Walking and Talking in the Company of Bears

“You’ve got bear spray?” is a commonly heard query in the summer.

Recently we picked up our truck from Rick, a mechanically inclined neighbor some three miles down the Annie Lake Road from the Outpost. We had just told him we were off to head up the Alligator Lake trail on our mountain bikes. The plan was to ride six or seven miles and then rest our “bush ponies” as Nancy calls them, and hike to the summit of Goat Mountain. We assured him that we had a couple of cans of the potent pepper spray.

Pepper spray, also known as OC spray (from “Oleoresin Capsicum”), OC gas, and capsicum spray, is formally known as a lachrymatory agent. This is a chemical compound that irritates the eyes to cause tears, pain, and even temporary blindness. It is frequently used in riot and crowd control, and personal self-defense. The pepper spray used on bears is far more potent than the human deterrent.*

In writing the series of regional books, Things That Bite: A Realistic Look at Critters that Scare People, I have consistently found that across the continent, there is an overriding fear of bears. (The book is available online, in most major book store or through Adventure Publications. www.adventurepublications.net)

I believe there is a deep-rooted, primal fear of large carnivorous animals. Somewhere in our brief history we were prey to larger animals that sometimes found our flesh tasty. These included alligators, sharks, large cats and bears. Most people believe that all bears are inherently dangerous and consequently many bears are killed without a charge of guilty.

Let’s set the record straight. The wild critters that cause more human deaths every year than any other beast in North America is the honeybee and other stinging wasps and hornets. And the only reason they sting is that when they feel threatened they will sting to protect themselves and their home colony. Two percent of the human population is allergic to their venom and could go into anaphylactic shock. Without proper diagnosis or medical attention the person who has been stung can die of breathing complications.

Rick, the mechanic, went on to say that in his thirty plus years in the Yukon he had never seen so much bear sign as this year. Other long time residents have been echoing Rick’s observations. Indeed we likewise had noted the abundance of piles of bear crap alongside the road. And no, there was no distinct odor of pepper spray nor any bear bells in the feces.

When we get visitors from Minnesota, they almost always ask about bears and usually show real concern when we venture out for a hike. While Nancy and I are out mountain biking, backcountry hiking, canoeing or camping at least three times a week, we have yet to spray our bear spray. This summer we have had two encounters with grizzly bears and one night while I was on my mountain bike I suddenly found myself less than ten yards from a husky black bear. Both of us looked surprised. I kept pedaling, no faster and no slower, the bear simply stood and watched me moving on.

Two years ago we had a very blonde and very adult grizzly come ambling down a hill towards our campsite while on a canoe trip in the remote country of the Wind River of the northern Yukon. The bear came within 35 yards of us; six of us all huddled together to make ourselves look large and ominous. It was a sudden flap of the tarp in a gust of wind that scared that bear away.

Three weeks ago we were taking a break from hiking up in the alpine area above Fraser Lake in northern British Columbia, when we spotted a very large grizz ambling along swinging its massive head back and forth as it munched on the abundance of wild produce. It was about 300 yards from us and we simply sat and watched. With a breeze blowing towards the bear, it suddenly stopped, lifted its snout skyward and sniffed our presence. In the briefest of moments, the bear swung around and took off running. We watched the bruin gallop for at least a mile.

Then yesterday we were up on top of White Mountain in the alpine area. We hiked over s a slight rise and there was a grizzly bear about 150 yards from us. The bear paused to look at the four hikers and three leashed dogs. I might add that the dogs stayed silent but they were straining at their leashes. The handsome bear did not dally and it turned an about face and loped away.

Seeing grizzly bears is a tremendous highlight but we have learned that the best deterrent is to simply be aware of where you are. You are in the bears “house.” It is best that you do not slip in quietly. You should be making noise.

Last summer I interviewed Rick Sinoff, a wildlife biologist from Anchorage, Alaska. He is very aware of bear/human issues. “You don’t want to ever surprise a bear. You should make noise, sing a loud song or whatever it takes to make your presence known, particularly while in thickly vegetated areas.” Most bears will do their best to avoid you if you let them know you are in the area.

And traveling with others is a good idea. Sinoff noted, “Grizzly bears rarely attack groups of 4 or more people. Because almost all brown bear attacks are defensive, often involving cubs or food, and contact is rare, the best way to avoid an attack is to talk to the bear, increase distance without running, and play dead only when contact is made. Black bears are usually much less dangerous. They tend to avoid people. However, if a black bear follows you or approaches closely, the bear is not behaving defensively, so be prepared to fight it off. It’s too late to wish you had a can of bear spray in your hand when a bear charges or approaches very closely: much better to carry it with you within easy reach.”

Just this morning Nancy and I walked downstream through the brush along the Watson River hoping to find two plastic chairs that blew off our river deck during a recent blow. While we didn’t find the chairs, we did find some blueberries.

And yes, we carried the bear spray and chattered along the way.

*In the past few years the US Fish and Wildlife Service conducted a study comparing the effectiveness of bear spray to firearms. The following is a synopsis of that study:
When it comes to self-defense against grizzly bears, the answer is not as obvious as it may seem. In fact, experienced hunters are surprised to find that despite the use of firearms against a charging bear, they were attacked and badly hurt. Evidence of human-bear encounters even suggests that shooting a bear can escalate the seriousness of an attack, while encounters where firearms are not used are less likely to result in injury or death of the human or the bear. While firearms can kill a bear, can a bullet kill quickly enough — and can the shooter be accurate enough — to prevent a dangerous, even fatal, attack? The question is not one of marksmanship or clear thinking in the face of a growling bear, for even a skilled marksman with steady nerves may have a slim chance of deterring a bear attack with a gun. Law enforcement agents for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have experience that supports this reality — based on their investigations of human-bear encounters since 1992, persons encountering grizzlies and defending themselves with firearms suffer injury about 50% of the time. During the same period, persons defending themselves with pepper spray escaped injury most of the time, and those that were injured experienced shorter duration attacks and less severe injuries. Canadian bear biologist Dr. Stephen Herrero reached similar conclusions based on his own research — a person’s chance of incurring serious injury from a charging grizzly doubles when bullets are fired versus when bear spray is used. Awareness of bear behavior is the key to mitigating potential danger. Detecting signs of a bear and avoiding interaction, or understanding defensive bear behaviors, like bluff charges, are the best ways of escaping injury. The Service supports the pepper spray policy of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, which states that bear spray is not a substitute for following proper bear avoidance safety techniques, and that bear spray should be used as a deterrent only in an aggressive or attacking confrontation with a bear.

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