So, a few weeks ago I told you a captivating and enchanting tale about when Justin and I flew to Katmai National Park to frolick around with the brown bears. I got caught up in my happy story world, and neglected to provide you with the realistic side of life (that is a problem for me often, actually). But I was brought right back to reality by my dear friend Billie Frank from the Santa Fe Travelers when she left a little comment on my post about how she interviewed a woman living in Alaska whose husband had been scalped by a bear.
Oh yeah, that’s right, they’re not just giant cute dogs.
Now Ranger Payje is back to do her duty and inform you all about bear safety. These are things that I learned as part of my training at work, and also from the owners of the company I work for who have lived in Alaska their whole lives. So, here are all the things you should remember when you’re hanging out in bear country.
1. Bears don’t like surprises: They want to know that you are there, just like you want to know that they are there. If you’re hiking or walking around anywhere that there may be bears, make sure to make a lot of noise. Talk, clap, stomp around, sing, and stay together as a group. If you are by yourself, talk to yourself. Or talk to any potential bears in the area. You might think you sound like a huge idiot, but bears don’t understand English, and I doubt there will be anyone else around to hold you accountable if you are off key. Letting bears know you are coming gives them time to hoof it in the other direction if they don’t feel like hanging out with you.
2. Don’t crowd the bears: I know, I know, but there are some people that really need to hear this. It’s the same for moose, and pretty much any wildlife in Alaska. Don’t just go charging on up to snap a picture, keep your distance. These are wild animals for gosh sakes, if you were in Africa would you just go running right up into a lion’s face and snap a picture? That’s what zoom lenses are for.
3. Bears are always looking for something to eat: And it’s not necessarily you. This rule can mean different things in different places. If you are in Katmai National Park on a bear viewing tour, chances are you are there watching bears eat, and they will already have plenty of food. The chances of them running up and snatching your sandwich out of your hand while you eat are slim… they have other things to keep them busy and they would probably rather not bother bum rushing a big group of people for a measly turkey sandwich. However, if you are camping, the rules change. Bears may be roaming around the area because they are hungry and looking for food, or they may have already associated the area with food because some dummies before you left it out for them, or they may just be minding their own business walking through the woods when the delicious smell of hotdogs and graham crackers comes wafting through the trees. Whatever the reason, it is not at all uncommon for bears to enter campsites in search of food. Prevent this: keep your food in your car. Or strung up high in a tree. DON’T KEEP ANY FOOD IN YOUR TENT. That would be stupid. Also, no matter where you are, you can do your part to prevent attacks (and bear tummy aches) by bringing ALL of your trash home with you. Banana peels, apple cores, EVERYTHING. Simple.
4. Don’t Run: This is number four, but it should be number one. The last thing you should ever do in the whole world if you are near a brown bear is run away from it. It may have no intention of coming anywhere near you, in fact it may not have even noticed you at all, but the second you start to run away from it, it only has one thought in it’s mind: “chase”. There are a lot of things you can do if a bear gets too close or starts to invade your personal space, and running is never one of them.
What to do if a bear is too close for comfort: There are always different situations, but you can really behave the same in most of them. If a bear starts coming towards you, first, calm down. It’s going to be ok if you don’t freak out.
1. Avert your eyes: Looking a bear in the eyes can be taken as a challenge to the bear. If you don’t want a bear fight, then look down towards the ground.
2. Back up slowly: Don’t turn around, don’t move too quickly, just start to slowly move backwards in the direction that you came from. If you are on a trail and the bear keeps coming towards you, step off the side into the bushes… it’s totally possible that it’s just waiting for you to get out of its way.
3. Look big: If you are in a group fan out. If you are by yourself, raise your hands up, or open up your jacket. Don’t do it in a menacing or challenging way, just do whatever you can to make yourself look bigger. The bear will probably decide that it doesn’t want to deal with you.
4. Talk to the bear: I know it sounds weird, but if the bear is really starting to get way too close and freak you out, talk to it in a very loud, and gentle but firm voice. It doesn’t matter at all what you say, but “Hey bear, don’t eat me please” is always a good option.
5. Stand your ground: I know this is going to totally freak you out, but bears can sometimes do “false charges”. If this happens, YOU HAVE TO REMEMBER NOT TO RUN. Not running will save your life. If the bear charges you, use all of the behaviors above to tell the bear that he does not want to mess with you.
A few other things:
1. Use pepper spray with caution. A lot of people around here say that spraying bear spray actually just attracts bears in. The only way that pepper spray should ever be used is if you are being charged/mauled by a bear, and make sure and spray it DIRECTLY into their face from short range. Otherwise it’s pretty much useless.
2. Little guns don’t work on big bears. Unless you have a 50 caliber gun, shooting the bear is probably just going to piss it off.
3. Bear attacks do not generally just happen out of the blue and for no apparent reason. Many attacks in Alaska happen when the victim is out jogging (i.e. RUNNING), and they may have headphones on or be unaware of their surroundings. Others happen when people keep food in their tents and bears come poking around to find it. And, most commonly, mother bears are a lot more likely to attack if they feel that their little ones are being threatened. If you see evidence of a mom and babies in the area, skeedaddle.
This is by no means an exhaustive report of bear behaviors or bear safety. These rules specifically apply to brown bears, but they jive pretty well with black bear etiquette also… except for #4… I don’t know what to do if a black bear gets all up in your face. Black bears have been known to be more vicious, and to attack for no obvious reason.
So if a black bear attacks you, I’m sorry.