Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Bear Encounters

Prior to working as a mountain guide, I was a high school teacher with a lot of free time in the summer. The free time was great. I definitely got out and climbed as much as I possibly could. But I also had the time to pick-up a part time job in the mountains.

For nearly ten years, I spent part of my summer as a field tech doing fish habitat surveys. Most of the surveys took place in remote streambeds throughout Washington, Idaho and Southeast Alaska. And most of the time I was in bear country.

In the place where the bears get their food.

While the salmon were spawning...

American Black Bear
From Wikepedia

Needless to say, we had a lot of bear encounters. In Southeast Alaska, we averaged one to two bear encounters a day. Most of the time, you would see a bear fishing in the creek nearby. A loud yell, a hoot or a holler was usually more than enough to scare most up into the woods. Most didn't want anything to do with us. Most...

Occasionally a bear would be curious. They wouldn't run up into the woods after we yelled at them. These were the scary bears.

Bear safety is an incredibly important part of wilderness travel in bear country. And while bear attacks are incredibly rare, they do happen. There are a number of common sense safety tips that all backcountry users should be aware of:
  1. In the Sierra, never leave a cooler in your car. Bears in that region know exactly what a cooler is and what's inside. The result is that they will destroy your vehicle to get to the cooler's contents.
  2. Never cook or store food inside your tent. Create a cooking area that is away from your camp and use bear canisters or bear bags to store food. If you hang food, be sure that it is really hung in a way that a crafty bear won't get to it. Garbage should be kept with food.
  3. Campsites need to be cleaned well. Watch out for food microtrash that has a scent.
  4. Try to keep food smells off of your clothing.
  5. Avoid surprising bears. If it is difficult to see, make noise as your travel, sing songs, talk loudly or wear a bear bell.
  6. While bears are active day and night, they tend to be most active in the morning. Be wary if making an alpine start below treeline.
  7. Pay attention for hints that there are bears around. When I did fish habitat surveys we often saw fish swimming by that had bites taken out of them. This is an obvious hint. Less obvious is bear scat, tracks, areas where they've dug up the soil or even trees that they rub up against.
  8. Dogs are not welcome in bear country. Pets seem to arouse a bear's aggression, so leave them at home.
  9. Stay away from bear cubs and never get between a cub and its mother.
Grizzly Bears
From Wikepedia

If you do run into a bear, remain calm. Don't run away or otherwise provoke it. If you run, you may actually initiate the bear's predatory instinct and it will probably chase you. If it does chase you, it will probably catch you...so don't run.

Obviously you should give any bear that you encounter plenty of room. Make sure it knows you're there by making noise, but don't surprise it. If the bear is in your way and won't leave the trail, find a way to detour around it.

If a bear notices you, try to get the bear to understand that you are a human by talking to it in a normal voice or waving your arms. Sometimes a bear will come closer or even stand on its hind legs to get a better look or smell. Usually a standing bear is just curious, and shouldn't be seen as an escalating threat.

Occasionally a bear will charge. Most charges are bluffs and the bear will veer away at the last second. Do not run if a bear charges. Instead, you should stand still until the bear makes his bluff. After this has happened, slowly back away from the animal.

Polar Bear
Photo from Wikepedia

Some charging bears will be distracted by an item thrown to the side. If a bear is distracted by a thrown hat or trekking pole, back slowly away. Do not throw food for the bear to chase. He might like it and think that you have more.

Bears can climb trees. So climbing a tree to get away from a bear is really not a very good idea.

Many backcountry users carry pepper spray. It is important that you know exactly how the spray works before using it on an animal. Practice with it before carrying it. And never use it unless you believe that your life is in jeapordy.

If a Bear Attacks:

There are three major categories of bears: black bears, grizzly bears (called brown bears or brownies in Alaska), and polar bears. Each of these bears will attack for different reasons.

Black bears tend to attack when they are hungry. As a result, the old idea that you should play dead during an attack wouldn't be very effective. The bear will keep at it in order to feed himself. If attacked by a black bear, fight back vigorously, yell and scream at it. Try to scare it away. Try to make it think that you're too much work to deal with...

Grizzly bears are responsible for most of the bear-attacks and fatalities in North America. Usually, a grizzly is attacking because it sees you as a threat. It is in these attacks that you should try to play dead. Lie face down and cover the back of your neck with your hands. Spread your legs to keep the bear from rolling you over. If you are wearing a pack, keep it on in order to protect your back. Usually the bear will end the attack once he believes that there is no longer a threat. Lay motionless until the bear has left the area.

Obviously it's important to know what kind of bear is what. Your self-defense in an attack is dependent on this. Following is a excerpt from an article about bear safety by Darren Smith:

There are some obvious physical differences between the American Black Bear (Ursus americanus) and the Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos horribilis). Color, however, is not a reliable identifying characteristic for either species. Not all black bears are black in color; they come in a various shades of brown and may even be blonde. Grizzly bears range from yellowish-brown to black. When looking from the side, a black bear has a straight facial profile ( from the forehead to the nose). The same profile of a grizzly bear will have a dished out appearance. Also, a black bear will have a straighter shoulder-rump line, while the grizzly will have a characteristically large hump on it's back above the shoulders. The black bear has claws which are shorter and more curved than those of the grizzly bear.

While polar bear attacks are the most rare kind of attack, they are almost universally fatal. Polar bears attack because they see you as food. So there are three things that one must do in polar bear country. First, don't get attacked. Second, if you do, shoot the animal or hope that someone else does. And third, if you don't have a gun or bear spray, get eaten by the animal.

It is important to have a good understanding of bear safety whenever you are in the backcountry. A good understanding of the proper ettiquete and protocals in such an area could save your life.

--Jason D. Martin

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good advice, I live in Salt Lake City, UTAH. We climb a lot bear canisters are a must.. We have had several run in's with Bears over the years.. That is the best part about living next to the wonderful mountains.