Bear Season is Here
This past Saturday was the opening day for bear season in Washington.
I wasn't thinking about that as I turned off Cascade River Road and set out on the Hidden Lake Lookout Trail around 10 am, but I would soon be reminded of it.
As the forest gave way to meadows, about a mile and half in, we came across two people standing by the trail not hiking uphill or down. When we got closer, I saw that the reason they were stopped there was a small black bear, shot dead.
After we hiked a short distance up trail, I stopped to check in with my hiking partner, who was a hunting guide many years ago. He was concerned for our safety and we discussed turning back. In his opinion, these hunters were needlessly endangering the other trail users. Here's why:
- From the number of cars in the parking lot and the reviews we'd read, we knew this was a popular, high-traffic area.
- These hunters were field-dressing the bear just off the side of the trail, which suggests they'd also shot it just off the trail.
- This was a small bear, which was a bad sign to my ex-hunting guide partner. To him, it meant that these hunters either didn't mind shooting a juvenile rather than choosing and harvesting an adult bear or that they were poor judges of size at a distance. In either case -- not too great.
- The brush just beyond the creek where we met the hunters was unusually tall and close to the trail. At several points, we were completely enshrouded by gangly wildflowers and shrubs.
As we looked down the valley from a vantage point further uphill, we could see that the trail continued to switchback in close proximity to the creek. I was surprised to learn that the hunters we saw could have shot that bear from this distance. From this spot, the hikers we saw were indefinite blotches on the landscape and, because of the brush, we could barely make them out on the straight-aways and would just see them as they moved through a switchback.
For me, this incident was a sobering reminder that, as a hiker going out into the wild, you have only yourself to count on when it comes to your own safety. On this hike, I was in a light pink shirt and my partner blended in rather well in a green shirt. We both wished we were wearing something brighter. Nothing on the trailhead bulletin board had caught our eye to alert us that it was hunting season. Land managers don't tend to post signs at trailheads where hunting is allowed. (Generally, that's going to be anywhere except National Parks.) Likewise, you can't rely on the hunters to ensure your safety, as, unfortunately, not all hunters will be following every safe firearm handling mandate (make sure the area behind their target is clear, fully identify the target, properly judge distance and size, etc.). Others may obey all the rules, but not go above and beyond to ensure the safety of others. From what we could tell, these hunters weren't doing anything illegal, but that still didn't make it smart.
Here are the key safety tips for hiking during hunting seasons.
- Find out if the area you are planning to hike in is open to hunting and if it is frequently hunted.
- Be especially careful hiking at first light and at dusk. These are prime times for animals to move toward food and water. Hunters will also be out at this time. Additionally, it can be harder to see anything in this light.
- Wear bright clothes, particularly orange. Avoid wearing brown and black.
- Finally, make yourself known as a person by talking loudly.
At some point, everything moving through the wilderness, from animals to hikers to hunters, will take the path of least resistance. As such, the trail becomes the natural place for encounters, and, potentially, conflicts or accidents to occur. Keep hiking, just be aware of your surroundings.