Monday, September 1, 2014

Jingle Bells

I love Christmas, but I hate jingle bells.

Not the popular holiday song, but the little bells so commonly found on Alaska trails during the summer.

“Bear bells,” they are commonly called.

“Travel in Bear Country 101” tells us to make noise; lots of it.

At some point, someone realized attaching a jingle bell or two to themselves, their pet, or their bike, would accomplish this task.

Alliteration is great, so why not call them bear bells?

I don’t really care so much if someone uses a bear bell or not to be honest, so long as they’re not riding a foot off my back wheel for hours on end, then, my opinion changes.

Suffice to say, I’ve never used so-called bear bells in the backcountry, or until recently, the front country for that matter.

My disdain for them is less founded in my hate for all things jingly and merry, but because they’re ineffective at their supposed name, scaring away bears.

I spend a lot of time in the summer riding through the Kenai backcountry. Sometimes, I’m accompanied by other riders who sport these jingle bells.

When the cow parsnip and other thick vegetation lining the trails goes into photosynthetic overdrive, it can tower 6 feet above the ground and form a nearly impenetrable wall on either side of the trail corridor (and often enough right across it).

With more than 30 feet between myself and a jingly riding partner, I can’t hear their bell anymore in these conditions.

Now, I’m no good at “mathes,” but I can get by, so here’s a little algebraic fun.

If a mountain biker is traveling 7 miles per hour (an average pace), according to my advanced abilities to use Google, that means they are traveling 10.2 feet per second.

This means that, at least for my own auditory senses, I would not hear them until they were just under 3 seconds away.

Obviously, in an open, alpine meadow, or somewhere with less sound dampening, the noise of the jingle bell will carry a lot further, but then, hopefully the hiker/biker is following Bear Safety 101 Point Number 2: Stay alert, use all your senses, like, your eyes.

I will grant too, that bears have a much better auditory sense than I do so they might pick up on an approaching Christmas caroler before I would.

Another mark against the bear bell I learned of recently: bears don’t know what bells are, nor that they should be frightened by them.

I’m going to call this, “kind of true.”

I’m pretty sure that bears aren’t into music-making devices, and if they were, I’d guess them to be heavy metal rockers with a soft spot for jam bands (in keeping with their copious consumption of mushrooms and fermented meats and berries).

So, a bear isn’t really going to know what the doofy jingly, biped is, and in remote Alaska particularly, the bell might just as well be announcing “dinner!”

On the Kenai, and closer to “urban” Alaska, I’m willing to bet a lot of bears have had varying levels of encounters with humans, and if the bears frequent trails where jingle-bell-wearing users pass by regularly, they have probably established some kind of relationship between the two.

That doesn’t really do much about the limited ability of the bell to cast its sound though.

So what works?

For bikers, a good, handle bar-mounted, spring-loaded bell can give off a piercing ring, bet how easily can they be rung in key places (fast down hills, curvy sections, or areas of thick vegetation), as opposed to just constantly and dully.

Maybe one of the best bets, our own flappers.

Constant communication is a good place to start, and easily fills the void of an incessantly ringing bell.

Like the jingle bell though, a conversation may not carry over distance. For this, I recommend a baritone friend.

A loud shout as is good as any, and will inform a nearby bear that a human is coming through.

Whether that whets their appetite or not, well, that’s a different issue.

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