There is no doubt remaining that Earth has experienced warmer winters than anything previously recorded. With this notable change in temperature comes variable and sometimes confusing behavior patterns of the planet’s creatures, and in Alaska, that means everything from birds to bears could reappear from migration or hibernation earlier than usual.
The concept of bears emerging from dens in the middle of what is normally considered winter is disconcerting for Alaskans, many of whom feel an abundance of freedom in areas of the state where bears frequent during the other three seasons. Creekbanks, forested trails, and even beaches become comfortable ground for humankind wishing to run, ski, sled, or otherwise recreate within the boundaries of nature relatively free from the usual constraints of bear bells, spray, and an ever-revolving head for awareness of surroundings. For anyone who has not had to worry about bears while enjoying nature’s bountiful options, it is hard to describe except to say that my blood pressure always rises a few digits and my fight-or-flight mechanisms are always at the ready whenever I’m in bear country during the spring, summer, and fall. Especially as a parent who has another human to protect.
So when news outlets and neighborhood watch groups begin reporting bear sign and even sightings in Alaska as early as February, it is a sure bet people are nervous. This is early. People aren’t ready, or used to, packing bear spray during the winter months, so it doesn’t feel “right.” Agencies and organizations have not begun springtime bear safety classes. And while many Alaskans (or Montanans, or wherever you live in bear country) are indeed aware that bears can and do wake for brief periods during hibernation, an obvious “wakey-wakey-for-good” concept leaves us with a pretty big lower lip pout.
It’s OK. Grieve for a bit. Then square your shoulders, go out to the garage, and collect these items:
- Bear spray. I like Counter Assault, used by all federal land managers/staff and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Proven, effective, and longer-lasting than the cheaper brands (at least in my experience), this is the only brand I’ll carry. Check expiration dates; if more than two years old, buy a new can. it’s worth it. Find out more, and what to do with used bear spray HERE. **
- Bear bells, but not exactly for the reason you might think. there are a lot of jokes about bear bells and their ineffectiveness against warning bears of your presence (I put them on my dog and let him carry the jingle-jangle). I utilize the bear bells on my bike, and on me (or the dog, or kid) to let other people know I’m coming. While surprising a bear is no good, surprising a trigger-happy person is even less so. I like noise everywhere when I’m in bear country, and I like to know when people are coming. I bet you do, too.
- A garbage bag. What? Yes, I have learned from my very intense bear experiences with expert guides at Hallo Bay Bear Camp in Katmai National Park that bears do not like anything usual in the way of sound or sight. A flapping trash bag is easy to carry, easy to deploy, and sure does make a big noise when whipped about in the air. One is tucked in my pocket at all times.
When you head to the trails or beaches during the winter months, look for signs of bears like…
- Tracks or scat (note: first scat from bears after hibernation is a little funky looking, and can be different with winter food of roots, tips of twigs/buds, and carrion).
- Holes or uprooted stumps or bushes. Yep, bears, especially the brown ones, with long claws, are excellent diggers and will find food in this way.
- Carrion, or dead things. A black bear recently munched on the carcass of a moose found near my neighborhood. He hadn’t killed it, but was quite happy to take possession, which happened to be right on a trail frequented by hikers and winter bikers.
- NOTE: Bears awake in February, March, and early April are likely to be males; females with cubs have such teeny-tiny babies that they must remain denned longer, and thus, your sow-cub encounters will still be (likely) much later in the spring.
While enjoying recreation in bear country (and in Anchorage, that means most trails on the south and east ends of town, and some parts of Kincaid Park to the west), do these things:
- Make noise. Sing, clap, shout “Hey bear!” over and over. Human noise is the best noise, but if you get tired, use those bells or whack ski poles together; anything to cause a minor commotion. Bears do not purposefully want to find you.<—I cannot state this emphatically enough. If you surprise them, it’s on you.
- Travel in groups. Bears, with their average eyesight, still can’t quite comprehend a large gel of people clumped together, and generally will take off if they spot you. Keep kids within an arm’s reach. Make sure older tweens and teens understand they can’t languish behind the group.
- Carry bear spray in an accessible place. That means in your hand, in a holster, on your belt, or anywhere you can reach it easily and comfortably without much thought. Carrying a kid on your back or front? Put the spray in a leg holster or behind/in front of you, wherever the child is not. Do not forget to clip the zip tie keeping the trigger fast for purchase; that would be a bummer to find it still there when you need it. Biking? Put spray in a front holster on your chest or buy a holder specifically designed for bear spray, found at REI or on Amazon.
- Leash your dog. Think your dog will protect you in the event of a bear encounter, or drive it away? Think again. Most dogs, loyal as they are, and especially when unleashed, will find a bear and lead it right back to you as they run toward their people for protection. Sorry, Lassie. A leash keeps your dog with you and part of the group. Please do this.
If a bear appears during your outing, or if you see active and recent bear sign (as in, a few hours ago or even yesterday), consider these steps:
- When you round a corner and a bear is in front of you, stop.
- Gather everyone together and raise your arms, staying calm and talking to the bear. “Hey, we’re people, go away, take a hike, bear…” Whatever comes to mind. Swearing is not wrong.
- Unholster your bear spray and release the safety. Practice this every year so it becomes automatic without looking.
- Slowly back away as a group from the bear until it decides you are not threatening and moves away. Then leave the area yourself, staying together and talking loudly.
- If the bear moves toward you, stand your ground, wave your arms, and keep talking. Have the spray ready to use. Make sure no people are in your line of fire.
- If the bear has had enough and “bluff charges” to show dominance, fire that spray for a warning shot. The pepper in the spray is powerful, so powerful that it usually does the trick right away. Leave the area immediately when the bear runs off. Counter Assault is best between 35-40 feet in distance. Believe me, you’ll know when the spray is discharged.
- More information about bear encounters can be found HERE.
** Many people ask why I do not advocate carrying a gun. In my experience recreating in bear country, and after 10 years of bear safety education, I agree with experts: Unless one is 100% sure he or she can kill a bear with one shot, a gun will not solve the issue of an attacking bear, and, in fact, may turn a situation tragic. Injured bears are angry bears, and few people can claim they can kill a bear with a single bullet, and are more likely to injure themselves in the panic and commotion. Again, I believe bear awareness and safety is on us, the recreationist, and bear spray is proven effective 99% of the time when used correctly. Pepper disables a bear, it cannot see or hear and immediately will run away from the discomfort. Details HERE.