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Illustration: a man and a bear face off"A bear will often mimic your behavior, so the single best thing you can do is stay calm," says veteran grizzly expert Derek Stonorov of the University of Alaska Anchorage. Stay calm? With a 900-pound omnivore staring you in the face? "It isn't easy, but you can prepare yourself before heading out by envisioning yourself running into a bear," says Stonorov. Know how to assess the situation quickly and rehearse your response accordingly. If the bear does not approach you, stand straight and slowly back away while speaking in a sure voice. (Contrary to some reports, it's OK to look a bear in the eye.) If the bear advances, resist the urge to run; stay on your feet until forced to the ground, at which point you should lie on your stomach or curl up in a protective ball, which usually sends the message "I am no threat." Finally, if the worst happens and the bear misinterprets the message as "I am food," fight back. There is no consensus on grizzly-fighting technique; some recommend poking the bear in the eyes or nostrils, while others report that pepper spray is effective. Of course, the best bear-country strategy is to avoid encounters altogether; make plenty of noise while hiking in known bear territory and keep your food in bear canisters. Despite sensational headlines, says Stonorov, "the fact remains that bear attacks are very, very rare." In the past century, only 45 people have died from grizzly attacks in Alaska (the bears' primary habitat)—a mere 42 in all the rest of North America.


Unfortunately, there is no scientific way to rank a jungle or forest on a scale of, shall we say, primevalness. Its area can be mapped (Russia's great boreal forest, at more than 1.3 million square miles, is the largest), its variety of species cataloged (the Amazon Basin, which has as many as 300 varieties of tree per hectare, is the most arboreally diverse), and its age determined (California's bristlecone pine forest, which includes a 4,733-year-old tree, is the oldest)—but "deep," "dark," and "dense" are terms subject to interpretation. That, however, didn't stop us from informally polling a few experts on which jungles they think are the most lightless, forbidding, and just plain difficult to slog through. Three winners emerged: the Congo Basin in central Africa, the Amazon Basin in South America, and the Pacific island of New Guinea. "There are still very extensive, extraordinary areas of old-growth forest in these areas," says Gary Hartshorn, president and CEO of the World Forestry Center in Portland, Oregon. Just how dark and dense is one of these jungles? Consider the experience of conservationist Michael Fay, who in 2000 undertook an unprecedented traverse of the Congo Basin. His expedition penetrated swaths of tropical forest so dense that in one nine-month stretch his party encountered not a single significant break in the forest canopy. And on the entire 2,000-mile (3,219-kilometer) journey they encountered only five other humans—and more than 200 gorillas.

What do you want to know? Ask Adventure >>

Ask Pelton: Do you have a burning travel question that only the world's most dangerous writer, Robert Young Pelton, can answer? E-mail your question to us at adventure@ngs.org, subject line: Ask Pelton. The answer could appear in an upcoming column.
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September 2004

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