First, Dan and canyon crew are on fire with this trip. Serious FOMO warning.
Second, Enel requested that I hold forth on the subject of firearms (guns!) as a backcountry safety tool.
Since moving up to Griz country I’ve thought a fair bit about the various ways in which one might defend oneself against hostile critters. I’m restricting my analysis to animals, for the simple reason that defense against humans is a much more complex topic. When I’m in real wilderness out west I think I’m as safe as I’m ever in my life likely to get w/r/t other people. If I hiked the AT in the mid-Atlantic I might feel differently.
As far as bears go I agree with Eric’s assessment that carrying a weapon, be it a firearm or pepper spray, is primarily psychological. Grizzly freak us out not because they’re more statistically likely than any other animal to hurt us, but because they could if they chose predate upon us with disconcerting ease. I don’t think we humans like being reminded of our proper place amongst the food chain.
I bought my first ever can of bear spray about 11 months ago, specifically because I was going into a griz-rich area alone soon after the bears woke up, and could safely assume I’d be the first humans any bears I might come across would have seen that year. The record of pepper spray seems to be pretty good, though the max range of Counter Assault is advertised as 30-32 feet, and the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee recommends a “…spray distance of 25+ feet to reach the bear at a distance sufficient for the bear to react to effects of the active ingredients in bear spray in time to divert its charge and retreat.” In short, pepper spray does not inspire a huge amount of confidence, and in application demands a very steady nerve.
The second option is marine flares, either handheld or in a pistol-type launcher. Apparently these are used in Russian and Alaska, and have been officially recommended in Canada (until people kept burning themselves with the handheld ones). Seems effective, and the thought of being able to reload and have something non-lethal to shoot at a bear is comforting.
The third option is to carry a gun. As fo 14 months ago, one of the major downsides to this, being unable to lawfully carry them in national parks, quietly went away. The pros amount to being able to administer lethal force when necessary, the cons primarily weight and having to be skilled and calm enough to aim well. As Eric noted, the minimal gun I’d consider carrying for self-defense against big animals (bears or otherwise) is at least 40 oz (and has some punishing recoil). I’ve also reliably heard that should you need to kill a grizzly in self-defense, and I assume this would apply to anything in hunting-forbidden national parks, the paperwork required to substantiate your situation in not to be trifled with.
In summary, all options for self-defense weapons are deeply flawed. I might buy a flare gun to replace the pepper spray I lost last month, or do what I did for years and go without. I’d like to own a stainless S&W .44, but the weight penalty alone would make me hesitate to carry it often. In the end, the best defense is knowing the area into which you’re going, the likely behaviors of the big animals therein, and an acceptance that as in all things in life strange, unpredictable, and shitty things might just happen.
In his email Eric mentioned that “There are literally many, many, many more folks walking around armed than I ever dreamed of.” True, this is America, and the 2nd amendment exists so that we can overthrow the government if need be. My grandfather taught me to shoot, and be responsible about it, when I was little (7? can’t recall, really). It was a big, big deal when in his eyes I was old and mature enough to shoot a .22. I’ve always been comfortable around and appreciative of guns, even if I’ve never been drawn to them as many are. That being said, I recall folks in Arizona being more ostentatious about owning guns than any other place I’ve lived, by quite a bit. My cynical analysis of this is that many people move to Arizona and try a bit too hard to recapture the wild west, often by riding horses of trails over their skill level with a brand new .44 in a leather holster. One of the things I love about Montana is that while almost everyone has guns, and hunting is more a part of the cultural fabric than anywhere else I know, shooting and hunting just aren’t a big deal. Which once you’re an adult is usually the way it should be.