Key Tips To Stay Safe In Bear Country
-Don’t act like prey (don’t run)
-Travel in a group
– If you want to be around bears, go with an experienced guide or local.
– Use common sense
– Be respectful
– Carry a deterrent (not a gun!)
I am in Kodiak now, flying out to katmai to guide the first Nathab grizzly trip of the season tomorrow. I flew north from “The Lower 48” yesterday with a huge plane load of tourists and overheard lots of conversations. Lots of the talk was concerning the bizarre rash of bear attacks recently- including two fatal maulings by black bears in two days, and 3 people injured by a female grizzly last week. “What the heck is going on up here?” They all wanted to know.
A mom of two young children struck up a conversation with me and asked where I was headed. I told her that I was going to work, and that I had lived in alaska since I had gone to the University of Alaska Fairbanks in the mid 90’s, but now live in Arkansas. I told her I was a bear viewing guide and she then had lots of questions. She was on a Make a Wish Foundation trip, and it was Alaska because her daughter had wished to see whales and grizzly bears. Then she asked me if it was going to be ok, with all the news of the recent bear attacks. I assured her it was, and we chatted about bears for a while. I think it helped ease her anxiety. I told her the chances of being attacked by a bear are ridiculously slim, and almost non-existent if you keep a few things in mind and take some precautions. According to legendary bear biologist John Hechtel, there have only been 207 Alaska bear attacks since 1980, and 28% of those were hunters (and if bear hunting, they were asking for it!).
Don’t Surprise Bears. Grizzlies and brown bears (coastal grizzlies) have attacked a decent number of people over the years in alaska, and it is almost always because they were surprised, especially when they have cubs, or a valuable food source like a moose carcass . These attacks are rarely fatal, and most of time they knock a person down, swat them a few times and disappear. If you make noise you can walk around the Alaska woods your entire life and hardly ever see more than the rear end of a bear disappearing into the brush. If you have obviously invaded a bear’s space and it is warning you with bluff charges and vocalizations (huffs, roars), back up slowly and speak softly.
Don’t Run. I explained to the woman why I thought the recent tragic death of the 16 year old boy happened. There is a core point that I always emphasize when teaching people about bear safety. A bear is an opportunistic predator, and predators get excited when they see prey. Bears never grow up with an instinctual desire to prey on humans, like black and grizzly bears do for young moose and salmon, and polar bears do for seals. All predators in nature will take advantage of situations that present themselves. The easy answer that I, and other experienced locals and guides up here say is is that you shouldn’t act like prey to a bear. If you encounter a bear you should never run. During those incredibly rare times that a bear hasn’t disappeared before you ever see it, you cannot run away- a few of those bears cannot resist the urge to chase what is acting like prey. If a bear is obviously messing with you, and invading your space (following or approaching you), act aggressive, shout and show confidence and use a deterrent. One of my mentors, bear biologist Derek Stonorov, would always say- “if you don’t know what to do, just stand there and do nothing.” This is brilliant advice because people may not be able to figure what the bear wants. By standing still you are not acting like prey, and also not further invading its space. Jogging or mountain biking in bear country is absolutely dangerous in my opinion as you are acting like prey and also are liable to surprise a bear.
Go with a guide if you want to see bears. There is a big difference in accompanying a professional guide into bear country, and partaking in activities such as jogging or mountain biking in bear habitat that often result in those very rare, but all-too-publicized attacks. Guides know how to read bears, how to diffuse tense situations, how to not provoke or scare them, and how to respect them. There has never been anyone attacked on a guided bear viewing trip in history.
Carry a deterrent, not a gun! Tom Smith, a famous bear biologist tabulated statistics about bear confrontations and found that guns are not an effective or safe tool for bear protection (click here for study report). You are much more likely to wound the bear and exponentially increase it’s ferocity. I believe many bear attacks would have been merely bluff charges if firearms had not been used. A deterrent, like pepper spray, or a handheld marine signal flare ( 12 k candle, 60 seconds) which almost all bear viewing guides prefer, does work and gives a person the confidence to stand their ground instead of run away.
I have spent over twenty summers hanging around with as many bears as I could find, on foot, unarmed, and have never had any violent incidents. The secret to success has nothing to do with being a “bear whisperer,” having a big gun, or being tough and courageous. Bears are very easy to get along with as long as you understand what makes them tick, treat them with respect, obey a few simple rules, use common sense, and carry a deterrent. So hopefully if you are going to Alaska you may use some of this advice, or hire a knowledgable, qualified guide and let them handle everything. Get up here and embrace the thrill of being in the presence of an animal bigger and stronger than you are – this is a beautiful thing. Enjoy the bears while we still have them around.