It’s a cloudy August day, the towering wall of Mount Yamnuska engulfed by the cool, murky mist. You are walking pensively through the forest and up along the expansive rocky stretches of trail. In your left-hand backpack pocket lies a half-smoked joint. Nuken, they call it – an indica hybrid you know well.
You pull out your lighter and put the filter to your lips. Inhaling, you savour the peppery quality of the weed. It automatically lifts the weight of everything going on around you. You take the deepest breath you have taken all day. Mindfully, you travel deeper and deeper into the forest. You step over a fallen tree and – wait, what was that?
Whipping your head around, you carefully inspect each patch of darkness in the woods. Your mind jumps to worst-case-scenario mode. Could it be a bear? A mountain lion? It could just as likely be a marmot or squirrel, you tell yourself, recognizing the weed-induced paranoia kicking in. You wonder if you will turn the next corner and run into your worst nightmare. You take a few more cautious steps, your brain in overdrive. Then you ask yourself: do bears like the smell of weed?
As an avid hiker, I face this dilemma each time I take on the challenge of trekking a mountain or traversing a ridge. Everyone says it, so I’ll say it again – the best thing to do is hike with another person, or better yet, a group of people. As the Rocky Mountain Ramblers Association says, “there have been no attacks on groups of six or more hikers.”
But sometimes hiking with a group can take away from nature’s innate beauty. Sometimes you want to take a minute to gently graze the velvety moss, or lay your overheated body on a nearly vertical slab of rock. Ergo, solo hiking has become one of my favourite fair-weather hobbies. It provides an opportunity to be mindful of both your internal state and external environment. It’s great for:
- Setting your own pace and finding a unique rhythm
- Enjoying the sound of the wind through the trees and the more subdued sensation of the sun’s warmth on your sun-kissed forearms
- Reflecting on old experiences with the new knowledge you’ve obtained, or unearthing one of the novel ideas floating around in your head
However, the risks are always there; there is always a chance that you will run into a tangible iteration of the Berenstein Bears. And if there is a chance to lessen the risk, it could be worth exploring. Monitoring the products you choose to consume while trekking through the woods is an easy enough task for a dedicated hiker. So, today I am investigating whether smoking marijuana increases a solo hiker’s chance of encountering dangerous wildlife.
When I initially decided to write this article, I thought there would be a considerable body of research surrounding cannabis use in the wilderness. Though there is research on the specifics of marijuana and its effects on domesticated animals, there are no specific conclusions on weed’s role as an intoxicant in nature. So, let’s take a look at some information and see if we can formulate a few semi-solid conclusions.
One of its first uses dating back approximately 6,000 years, cannabis was cultivated for the production of paper, rope, and string. Botanist/researcher Hui-Lin Li states:
“[Cannabis] was used extensively in making ropes and cordage, fish nets, fabrics of all kinds, and as raw material for making paper. As a food crop, the seed was one of the major grains of ancient China, the use of which gradually decreased until it was finally forgotten as a grain for human consumption. Oil extracted from the seed was used for frying food but had even more industrial applications. The fruits, leaves and roots were used in medicine in ancient times. The medicinal uses of the plant diminished in later ages. The plant was also used as a hallucinogenic drug.”
In the same vein, neurologist and psychopharmacology researcher Dr. Ethan Russo examines the different uses of cannabis around the world noting its ritual use in India (within Indian Ayurvedic medicine), its alleged anesthetic use in Tibet, and its later use in 18th-century European medicine.
Marijuana (aka pot, mary jane, weed, grass, ganja, the devil’s lettuce, etc.) can be broken into two main components: THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). Tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive component, is primarily responsible for producing that “high” we feel when we smoke a joint. But, as Tracy Ferrell, author and senior instructor at the University of Colorado, states, “[it] is also known to have many medicinal properties, including relief from pain, nausea, sleeplessness and anxiety.”Cannabidiol, the other key player in any well-rolled blunt, does not have psychoactive qualities, but does have a host of medicinal properties. These include, but are not limited to, anti-inflammatory, anti-psychotic and immuno-modulatory attributes. THC and CBD give cannabis great versatility, allowing it to be used for recreational and medical purposes.
A less discussed but central component of weed is terpenes. Terpenes are bioactive compounds responsible for producing the distinctive scents of various plants, including lavender and pine scents. There are hundreds of terpenes in the natural world, but here are some well-known terpene categories to consider: limonene (citrusy scents), pinene (piney scents), linalool (lavender scent) and beta-caryophyllene (spicy and herby scents).
According to clinical psychologist Dr. Michael Breus, “Most plants contain terpenes — there are about 20,000 different terpenes that are known to exist in the natural world. The cannabis plant contains about 200 terpenes.” Why is this important? Consider this – conifer wood, citrus fruits, eucalyptus, lavender, lemongrass, lilies, peppermint, rosemary, sage, violet, and the list goes on – are naturally occurring plants that have been shaped by their terpenes. There is a pretty good chance that, wherever you are in the world, at least one of these plants will occur naturally within your environment. If they are common in an ecosystem, then it is safe to say that the wildlife within that ecosystem will recognize the scent. Their behaviour, however, is context dependent.
Now that we have examined the components of marijuana, let’s move on to the second part of our equation – bears.
What about bears? Well, with eight distinct bear species worldwide, North America is home to an estimated 55,000 grizzly and a whopping 600,000 black bears! Narrowing the focus to my backyard, Alberta houses approximately 40,000 black and 700 grizzly bears spread over national parks, provincial parks, and other wilderness areas. Of those 700 Alberta grizzlies, about 40 frequent my mountain sanctuary Kananaskis Country. With increasing bear density in Alberta, the chances of an encounter are very real.
Bears, according to the U.S. National Park Service, have a sense of smell that is about seven times stronger than that of a bloodhound! Throughout history, a keen sense of smell has helped canines uncover critical evidence. Incidentally, bloodhounds played a crucial role in the 1876 William Fish murder case. Earning him the title of Blackburn’s very own Sweeney Todd, Fish did the unthinkable and murdered a seven-year-old girl (I won’t go into much detail here, but if you would like to find out more about this intriguing case, check out Stephen Greenhalgh’s novel.) Investigators had to pull out all the stops in this high-profile case, using bloodhounds to ultimately discover evidence that led to the arrest of Fish. So, by that metric, bears would excel in criminal investigations. By the same metric, we can extrapolate that there is a strong probability bears can smell whatever strain of weed you are smoking.
Another important consideration regarding terpenes is the diet of grizzly and black bears. These curious creatures have a wide-ranging omnivorous diet because “they inhabit such a broad geographic range in North America, and occupy so many types of woodlands, scrub forests, and swamps.” With most mature bears tipping the scales at 250-500 pounds (113-126 kilograms), it is no surprise that bears feast on an array of animals. Deer, elk, and caribou are a few of the mammals known to be bear prey. Aside from these larger prizes, bears eat everything from earthworms and ants to newly hatched birds, squirrels, and even wolves! More important, though, let’s take a look at the vegetarian components of their diets. Both grizzly and black bears consume a variety of plants including grass shoots, broad-leafed plants such as alfalfa and dandelions, mushrooms, nuts, seeds, berries such as wild cherries and blackberries, fruit produced by trees and low-growing shrubs (e.g. apples and plums), and even fuzzy catkins from poplar trees.
As we know, all plants have specific terpenes that can act as attractants or defendants. Terpeniod roles include, “defence against herbivores and pathogens, and signals and rewards to beneficial organisms, such as pollinators and mycorrhiza.”Some of these attractants can be found in plants including dandelions, maple trees and milkweed; all commonly found in the Canadian backcountry. If bears are on the hunt for a foraged meal, they are just as likely to be drawn in by those broad-leafed dandelions, or delicately sweet maples surrounding them.
And finally …
Now that we have gathered all the puzzle pieces, it is time to put them together. We have explored the components of cannabis and their distinctive roles: tetrahydrocannabinol with its psychoactive attributes and cannabidiol with its immuno-modulatory attributes. And, most important (for our purposes), terpenes – the key players in determining if bears will be attracted to your weed. We have also taken a look at bears with their diets, preferences, and superhuman – er, make that superbruin – scent-detecting abilities. So, what is the takeaway?
Well, if a bear can smell a dollop of toothpaste in your backpack, it can unquestionably smell your weed. Whether it serves as an attractant or not is still a bit hazy. But since favourable terpenes can overlap with other natural attractants, erring on the side of caution by eliminating all scents from your person could decrease the likelihood of encountering the kind of wildlife that can devour you faster than you can take down a joint.
Despite our best efforts, there is no way to truly eliminate hiking-related dangers. To that end, I suppose the real question here is: “Should we stop doing what we love because there are risks involved?”
That one is up to you.
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