Social Distancing Works For Bear Safety, Too

Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

Exploring just about any section of Alaska outdoor spaces means there’s a chance to encounter a bear (or two). While we’ve all been focused on human-to-human interactions lately, thanks to COVID-19, it is important that Alaskans remain vigilant and brush up on their bear safety skills now that some restrictions have been lifted and the great outside beckons. 

Bear safety is a must for anyone living or playing in Alaska, and, as many residents of Anchorage already know, sometimes it’s the “city bears” that cause the most trouble. Bears habituated to snacking on trash, bird feeders, or backyard compost piles naturally seek out the two-legged creatures putting it there, a situation that only worsens as spring morphs into summer. 

It’s also possible to meet a bear while hiking, particularly along popular trails. Bears, like us, usually choose the path of least resistance, and take the trails if it means an easier way to transit their territory. Now, at the height of spring, bears are still shaking off hibernation, jump-starting their digestive systems with grasses and other fibrous plants, and taking care of their young, born over the winter months. 

So here we are, recently released to recreate around our communities (and farther), attempting to avoid bears but get the heck out of our front yards and play away from other people. This can present a problem for bear safety skills, as part of the mantra of “Make noise, travel in groups, carry bear spray” means the larger the group, the better off you are to avoid any bear encounter. 

AK Dad with his trusty Counter Assault bear spray. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

Ready to get back into Alaska’s natural spaces with your kids? Here’s what to remember about social/physical distancing and bear safety tactics: 

  1. Pay attention to local reports. The Alaska State Parks Facebook account posts closures and warnings for bear-aware purposes, as does the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and other public land management agencies. Bookmark those pages to be up to speed on the latest information. Knowing before you go is paramount. 
  2. Use your tools. Kids will be glad to know they have most of the tools necessary for bear safety, right on them. Voice: Make lots of noise so bears know you are coming. Eyes: Always be looking in front of you, and beyond to the left and right, and pay attention to clues like tracks, scat, and dig marks or knocked-down grasses or brush. Ears: Bears are not known for their silence, in general. They tend to make a lot of noise if off in the brush. Listen for a lot of thrashing around. Nose: Did you know a wet bear smells a lot like a wet dog, only worse? Bear spray: Statistics show that bear spray, when used properly, is a far better deterrent than a firearm. But you need to know how, when, and where to use it. Anyone older than 10 should take a class on how to properly discharge bear spray. Right now, with many in-person classes on hold, the best way to learn is via this Alaska Department of Fish and Game video (watch it HERE). 
  3. Stash your trash. Camping? Keep all smelly items (used or unused) like food, personal care products, etc. in your car, or in an approved bear-proof cannister. Out on a hike? Take food items with a lower smell-factor. This is not the time to carry smoked salmon. With infants, double-bag dirty diapers to pack out, and make sure to pick up food they, and toddlers, often drop around a rest stop. Have older kids do a “sweep” around your picnic area before you leave to avoid attracting bears and putting other people in harm’s way. 
  4. Keep kids close. I’ve been using this phrase for 2020 bear season instead of “travel in groups,” because right now group anything is discouraged. That said, a family hiking together should take care to stay together at all times. Kids should be within an arm’s reach every step of the hike or walk, and if playing in open spaces, make sure adults are watching out for any unwanted visitors. 
  5. Talk about the ‘Why’ of bear safety. When I’m in bear country with kids, I open up discussions before we even begin our adventure. Often, the conversation is phrased as our entrance into a bear’s home. Would you like someone just barging in without knocking? I think not. Our knock as humans is a rousing version of “Hey, bear!” directed toward our place of travel. This gives bears a chance to get out of the way. Even the smallest hiker can shout, and it’s a fun way to get the whole family on the same “bear aware” page. 

Watching bears fish at Anan. Bear safety is for everyone, even kids. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

Other resources and blog posts related to bear safety: 

~ EK 

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