Okay, so I haven’t always been brave or willing to mingle with bears in the wild. My Mom tends to tell anyone who calls be brave the story of the first time I saw a bear. She starts the story with a malicious grin and a quick eyebrow raise. “If I recall correctly, didn’t you latch onto your Dad’s arm, terrified of a little bear?” She says this like it was recent, rather than 15 years ago.
Not-so-long story short, late one night, in one of the many campgrounds of Yosemite, my family was startled awake by flashlights strobing across our tent, quick footsteps through gravel, and multiple shrieks with a few more calm voices talking amongst each other. Like a family of meerkats popping our heads out of the tent and crawling out, still half asleep, with my eyes adjusting to the bright headlamps and flashlights sweeping the grounds, I was confused. Moments later a gigantic bear galloped towards us. It’s muscles rippling with the lumbering canter you could see its coat glistening in the moonlight. Fight or flight kicked in and I jumped onto my Dad. I wrapped my arms and legs around his arm and clawed my way up higher screaming and yelling, “Protect me! I am little! Help!” Not my finest moment. My Dad put his hand on my shoulder and tried to push me off then worked on peeling my tiny hands off laughing and with exasperation telling me, “I can’t if you’re attached to me like a starfish. I can’t protect you like this.” Crying and hyperventilating even after the danger had passed, my family looked at me with amusement and busted up laughing. “Scaredy Cat!”
15 years later I went backpacking with my best friend Heather and pup Jax through bear country in Oregon. I was aware of the bears and brought bear mace and put a bear bell on Jax to avoid sneaking up on one. While hiking to a waterfall we randomly came across in the Mount Hood forest, 4.5 miles in to the 8 mile round trip hike, I heard a rustling in the bushes above the trail we were currently walking. I stopped quickly and pulled the pup closer on the leash. Sure enough, there was a black bear foraging. I quietly and in my best adult voice told Heather to look to where I was pointing.
Now I had told her if we saw a bear, not to run. I explained we needed to stand our ground and make a ton of noise and if necessary, we would spray the bear spray. We were all too familiar with how much pepper spray hurt and were confident it would protect us. But when she spotted the bear, all instructions were ignored and she bolted. “DAMN IT!” I yelled. We need to stay together, but she was already scrambling rocks and Jax, surprised by the sudden hustle and anxious vibe started barking drawing the attention of the bear. I swooped up Jax and held him in a fireman’s carrying position as I fast walked towards Heather who was zig-zagging like she was being hunted by predator. Looking over my shoulder to see if we were being followed periodically, I finally caught up to Heather who was wide-eyed, panicking but totally stoked. “My Mom would have shit herself if she were here.” I couldn’t help but laugh. So true. I made Heather walk shoulder to shoulder with me the rest of the way back to the car and explained to her, “Prey runs.”
Remembering how scared I was when I first saw a bear, I couldn’t help but think how I could remain calm in a similar situation. Perhaps with age I did get braver… or maybe the fact that she was a bigger scaredy cat than me gave me a temporary sense of false courage. Either way I decided we really needed to look up what to do incase of a bear because I was about to road trip through Alaska and something told me I would be seeing a lot more of these creatures.
Bear Safety Rules:
1. Never cook or store food in or near your tent.
2. Hang food and other items with strong odors (ie, toothpaste, bug repellent, soap, etc.) out of reach of bears. Hang items at least 10 ft above the ground and. If no trees are available, store your food in airtight or bear-proof containers.
3. Change your clothing before you go to sleep; don’t wear what you cooked in to go to bed and be sure to store smelly clothing along with your food/smelly items.
4. Keep the area clean. Be sure to wash dishes, dispose of garbage, and wipe down tables.
5. Burn garbage completely in a hot fire and pack trash out – don’t bury it.
Backcountry and Trail Precautions:
1. Don’t surprise bears. If you’re hiking, make your presence known. Make noise by talking loudly, singing, or wearing a bell.
2. If you can, travel with a group. Groups are noisier and easier for bears to detect.
Keep in mind that bears tend to be more active at dawn and dusk so plan your hikes accordingly.
3. Stay on marked trails and obey the regulations of the area you’re hiking/camping in.
4. If you’re hiking in bear country, keep an eye out for tracks, scat, digs, and trees that bears have rubbed.
If You Encounter a Bear:
1. Remain calm and avoid sudden movements.
2. Give the bear plenty of room, allowing it to continue its activities undisturbed. If it changes its behavior, you’re too close so back away.
3. If you see a bear but the bear doesn’t see you, detour quickly and quietly.
4. If a bear spots you, try to get its attention while it is still farther away. You want it to know you’re human so talk in a normal voice and waive your arms.
5. Remember that a standing bear is not always a sign of aggression. Many times, bears will stand to get a better view.
6. Throw something onto the ground (like your camera) if the bear pursues you, as it may be distracted by this and allow you to escape.
7. Never feed or throw food to a bear. (This is very important. If a bear associates humans with food the bear has to be put down.)
If a Bear Charges:
Remember that many bears charge as a bluff. They may run, then veer off or stop abruptly. 1. Stand your ground until the bear stops, then slowly back away.
2. Never run from a bear! They will chase you and bears can run faster than 30 mph.
3. Don’t run towards or climb a tree. Black bears and some grizzlies can climb trees, and many bear will be provoked to chase you if they see you climbing.
4. If you have pepper spray, be sure that you have trained with it before using it during an attack.
If a Grizzly Bear Attacks:
1. Play dead!
2. Lie face down on the ground with your hands around the back of your neck.
3. Stay silent and try not to move.
4. Keep your legs spread apart and if you can, leave your pack on to protect your back.
5. Once the bear backs off, stay quiet and still for as long as you can. Bears will often watch from a distance and come back if they see movement.
If a Black Bear Attack:
1. Be loud, waive your arms, and stand your ground.
2. Fight back! Be aggressive and use any object you have.
3. Only if you are sure the bear attacking is a mother who is protecting its cubs, play dead.
4. If you have pepper spray, use it. Begin spraying when it’s within 40 ft so it runs into the fog. Aim for the face.
These are specific guidelines for your safety and the safety of the bear. Make sure you are familiar with the rules and don’t be like Heather and run away… Or me, holding back someone who is trying to protect you.
Bear Safety Source: http://usparks.about.com/od/backcountry/a/Bear-Safety.htm