Book Review: "NOLS Bear Essentials: Hiking and Camping in Bear Country"
John Gookin and Tom Reed know bear country.
Both have hiked and camped among black bears and grizzlies for more than 20 years. They’ve taught hundreds of students the ropes — and more than just how to hang food — as instructors for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). Both have some exciting tales of bear encounters, and both will tell you that there’s nothing quite like sharing habitat with one of nature’s most majestic mammals.
Their new book, NOLS Bear Essentials: Hiking and Camping in Bear Country, is proof they know what they’re doing.
Just under 90 pages, it’s a pocket-sized information powerhouse that includes the essentials and omits the fluff. Light and small enough to take on the trail, it’s a must-have for anyone considering their first foray into bear country and a valuable resource for those who need a refresher. If you think it’s okay to toss out food particles in your dish water, hang your food eight feet off the ground, or aren’t sure if you should stand your ground or play dead when encountering a bear, you’re in the latter camp.
Most importantly, the authors stress that no matter where you’re headed to hike, you need the appropriate mindset. “We wanted to have something that helped visitors to bear country view themselves as a guest in the bear’s home,” Gookin said. “We wanted people to respect their habitat. That’s the attitude that helps you understand your situation.”
“We don’t have a lot of places we can go anymore where we’re not the baddest thing in the woods,” Reed said. “Grizzly country — that’s a really unique thing.”
NOLS Bear Essentials addresses both grizzly and black bear territory, covering bear identification, habitat, awareness, and avoidance, along with proper food storage, tips for fishing and hunting in bear country, and how to handle a confrontation. Rather than laying down set rules for hiking in bear territory, Gookin said a better option was to write about universal principles and allow people to use their good judgment and apply them to their own unique situations. There can’t be a rule that you always hang your food, because some territory doesn’t allow for it, and parks have different requirements. Knowing what your options are (food lockers, bear canisters, or food hanging) and researching your destination beforehand is a better method.
The basic principles include lots of Ps: preparation, precautions, prevention. The intent is that educated, prepared hikers who’ve done their homework and know what to expect at their specific location likely won’t need to rely on the “Confrontations” chapter of the book. “If you read it and take those things to heart, and you use your head, you’re setting yourself up for a really cool experience in bear country,” Reed said.
Though chances of an encounter are small, NOLS Bear Essentials provides clear, straightforward advice on how to handle one. Both authors write from experience, each having found himself face to face with bears in the backcountry more than once. In 1996, Reed was bluff charged by a grizzly while on a hunting trip in the Teton Wilderness, surprising it in a willow grove one late afternoon. He stood his ground, and the bear veered off into the woods once it was about 25 yards away. “Those are hair-raising experiences,” he said. “But being out there as a hunter, you realize how tolerant those critters are of mankind, and generally speaking, how few of them there are around.”
Gookin, while on a trip with bear scientists in Alaska a few summers ago, encountered a mother and her cubs, and the group chased them off by shooting off fireworks. “Bear scientists use all sorts of things,” he said. “There’s a fine line between a bear being curious and a bear being aggressive.”
Along with relying on their own experiences, Gookin and Reed consulted a wealth of experts to be sure the book included the most up-to-date facts and research, including two wildlife biologists, three bear management officials, and a wildlife technician.
Outfitted with helpful diagrams that simplify intricate food hanging methods and a thorough section on bear spray and its proper use and storage, NOLS Bear Essentials wraps up decades of backcountry knowledge in a simple, straightforward style that will help assure any hiker’s safe, exciting foray into bear territory.
While bears have been a part of Gookin and Reed’s working lives, they’re part of their personal ones, too. Both make their homes in bear country. Gookin, a Lander, Wyoming, resident, loads up the family each year “just to cruise around with a spotting scope and look at bears” in Yellowstone. In addition, he’s co-authored other books on wilderness wisdom and winter camping for NOLS, where he’s been the curriculum and research manager for the past 20 years.
Reed, who now works in Trout Unlimited’s public lands division, is a quintessential Montana man. He lives a few miles outside the tiny town of Pony (population 100), owns horses, goes fishing, and shoots his own dinner (elk, preferably). A former journalist, he’s also the author of Great Wyoming Bear Stories and a collection of essays called Give Me Mountains For My Horses.
In addition to sharing backcountry bear knowledge and a passion for the places they live, the authors share similar views on the balance of human-bear interactions and the importance of proper conduct when entering the bears’ home, which is why it’s a central theme of their new book.
“I think the big thing is, there are fewer and fewer wild spaces,” Gookin said. “But we can visit them, and we can cohabitate with the animals that are there, so that hopefully they’ll be there for future generations. It’s just a matter of understanding and respecting them in their natural habitat.”