Archive for June, 2009

A Civil Bear

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

The fifty-ish, male mountain biker came careening down the hill at us. An Alaskan friend, Elaine, her dog, Charlie-Four-Legs and I were hiking on the wide, snow-free, cross country ski trails in Far North Bicentennial Park, a large three mile by three mile green space on the edge of Anchorage city limits. To add to the level of biking difficulty, the wide-eyed cyclist was managing his running leashed dog. And it was suddenly ears-and-tail-up and when it spotted Charlie-Four-Legs.

Snap decisions were made. Flirting on the very edge of pandemonium, we scurried to the edge of the trail and the cyclist skidded to a stop while trying to maintain control of his strong dog. An abrupt introduction soon melded into the joint actions of friendly conversation and energetic dog tail-wagging. Almost as an afterthought the man thought we should know about a bear that he had just spotted over the hill behind him.

“I wouldn’t walk that way,” he said as he tossed his glance back uphill. “I’ve just confronted a bear with my dog and it might feel a bit retaliatory.” He paused and calmly added, “But all in all it seemed a “civil bear.”

Years ago, when I was writing a book on black bears, I had the opportunity to speak with a number of highly regarded North American bear biologists. From them I heard plenty about “dominant bears, submissive bears, and nuisance bears,” but I never had heard of a “civil bear.” Was using the word “civil” dispelling any liability? Should he have used the word “courteous”? I rather liked the title ‘Civil’ and somehow did not feel so vulnerable for leaving the bear pepper spray back at Elaine’s house, a half mile away.

The cyclist went on to share that a bear had mauled a friend of his, a few years back, while out on a trail and that you can’t be too careful. With that he pedaled away talking about a .500 Smith and Wesson Magnum handgun that he owned.

My god, I own a few hunting rifles and shotguns and I didn’t even know there was a handgun that powerful!

As the human-bear-alarm pedaled out of sight, my hand burrowed into my pocket seeking the feeble comfort in the familiar heft of my thin, bent-tipped Boy Scout pocketknife. We had no pepper spray. Armed with only a duet of two excited voices, we moved slightly faster in the direction we had come. I was imagining the next day’s Anchorage newspaper headlines: “Two Hikers Attacked by Civil Bear.”

Talking while moving through thick underbrush in bear country always lets a bear know that you are there. Whistling is not always a good idea, especially if you are hiking in areas where there are arctic ground squirrels and marmots (over much of the Yukon and Alaska). Both of these members of the squirrel family whistle in communicating and both are considered delicious to bears. Speaking loudly, even in incomplete sentences, is usually enough to let them move quietly out of the way. You NEVER want to surprise a bear, because suddenly you are in their personal space.

The personal space MIGHT be as much as 200 yards if the bear is napping next to a cached dead moose or other food. A solo ambling bear might only require 60 yards while the same bear with cubs might need double that. While the distance can vary from bear to bear, the bottom line is to have a lively conversation with a fellow hiker or yourself.

The green space we hiked is bisected by the Campbell Creek watershed and abuts the half-million acre Chugach State Park. Consequently, the wilderness pours into the city and is therefore an excellent wildlife corridor. Occasionally there are sometimes-uneasy alliances between outdoor human enthusiasts, moose, wolves and particularly bears.

Every summer Campbell Creek beckons runs of silver and king salmon. Both are favorite bear foods. We had chosen this particular trail to hike as it was not near the creek and would reduce possible bear confrontations. Obviously the bear that the biker had just spotted was not unlike us and was simply out for a stroll.

Up here, the seasons spring, summer and fall can all be rolled into one mega-season called “The Un-Winter.” And this is the fair season that bears gambol about. Hmmmm. . .ever notice that bear attack statistics are non-existent when winter holds us firmly in its grip locking us into a supreme stillness? I find that there is a wonderful relief or freedom during those darker days in knowing that I did not have to go on strolls into the bush without carrying pepper spray or even having that sixth sense of bear alertness.

Fifteen minutes after waving goodbye to the cyclist and talking rapid-fire, like two auctioneers simultaneously working a sale, we waited at the busy street while the rush of afternoon Anchorage commuters hurried home. Seeing a break, we scurried across the highway.

I was reminded of the irony that I was in far greater danger dashing across Abbott Street, between homebound traffic, than being attacked by a bear. Here we had to be really alert. There is nothing worse than a tired driver at the end of a long workday trying to get home. No sirree, there is nothing “civil” about them.