions (I’m sure that comes from being an insurance risk manager since graduating college). When you get to the top, look around, take a picture, and then skedaddle. I wanted to associate with people like that, so my vision for the group was to be a no nonsense group that met at the bottom, climbed to the top, and got back to the bottom without incident. No silly group poses. No pole canopies. No costumes. There were other groups out there that took a different approach - and while I’m not saying one is better than the other, what I am saying is the way the Random Group operated felt right to me. I tried to blend the structured organization I learned from the outdoor leadership training that I got from the AMC, with a slightly less rigid approach. We didn’t do a lot of basic beginner hikes because I wanted people to organize the type of trips that they liked to do, and most of the people that were organizing trips were more at the intermediate and advanced level. So those are the types of hikes that were on the calendar. It was good because it filled a void where people who may have been doing basic to intermediate hikes with the AMC or other meetup groups could work their way up to participating in our events. As I mentioned previously, my Facebook stream is filled with stories and pictures from people that were active with Random at one time or another, so perhaps we helped them get the confidence to explore things even bigger and badder than they would have been comfort doing had we not been there to help in their development. I think another thing that helped with the way I tried to run the group is that I was the only lead organizer of any of the Meetup hiking groups that was a also field instructor with the AMC’s Mountain Leadership School, and later the ADK’s Winter Mountaineering School.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: How did you become involved with the AMC Mountain Leadership School?
MICHAEL BLAIR: . . . I figured getting guidance from an organization that does this type of stuff all of the time couldn’t hurt. I went online and looked for outdoor leadership programs and found two opportunities - NOLS and AMC. While I would love to do a NOLS program, at that time the duration and cost was not feasible so I opted for the AMC. First I did the local chapter leadership class, and while I got some information out of it, it was pretty basic stuff. I learned about AMC’s flagship outdoor leadership program Mountain Leadership School and it seemed like a great blend of topics. It was run out of the Highland Center but was similar to NOLS in that you went out into the wilderness for five days and that was your classroom. I applied and also got a scholarship so it was like NOLS but fewer days and less money. During the program you would take turn being leader of the day and then have to handle various scenarios and role plays. The best part about the the program was that these role plays happened in the actual environment instead of being case studies discussed at a table or while walking around a grassy field. I handled mine well enough, and exhibited enough team-work, that at the end of the program I was one of only a few (there were about 40 participants) who were invited back to be an instructor and the only one from that year that ended up becoming an instructor. I did that for more than ten years - my group was even chosen/featured in the AMC Outdoors Magazine a while back. We had an “embedded” reporter who wrote about his experience. I also would help with training programs run by the local chapter (Introduction to Leadership, Introduction to Summer, Introduction to Winter, etc) but MLS was always my first love. A couple of years ago I was recruited to help with the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Winter Mountaineering School. It’s a program similar in design to MLS but focused more on personal skills than leadership. We were working on a leadership track since very few groups teach outdoor leaders how to deal with the unique challenges of winter hiking and backpacking, but our efforts to put something together ran into the same delays other programs experienced during Covid. While there is a program this year (we did virtual last year) we didn’t try to put anything together since we had no idea what to expect. I am hoping we can resume these efforts next year.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: With regard to the trips you organized with Random, what are some of the more memorable?
MICHAEL BLAIR: There are too many good memories to recount - I’ll forget something for sure. Let’s just say the best memories are the people we met along the way. One example from the beginning. We did a weekend backpack trip to Owl’s Head (47) and Galehead (48) and dubbed it “Two Heads are Better than One” as a tip of the cap to both the peaks and the partnership that Monica and I had on the trail. It rained pretty much all day both days. Eight other people camped at 13 Falls with us in the rain and another 10-15 joined us on Galehead in the rain for the final peak of our first round. There was only one time in the 650 or so trips where I “called in sick” and cancelled a trip at the last minute. Even though there were other times when I wasn’t feeling it, I knew that someone was waiting for me at the trailhead so I’d use them as my motivation when I couldn’t generate any on my own. I’m sure there were plenty of hikes that would have never happened because if I was going on my own I might just turn the alarm off and roll over and go back to sleep. When I look back at the hardest and most challenging hikes that I have ever done, all of the ones here in the northeast we’re done with Randomites - either as an official trip open to anyone in the larger group, or an unadvertised trip that was just for the core members. There are a handful of people that I would go anywhere with that I met through the group. When I look back at the pictures there are a bunch of people that are there but there are a few faces that show up in nearly every one of those challenging hikes. While I never minded being the “sweep” to hang back with someone who might be having an off day I also know of a few instances where it was me who was off and people in the group stepped up to drag my sorry ass through the planned itinerary. A few specific trips come to mind: - I tweaked my knee on the Twins and had to hobble out while the others kept me motivated and moving. We made it out but it was slow. Same thing with a trip into Baxter State Park in winter - I smashed my hip on a pre-hike fall and we had to change plans and just head out instead of trying to summit Katahdin and Hamlin (I guess technically my “second” called in sick hike). Again the group was there to keep me motivated and moving. There were also three trips to the ER - all done with other Randomites. We were on a Random trail work trip when I learned that a dull blade is still stronger than soft tissue. I was preparing to leave for a winter hike with some Randomites when I ended up in the ER/OR to have emergency surgery to deal with an obstructed intestine. The concussion in the Adirondacks was done while on a Great Range Traverse with a couple of Randomites.
I also need to mention the obvious - the best hiking partner that I have ever had is Monica. We met before we did our first hike with the group so it wasn’t the Random Group of Hikers that “put” us together, I have no doubt in my mind it’s one of the primary reasons that we “stayed” together. We were just starting our relationship when we started hiking with the group and the events gave us a common activity to build off of. I could not have asked for anyone to make a better match - we have hiked in some of the worst conditions and came out stronger. Who else would be excited about spending their honeymoon hiking in Colorado while sleeping in the back of an SUV so we could travel to where the weather conditions were best. Seriously. Our honeymoon. Sleeping in the back of an SUV. No bathroom. No showers. No laundry. Just hiking.
How long have you two been hiking together?
--Well, quite a few years, we used to live together, we lived together for like four or five years in DC. Now I live in New York and she lives in New Jersey and we came up for the weekend.
So you’re old friends? Do you hike often together?
--Yeah, old friends.
--Every couple months.
--Yeah we try to.
--Especially when it’s nice outside.
What do you like about hiking?
--Being out in nature, and you get good exercise.
--Fresh air, especially living in a city, its really nice to just have a break.
--And the quietness.
--And we both have puppies, so it’s nice to bring them along and do an activity all together.
And you like hiking with dogs?
--Hiking with dogs is really fun.
--This is his [Leo's] first time, this is first official hike, but it’s gonna be nice because he’s going to be so tired after!
--It’s nice for them to just run around and explore and not be confined to a yard, house, or apartment.
Any advice or wisdom for people who hike?
--For me, I’m not the most natural hiker. . .its something, especially over the past year or two, I’ve tried to do more of. So for people who are maybe nervous and not used to it, just going out there and doing it, trying, starting out with an easier hike and then working your way up, and then it becomes something you crave.
--And I would say, bring snacks!
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: How long have you been living in western New Hampshire and how did you become involved with land conservation there?
SUE: I've been living in Lempster since 2005. Born in Massachusetts, I grew up in Center Barnstead New Hampshire where my grandparents lived. My father was in the Air Force, stationed at two bases in Massachusetts and then at Pease AFB in Portsmouth, NH. We spent summers and school vacations in Center Barnstead. From 1967 to 69 we lived on Okinawa and then moved back to New Hampshire until my father retired. My first husband joined the Air Force too and we moved away, New York state, Iceland, Washington state, and then to northern California. I developed a love of the forests and mountains of the Sierras, where I backpacked and hiked often. I was gone for 23 years but homesick for New Hampshire all those years, so I moved back in 2002, and then to Lempster in 2005.
I knew little about land conservation and conservation commissions, but joined the Lempster Conservation Commission around 2008 and soon after the Cold River Local Advisory Committee.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: After having spent time in all those places, you chose to return to the northeast, to New Hampshire, to live. What was it about New Hampshire that made you want to return? Were you familiar with that part of New Hampshire before you moved there?
SUE: I wanted to return to New Hampshire because it was 'home', a place I felt safe, and after living in a very populated area in California for so long, I needed some 'remoteness' and familiar wildness and forests. I was not familiar with Lempster at all, but was familiar with Claremont, as I lived there for a year, while I attended the Vocational Technical College there. I chose Lempster because housing was affordable and it felt somewhat remote [from development].
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: You have some great photography of the flora and fauna of New Hampshire. Did you find that the photography helped cement your familiarity with place? Or is the photography an extension of that familiarity? What motivates your photography and what are some of your favorite things to photograph?
SUE: I've always had a knack for seeing things that others don't see. . . it makes me happy to share my photos with those who can't get out like they (maybe) used to. It gives me a good feeling to share my forest journeys and I like to re-live my hikes via my photos. There is so much beauty out there and I love capturing it! Hard to pick a favorite to photograph but I love the mushrooms, lichen, mosses and especially the tamaracks!
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Your hiking objectives have changed over the years because of your struggle with Sjogrens Syndrome. Can you tell us more about that?
SUE: When I lived in California, I used to backpack, it wasn't necessarily high elevation mountains, but it was fairly strenuous terrain for long distances. I pushed through the pain because it was an activity that I enjoyed with my deputy sheriff husband. His stress reliever was to backpack and get away from people. I loved the wildflowers and beauty and he did all the work when we got to camp. I also knew that I would not be able to do it forever, due to back issues and fatigue associated with my autoimmune disease.
What I do here in New Hampshire is whatever I physically can, which somedays isn't much. But I have noticed that once I get going, past the exhaustion, I get distracted with enjoying and photographing beautiful things and I forget the feelings at the start of the hike and I keep going and going and don't want to stop. . . when I start tripping due to being tired and not lifting my feet, I usually begin my journey back to where I started. It's a mind over matter thing.
SUE: The core motivator is depression, which I have struggled with all of my life. What hiking provides is a distraction, it basically keeps me going. I fear [not being able to] continue being as active as I am now. My current situation of living in an unfinished new home doesn't provide much joy. So I escape to the woods for a fix of happy, mindless enjoyment. . .and it always helps.
Sjogrens Syndrome comes in the form of extreme fatigue with intermittent pain. I have fibromyalgia too, which I hardly ever have symptoms of lately. I feel my level of activity helps with that, too.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Tell me something about your conservation work. What is your proudest conservation accomplishment? Tell me why it is special.
SUE: The high point has been the protecting of the Long Pond Town Forest, which was a goal of the conservation commission when I joined. We accomplished that in 2018, protecting 640 acres. Also the Ashuelot River Headwaters Forest (1,850 acres) completed in 2010. After reading about that project, before I’d even heard of the Forest Society [the town’s partner in the conservation project], I became a Land Steward for the property and helped spread the good word about it.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: When people think of "conservation" they often think about the national parks and national forests, and sometimes state parks where the focus is often on big, dramatic conservation. By contrast, what do you think is important about "conserving local"?
SUE: When you’ve lived in many highly populated areas of the world, and [then] move to a rural town, you realize just how important conserving land is! And when you do move back to New Hampshire after 23 years like I did, (and find that you can't build a house in your childhood home town due to overdevelopment), you realize that maybe when you do find that special 'wild' place, you better make it a priority or else.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: What hiking advice or insight would you offer to people who are struggling with disability, illness or injury?
SUE: My advice, for those with a disability would be to find that one or more activity that you can comfortably do and do it. Set some goals and push forward, but if you are unable to perform them, don't be hard on yourself!
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Anything final thoughts or ideas you would like to leave us with about conservation or hiking?
SUE: I feel it should be a priority for conservation organizations to make a portion of their trails wheelchair compliant. How unfair is it that the handicapped can't access and enjoy the outdoors [and] forested areas?
Below: Gallery of Sue's photography.
Photo credits: Sue Lichty
BEAR: You were expecting a growl or something? Black bears don’t actually growl you know.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: They don’t?
BEAR: Nope. Sometimes we grunt or moan. We chomp our jaws and clack our teeth together and make a kind of a huffing sound. Sometimes we swat the ground with our paws. Those are the sounds we make when we’re unhappy. When we’re happy, we’re usually pretty quiet.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Really, no growling?
BEAR: Nope. Dogs growl. Bears—we’re so over that, evolutionarily speaking. Start growling and the next thing you know you’re licking your butt. Would you lick your butt?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Ah, no. That would be undignified.
BEAR: Well then.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: And to be clear, you’re a black bear, right? Not a brown bear, not a grizzly bear.
BEAR: That’s right. Real-deal Ursus americanus. There aren’t any brown bears—grizzly bears—in eastern North America.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Okay, well, we’re here because bear safety is a hot topic on hiking social media pages these days.
BEAR: Dude, I know. People love to bring us black bears up on hiking social media—I’m convinced that half of the people who do that are just bored and trolling for reactions. And so many of the people who respond have no idea what they're talking about--they're just repeating bear myths. You know trolling for bear dirt is right up there with trolling on Lil Nas X’s Montero music video. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: You know this? How would you know about social media?
BEAR: Popped out of the woods in front of a hiker a few weeks ago and the guy freaked out and dropped his i-phone.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: You five-fingered a guy’s i-phone?
BEAR: That’s five-clawed technically. And no. Some bears will try to get stuff from people by false charging them. Waste of energy if you ask me. Five out of ten people are wusses when it comes to black bears—just walk across the trail twenty feet in front of them and they’ll wet their pants and drop their packs. Thus the new i-phone. Was gonna give it back to the guy but figured I woulda made matters worse if I chased after him with it. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Okay, so should people be afraid of black bears and run away?
BEAR: You’re asking me to give away trade secrets, and you know what they say. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Yeah, if you tell me then you have to kill me. . .
BEAR: . . .EAT you. If I tell you I have to eat you.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Right. So would you?
BEAR: Dude. You ever heard of a black bear eating a human being?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: I’m sure it’s happened, no?
BEAR: Listen. According to available stats, two people were killed by wild black bears in the northeast in the last 70 years. Last time was 2002, in New Jersey (don't get me started on Jersey bears and their 'tudes). For New England, you have to go back to the 1940s when a bear was "suspected" of killing a guy in Vermont who was hunting bears. Statistically speaking, a person is more likely to drown in their bathtub or die of a dog bite than get killed by a black bear.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: So, with those odds, I’m probably a heck of a lot more likely to die in a car accident while driving to a trailhead.
BEAR: Right. But you’re not afraid to get into your car. Isn't that interesting?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Also, I hear that you eat a lot of veggies. . .
BEAR: Ruins our image, huh?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: So what gives?
BEAR: Dude, give me a break. We already get no end of crap from you guys—for instance, in Maine over 3,000 of us are shot each year—all in the course of us just minding our own business out in the woods. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: But those are licensed hunters legally hunting. . .um. . .ahem. . .
BEAR: . . .and you homo sapiens kill each other too, pretty often actually—last year alone. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: OK, OK. I agree. Too many of us are asshats, it’s absolutely true. So tell me about the chomping of teeth and huffing thing you do—and the false charging—not growling but it does sound scary—can’t blame a person from freaking out when you do that. . .
BEAR: Here’s the deal. We know you’re the apex predator on the block. We know you human beings have more than a few screws loose. So we’d just assume not be seen by you. So, most of the time, we hide. And when we don’t hide, we run. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: But sometimes you charge people.
BEAR: Yeah, but probably 95% percent of the time we hide or run. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: How come you never hear about bears hiding from people. . .
BEAR: If a tree falls in the forest, and no one sees it. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: But you’re so big—how can you hide?
BEAR: Hide from you guys? Really? Dude, you’re freaking amateurs. We’re wild animals. We’re well camouflaged to blend with the shadows in the forest. And we can smell and hear you a mile off—hear you even without your stupid bear bells. And did you know that we have a better sense of smell than dogs--five times better than that of a bloodhound in fact?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: No, I didn’t know that. So OK, 95% of the time you’re hiding or running away, and you can do that because you’re usually aware of us well before we’re aware of you. Let’s talk about the other 5%.
BEAR: Yeah, about that. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: That.
BEAR: Okay. So—when you do surprise us—which is pretty uncommon—we get freaked out. I mean, you guys are unpredictable and capable of anything. So I bump into one of you guys and I think: is this guy stalking me? Is he packing? Is this the end of me?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Oh, come on.
BEAR: No, really. Homo Sapiens= apex predator. Your ancestors booted our ancestors out of their caves and started wearing our skins, and it’s gone downhill from there. You still hunt us. Nothing has changed—and no, don’t get me started on that Uncle Tom of a bear with the stupid hat that you guys use on the trail kiosk posters, give me a break. So you freak us out, and in a close call the only thing we can think to do is to encourage you to back off before you get any ideas about skinning and eating us--
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: I suppose that’s fair. But it’s still a pretty freaky experience, out in the woods. So tell us how we can all get along. . .
BEAR: Well, for starters, don’t make things worse. Don’t be a dick. We’re already scared, so don’t yell and scream at us, throw things at us, wave hiking poles at us. . .don’t do things that make you appear more unpredictable to us than you already are. If you act like a maniac, can you blame us if we assume you’re going to attack us? All bets are off if you escalate the confrontation.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: OK, I get it, don’t escalate an already bad situation by carrying on like a crazy person. . .
BEAR: And—dude!-- don’t run away.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Why don’t run away?
BEAR: Because it implies you have a guilty conscience and really were messing with us. And that can tempt us to chase you, so that you’ll be even more scared and will tell all your asshat friends not to ever **ck with us bears again. It’s like, “Yeah, YEAH? You want some of this? Huh? You wanna mess with the bears? See what you get when you mess with the bears, hummie? See?!”
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: So what should we do?
BEAR: Abide, dude, abide. Have an ordinary conversation with us. Say Excuse me, bear—you know, show some manners. Be as calm as you can and talk as calmly as you can. Eventually we’ll be able to tell you’re chill and want to be left alone, too. Could take up to five minutes—but that’s one of the most exciting five minutes you’ll ever tell your grandchildren about. Amiright?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: There’s that. But OK, what about that i-phone. . .
BEAR: Er, yeah, well, not all of us are well behaved. Some of us have picked up some bad habits. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: About that. . .
BEAR: Always one bad apple in the bunch. . .and you guys always fixate on the bad apples. I mean, have you actually watched your television news lately?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: OK, good point, train wrecks make good headlines. But trains running smoothly never make the news.
BEAR: Right. And bad boy bears make all the headlines.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Tell me about these delinquent bears.
BEAR: Happens in areas where you guys come to camp a lot. Happens for different reasons—maybe you guys start providing handouts to bears for the fun of it, so you can take bear selfies even though you know you ought not to, or it happens because you carelessly and routinely leave your food around where we can find it. Or maybe you guys get freaked out and drop your backpacks when you see us. So we take advantage and pretty soon we learn how easy it is to tweak you into “dropping the cookies.” But it’s like robbing a convenience store, you know? Not exactly grand theft, but if you do it enough you’ll get caught. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: By the rangers?
BEAR: Yeah. Caught and shot. Sad.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: “A fed bear is a dead bear?”
BEAR: They say that, but can you blame us for wanting to eat?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: So let’s say that a person does everything wrong, and pisses the black bear off, or the bear is a really, really badly behaved bear, and it does attack. Now, you guys outweigh us, you have claws, you’re faster than us, you can swim and climb trees better than us. . .
BEAR: Well, don’t play dead—that’s just plain stupid. If another human being were attacking you, would you play dead? Fight back, dude—what have you got to lose?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: OK, one last scenario. Mother bear and cubs.
BEAR: Human mother and toddlers.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: What?
BEAR: Are your mommas any less protecting of their children? Just don’t be foolish. Don’t assume you know the gender of a bear and its maternity status. If you see bears, or bear cubs, and you aren’t in a confrontation with the bear, walk away immediately and keep going. Don’t make a fuss and scream. Don't linger to take photos. Don't try to get a closer look. Just go. If momma gets upset and confronts you, try talking her down. Be calm. Eventually she’ll probably realize you don’t mean any harm, and she and the cubs will go away. She’s more interested in raising her cubs than she is in getting into a tiff with you. She'd rather you were just somewhere else. Think about it.
Credits: I inserted good links into the interview to back up the bear's assertions. A lot of this information is supported by the research and experience of bear expert Ben Kilham. Read more about Kilham, his research on bear behavior, his publications, and his non-profit bear cub rehabilitation center in New Hampshire here and here. Consider making a donation to support Ben's work with orphaned bear cubs.
Photos: open source, public domain.