Bears wander. That's what they do.
Being afraid of bears is much like being afraid of crossing the street. People increasingly invade the free range domain of bears. Crossing the street is invading the domain of large, potentially lethal vehicles. It is important to know the rules.
Rules of engagement must be sensibly applied to avoid conflict. It is wise to have high and healthy respect for bears and large vehicles. If you choose to hike in the wilderness, you will simultaneously enter the domain of wildlife which, if you are very fortunate, you may see while hiking. When, and if, you do, it can be a wonderful and mesmerizing experience from a safe distance. It is important to exercise caution.
Black Bear Footprints - Front and Rear
Over the decades, throughout tens of thousands of hours of hiking, many wildlife encounters have been experienced. A few have been with bears. Here is some of what you need to know. Please supplement these suggestions with research from many excellent books and articles.
Bears have two predominant characteristics. They are:
Opportunistic feeders: Easy food is preferred over hard to get food.
Territorial: The wilderness is our home. Our cubs will be defended.
Grizzly Bear Paw Prints - Front and Rear
Other facts about bears you must know are:
- In spite of their short front legs and longer rear legs, which give them a cumbersome gait, they can run like the wind, uphill and downhill, much faster than you.
- Bears climb trees proficiently. They may choose not to, but you cannot depend on it.
- Bears are more often active at dawn and dusk. In the fall they are actively feeding heavily to get ready for winter hibernation.
- Bears are often found near water sources. They fish beside streams and rivers and are good swimmers.
- Smaller Black bears are far more prolific than Grizzly bears and roam in a substantially larger region of North America. It is wise to treat them with equal respect.
Popular bear deterrents.
- Bear Bells: Useless. They are commonly attached to a backpack or walking stick. When you approach hikers using bells, it is likely you will see the hikers long before you hear the limited-range bells. While the bear's hearing may be far superior to ours, a bear bell is an inadequate deterrent. Bears are smart. They have likely noticed many humans carry food in that backpack. It may be like a dinner bell to them. Bear bells are annoying to other hikers. Do not travel with a false sense of security.
- Hike with a dog. Wrong. This is particularly dangerous if the dog is off leash. The dog is smaller, potential prey, and more likely to present itself as a threat. When the dog realizes it is heavily out-gunned, there is a good chance it will return to you with the bear in hot pursuit. It could become a rapidly dynamic and ugly situation. I give hikers with dogs a wide berth, to the point of finding a different trail. Best to avoid hiking with prey on a string.
- Bear Bangers - They are a single-use device which creates a loud bang. They boast a good success rate. I know hikers who carry a compact air horn. There is a risk the bear may be encouraged to defend itself instead of running away. Do this before you see the bear. Do this when you enter bear territory. Learn how to recognize bear territory. If you are hiking through berry bushes, you may be in bear territory.
- Bear Spray. This has become the deterrent of choice. It is used by a majority of hikers and has been endorsed by large organizations including governments. Bear spray canisters have an expiry date and need to be replenished. The risk of a bear encounter has been grossly exaggerated by the media and the entertainment industry. Only the tragic events receive coverage. Just once, I would like to see an article that states, 'Of the 357,232 people enjoying the wilderness today in North America, which is an estimated 11% of the total world-wide, there were 462 bear sightings and two were close encounters. There were no injuries.'
Personal practices, while hiking in the wilderness, are:
Bear spray is reliable at very close range. You need a calm day, or the breeze on your back, to avoid pepper spraying (seasoning) yourself. If by some bizarre circumstance, I ever find myself in close proximity to a hostile bear, and successfully deploy bear spray, it may create a dangerous situation for other hikers in the vicinity.
To deter bears I use my voice. I do a lot of my hiking solo and this increases my personal risk. When I am on a trail with many other people it is highly unlikely there will be any wildlife nearby. There is strength in numbers. It is important to avoid surprising a bear.
Trail runners and cyclists who are travelling more silently at higher speeds may be at greater risk of surprising a bear. Hiking with earphones is not sensible. Senses must not be compromised. Approaching a corner, or hiking over a rise, where vision to the other side is impeded require making a lot of noise.
'Yo Bear' is yelled loudly and frequently. I am long past the self-conscious feeling of embarrassing myself. There has never been a compromising situation.
Evidence bears may be nearby is often identified by scanning the ground for scat (poop), footprints, claw marks in soil or on trees, hair on trees and dead fall, or terrain torn up in search of food.
Bears do not want contact with humans. In my experience, if they are aware of human presence, they will have departed.
When a bear is encountered that does not run away, the following steps can be implemented as required.
- Cease the approach towards the bear and prepare to use spray if required.
- Speak softly to the bear in quiet, reassuring tones and slowly back away.
- Drop something on the ground that is not my backpack or food. Food is always in a sealed container.
- The bear has held ground for a reason. You do not want to know the reason.
- If the bear charges, there is a possibility it will be a false charge to establish territory. The bear may stop short of you, growl, paw the ground or rear up on hind legs. Hold your ground and continue to speak softly and slowly back away. A high percentage of the time the bear will turn away and leave but at close range this cannot be assumed.
- Retreat slowly to a safe distance and go home or elsewhere. Report the sighting.
- Your final option is passive self-defense. If the bear completes an attack, get on the ground face down. Keep your legs straight and parted to help prevent the bear from turning you over. Your backpack will help to protect your back. Use your arms, with elbows extended, to protect your neck and head. Play dead. The bear will likely lose interest and amble away.
The photo above, captured in Glacier National Park, Montana, was a good moment. Notice the hikers on the trail above us. Photo taken shortly after this bear off-trailed around us on the return hike from Ptarmigan Tunnel.
Human behavior in the presence of a bear often astounds me. Many times I have seen cars parked at road side. Some people leave the protection of the vehicle and attempt to entice a bear closer for a photo or to accept food. In this part of the world there is a saying. 'A fed bear is a dead bear'.
In National Parks, where bears have become acclimatized to people, they must often be destroyed. Bear's reactions are frequently non-predictable. People, who get away unscathed, tell their story to others who may believe they can do the same without risk. Often, children are exposed to significant danger.
Parks Services are charged with a nearly impossible mandate. They must constantly battle to find a balance between wilderness preservation for future generations, and public access without sacrificing the quality of the experience. It is an incredibly difficult job and while I occasionally have criticism for a specific policy, I have the utmost respect and admiration for their overall effort. The balance is complex and reasonably well maintained in my opinion.
There are many excellent books on Bear Awareness. Disregard the hype and prepare yourself to navigate in the wilderness. You learn how to conduct yourself in an urban environment. There is a different set of rules for the wilderness. It is important to learn those rules so everyone gets along well.
Fear has a palpable and unsettling presence. Try to be calm and respectful. Bear and I have always been able to reach an acceptable agreement where both of us can give a little before proceeding with the rest of our lives.
Be sure to look both directions before you cross the street. It can be dangerous. Seriously.