Alaska’s bears are up and about and looking to go about their business, and that means eating, sleeping, and rearing young. With only a few short months to pack on pounds lost during hibernation and raise the kids to a satisfactory level of independence, a bear has a lot on his or her mind. The fact is, though, humans are but a minor inconvenience to bears, unless, of course, we invade the space necessary for eating, sleeping, or rearing young.
Unfortunately, bears get a bad rap for Hollywood-esque (or reality shows) depictions of snarling, drooling, thundering creatures hell-bent on eating any two-legged recreationalist who just happens to wander within their sightline.
Alaska is the home of brown, black, and polar bears, but it is the brown and black variety that cause the bulk of problems come summer. For us, it’s bears in our trash, bears on the trails, and bears in the rivers and streams. For bears, it’s the people who confuse them with tasty treats left out for their service and surprise encounters as they come around the corner of previously-quiet, tranquil forest trail.
We are the logical creatures who have the skills to reduce bear encounters, so it is we who should take the time, whether guest or resident of Alaska, to learn and practice bear-aware strategies and behaviors that are proven to work.
1. Take a class in bear safety. The Alaska Zoo, REI, Anchorage Bear Committee, and other organizations all offer annual (and sometimes more often) bear safety classes. It’s a good idea to take a class with the whole family (kids over 10 should know how to safely navigate bear country, and use bear spray) every spring, just to make sure responses to a variety of situations are automatic, and not panic-based. Check the links above for class locations and times.
2. Travel in groups. The lone mountain biker or trail runner who thinks a bear can’t possibly reach them is wrong. If you’re all alone, you’re likely not making noise (coming next), especially cyclists. Groups of three or more are recommended for travel in bear country, and more is always better. Oh, and take out those ear buds. Be aware of your surroundings.
3. Make noise. Bears’ hearing is about as good as ours, but there is one difference. Sounds that are not of nature (i.e. cracking branches, water, rain, etc.) are very unique to bears, and usually signal something is not right, thus causing the “flight” response. Bears do not want to be seen – just as much as you do not want to see them – so the more noise you make to signal your “unnatural” status, the better. We sing, clap, ring those bear bells, shout “Hey bear!” or even recite bad poetry. Anything goes.
4. Carry bear spray. I am not opposed to weaponry, I just don’t think it will end well if you choose to use it. Are you a crack shot who can hit the center of a target from 25 yards? I’ll head out with you. Otherwise, I’m bringing my bear spray for its area of coverage and proven success. Even if I’m a whimpering, shaking, sobbing mess during a bear encounter, I know how to use bear spray, and I know with confidence I will at least create a screen of pepper spray that will send a cranky or protective bear out of my area so I can leave, myself. Counter Assault is the brand most public land use agencies recommend, and use themselves. If you’ve never used it before, and can’t attend a bear safety class to learn, I highly recommend a stop by a true outdoor store for purchase, with sales people who can give you the proper education.
5. Recreate at reasonable times of the day or night. Midnight sun means a lot of awake time for many animals, bears and humans included. While it may sound delightful to take a hike through a brushy forest at 8 p.m., do know your chances of encountering a bear (or any other animal, for that matter) go up exponentially. Early mornings are also prime wildlife-watching time, especially along riverbanks when salmon are running. Know your environment, all of it, and you’ll be better off.
I’ve attended a bear safety class yearly since moving to Alaska. Why? I want to condition my body and brain to react on “automatic pilot” should I encounter a bear, at any distance, in any scenario. Make annual bear-aware classes part of your springtime routine, and especially as kids get older. Teaching youngsters the value of education and appropriate reaction can create confident Alaska explorers.
And that’s what we want, right?
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