Bears scare me. I’m not sure why. Probably because they could eat me if they wanted to. But there are lots of sentient beings that could kill me if they wanted to. Most of them are human. So what is it then? I could tell you about the scary experience backpacking with the bear outside my tent. I’m pretty sure that my bear fear preceded that experience though. Maybe because there’s no talking to a bear, no using reason, no running away. It’s totally outside of my control. But I can’t let it stop me from enjoying the outdoors either.
In Longyearbjen, Svalbard you can’t go out walking by yourself without carrying a rifle. This precaution arises from the presence on the island of the biggest kind of bear: the polar bear. Polar bears are iconic of course. Like all bears we identify with them as fellow mammals and omnivores and are inclined to find them cute. Polar bears have the additional distinction of being threatened by climate change, and serving as a symbol thereby of all that is currently going wrong with the environment.
No one wants to shoot a polar bear. But just in case you have to scare one away… you’d rather have the ability to back up the threat of those warning shots if necessary. If it’s me and the other researchers or the bear, I know who I’d choose. The idea that someone will have a rifle out in the field makes me feel reassured about being an hour’s snowmobile drive from town in the middle of nowhere.
But this is a bit of a strange sensation for me, because I am usually rather uncomfortable around firearms. I do not believe that having one at home is even a good idea for protection. And I don’t go hunting, although I think that hunting for food is legitimate. Hunting for sport bothers me. And so does war. So guns and I are not really well acquainted. I try to avoid them and those who tote them.
My irrational fear of bears, however, drove me to try out shooting a gun. Last Tuesday I got in the car with a friend and drove to the East side (of Lake Washington) where we I found a shooting range with a discount for ladies night. I tried out a couple of different rifles. No big deal.
Now, I’m not about to join the NRA, nor do I think that I’m an expert now who has any buisness carrying a gun in Svalbard – I’ll leave that to other members of our party. The purpose of this expedition to the conservation Seattle suburbs was to demystify the rifle so that I could feel more comfortable in the situation. And yes, it was meant to give me a false sense of security. If I really needed to, I might be able to figure out how to fire one in an emergency. Indeed, the purpose was to give me some irrational sense of control so that I won’t be as constantly stressed out when I’m out in the field on polar bear watch.
In any case I don’t think it did any harm to handle a firearm for the first time. Turns out it’s not too difficult, especially with the scopes on the rifles they had at the shooting range. Turns out it’s not so easy to find something to rent that would be intended primarily for hunting. In fact, most people were shooting handguns. At pictures of Osama bin Laden, as well as an assortment of zombies.
Talk about irrational fears. Do any of those people think they’re ever actually going to run into a zombie? The chances are about as good that they’ll ever get a clear shot at Osama bin Laden. Is it just like a video game to them? I will admit: I just don’t get it. I’d feel uncomfortable, frankly, shooting at anything that had even a human form. We worked with the little circular bullseyes which were the cheapest targets.
I guess I prefer not to think too much about the other people at ladies night, what motivates them, and how much more or less dangerous the world is as a result. I wish them well is their legitimate endeavors. Meanwhile, I’ll rest easy knowing that there’s no real risk of a polar bear taking a rifle from me as I fumble in panic. If one gets close enough to me to try I’m already done for.