Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Mountain lions and ticks and bears! Oh my!

"Security is mostly superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing."

Helen Keller

The deaths on Everest this year, and the predictable responses from armchair critics calling the climbers foolish and demanding that the mountain have ticket takers to regulate the number of climbers, got me thinking about why I take risks in the mountains, and how much risk I’m willing to take. What I wasn’t expecting were the people who asked me about exposing my children to risks by taking them hiking where all manner of bad things can happen to them.

A black bear by the side of the road near Junction Creek in Kananaskis.
Am I exposing my kids to risks? Absolutely. When we reach the trailhead and step out of the car we’ve re-entered the food chain.

When I head out in the Canadian Rockies—with or without my boys—I’m always mindful of the bears, cougars, and grumpy bull moose that we could run into. And ticks that hitch a ride and may (or may not) bring disease carrying bacteria with them. In the winter, there are hypothermia, frostbite and avalanches. In all seasons, there are cliffs to fall off, rivers to drown in, and falling rocks to dodge. There are many ways to get injured, maimed, crippled and killed in the mountains. But is it safer to not expose your children to these and other risks, or to teach them how to identify the risks and manage them?

As a kid I survived in the mountains when there were more grizzlies and no one had bear spray. I learned to identify avalanche terrain, assess conditions and make good choices. I drank out of alpine streams without a filter and without getting beaver fever. Now, my kids are also learning and doing these things. When we’re in bear country, I take the proper precautions and I teach the boys when and how to take them, as well as why. In the winter, I teach them how to dress for the cold and, for now at least, avoid avalanche terrain (although I’ve introduced avalanche safety by making a game of finding an avi transceiver buried in the snow).

Regardless of where kids live, there is more risk associated with today’s “safe”, sedentary, electronic-focused, urban lifestyle than there is with getting out in nature—a park, a path by the river, the mountains, wherever. Kids can’t learn to identify and mitigate risks in the real world by playing Wii or Minecraft, or by playing organized soccer on a well-marked field that the coach has cleared of any hazards. They can’t gain the self confidence that comes from assessing risk and deciding whether it’s too great or manageable. This is a confidence and ability to deal with risk that transfers to all aspects of their life. The opposite of this self-confidence is irrational fear. Without the knowledge that they can spot and manage risks in some aspects of their life, they can become fearful of the plethora of risks real and imagined they hear and read about, that may or may not be out there, but don’t know how to identify or deal with.


  1. I completely agree with you, Ken. Security's related nowadays with a kid inside a bubble, safe from social life and outdoors dangers... what? I also think it's more dangerous the electronic gameboys hurting their eyes than playing football in the park with the friends, but people are scared of everything! As if kids were made of glass...

    1. And not exposing them to risks so they can learn how to deal with them just puts them at a disadvantage when they're confronted by a genuinely dangerous situation! Thanks for the comment, Lily!


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