Beyond bear spray

When writing with broad strokes, problematic human-bear encounters can be divided into three types.  Daylight visual encounters, where human and bear see each other before impact.  Daylight surprise encounters, which lack more than instantaneous forewarning; and night encounters which for these purposes will mean a bear swatting at or invading a tent with either curious or predatory intent.  The rare night hiking encounters would fall into category two.  Presuming one wants some form of weaponized deterrent, each of these three scenarios must be taken into account.

There will be endless debate about firearms as bear defense, but discussions of caliber and suitability aside there is a finality to this solution which must be comforting.  In scenario one the choice to place deterrent shots with a potentially lethal option held in reserve has many advantages, but any firearm comes up shorter for option two and especially three.  Obviously a highly trained operator is essential.

Bear spray is the most popular option, and is tailored for situations two and three.  In my mind this is a big advantage.  Additionally, spray is cheap and requires little training.  There is good cause for the US Forest and Park Services to push bear spray as aggressively as they do.

There is no major third option.  Bear bangers are popular in Canada, and seem like a decent option for scenario one but quite useless otherwise.  There have been discussions of flare guns as bear deterrents, which would seem to have few if any advantages over bear bangers with the disadvantage of creating a serious fire hazard.

In my mind, pepper spray is the way to go here.  My problem is that the more I learn about spray, the less confident I become.  The design of current canisters is cheap so it will end up in the hands of tourists, but this also means it can break or malfunction with relative ease.  Which it does, with unpleasant results to whichever human happens to be carrying it.  The safety is not safe enough, and easily ripped off by brush.  The design itself it not an easy one to carry in a protected yet ready position.  Bear spray is powered by aerosol, which has a shelf life and doesn’t work in the cold.  It is sensitive to wind, and the canister is not reloadable.

In short, time is long past for a pro-model bear spray.  I want something part way between the current iteration and a pistol, with a blast of capsicum powered by a modest gunpowder charge, and the ability to fire multiple shots without reloading.  I want to be able to carry as much or as little “ammo” as I want for a given trip.  This does not currently exist.  The Mace Pepper Gun is close, but meant for humans and with a too narrow spray (which might be user mod-able).  The Bond Cowboy Defender is small and lightish, and can fire .410 shotgun shells loaded with pepper charges, but I’ve yet to find any good information about range or dispersion.

I’ve heard too many stories of spray safeties pulled off in the brush, cans punctured against rocks, or malfunctions for no particular reason.  I was loading up my pack to float Kishenehn Creek this summer and the head fell off the spray when I picked it up.  Fortunately it did not go off, though I’m still not entirely sure why.  Buildings in Glacier are evacuated multiple times every summer because people assume that something as cheap as bear spray must be a toy and not a weapon.  While there may be a place for spray, to serve the casual visitor, it is time to give it the respect it deserves and produce it as a series tool.

Buck PakLite sheath mod, and Megalight update

The Buck PakLite series are good knives at a great price.  I bought my regular sized Skinner for 19 dollars, and it holds a pretty good edge for a pretty long time.  It’s thick enough (4mm) that you can beat on it while splitting wood with no regrets, but still filets a fish or guts a critter just fine.  The problem is the sheath, which is functional but large and ruins the otherwise slim and trim profile.

Thankfully you can use the existing sheath to make a replacement for almost nothing.


Cut apart the stitching which holds the two halves of the stock sheath together and you’ll discover a plastic insert.  This insert is stitched in place with a small plastic tab.  Shave that tab off flush and you have a sleek sheath that is plenty durable, safe, and weighs almost nothing.  I stitched a slip-fit cover out of 500D cordura, and glued it to the plastic with Shoe-Goo.

The velcro tab on the back holds the shock cord in place (this part is not laminated, so that the cord can move freely and if necessary be replaced), as well as holds the sheath stationary inside the gun compartment of my Kit Bag.  I can draw the knife, use it, and replace it all with one hand.

The saga of the ultimate ‘mid also continues; after observing the effects of last weekends moderate snowfall I added guy points to the edge seams, a bit lower than the mid panel points.  These are not meant to provide stabilization in high winds, but to aid in snow shedding.  2 inches of light stuff last night didn’t provide much of a test, but I was secure and toasty inside with the wood stove cranking.

The ghost squirrels of Montana

I went squirrel hunting today, for the first time in many years. I did this for two reasons.


First, I’m starting to get a bit bored with backpacking and the paradigm of knowledge associated with it. This is predictable. With most things in my life I either get interested/obsessed immediately or not, follow the learning process to a point with which I’m content, then move on to something else. This happened with climbing, canyoneering, and mountain biking. I still enjoy all three, and still follow them with varying degrees of dedication, but I could die happy without knowing more about them, or without having done more in them. Mountain biking has proven more enduring than climbing, and canyoneering is a situational thing, and while there’s a lot I still want from backpacking the opportunities for revelation are quickly becoming more narrow. That’s the sweet spot I crave, short of mastery but deep enough in to really see new things. In climbing it was getting up one 5.13. In canyoneering doing some of the bigger canyons and a few first descents. In mountain biking a number of endurance races and some of the technical stuff I rode in early 2008 (descending the east side of Moore Fun with three dabs is good enough). In backpacking, it was (apparently) the Classic this year and last, as well as all the routes in Glacier this summer. Next.

Secondly, the proverbial move away from Montana is always lingering. Maybe it will never happen, but if it does having one honest deer/elk season in the backcountry is a goal, and to make that happen next year I need to develop my shooting to a place it has never been. Stalking squirrels gets the job done.


Montana squirrels are a different creature than the fat midwestern rodents I hunted in my youth.  In three hours out today I heard their shrill admonitions dozens of times, actually saw the little buggers twice, and got one opportunity to shoot.  The rolling fog banks and just-not freezing drizzle completed the atmosphere.  As I was slowly following the calls of one squirrel the gentlerodent above made a bit of noise scampering out a larch limb off to my left.  I circled around and under, 20 horizontal feet away, and 50-60 feet above me he stuck his head out to my side.  In a wonderful moment of precise forgetfulness, all my fretted shooting at stumps earlier went away, the Ruger went up, the safety went off, and I put a bullet through its throat and out its skull.  An easy shot for many, but I was very pleased with myself.

You have to eat what you kill, and squirrel is renowned for being tough.  Pressure cookers and pot pies are typically the order of the day.  I slow-roasted it in a pot with sage, honey, sea salt, alder cider vinegar, a dash of beer, a whole white onion, and three small tart red apples.


After ~2 hours at 225 it was as close to falling off the bone as these lean, muscley critters will ever get. I should have pulled the lid off and finished with 10 minutes on broil to flash off more vinegar and make the apples a bit crisp.  Hunting wouldn’t be what it is without equal parts joy and sadness, but eating what you shot or caught is pure satisfaction.