Close Encounters of the Bear Kind
Bears are a Big Deal! But Don’t Let Them Spoil Your Fun
We have seen a LOT of bears on this trip and even had some encounters with them; fortunately, none very close. Because I get many questions about bears, I want to tell you all about it in detail and then what I do to stay safe.
As we drove by we barely saw it so we turned around and went back. It saw us and ran across the road into the woods so I just got a few mediocre pictures of it. I was disappointed, but what are you going to do? So we turned around and headed north again. But just 100 yards up the road was another grizzly! And this one was a beautiful blonde color and not even 30 feet off the road. So we stopped on the road across from it and I rolled down my window and started taking pictures.
And then an odd thing happened, instead of being spooked and running off, it slowly grazed its way closer to us. Eventually it wasn’t 10 feet away from my open window. I gotta tell you, this was one of the neatest, coolest things that has ever happened to me! Here was a truly wild Grizzly bear so close I could spit on him and he seemed to not even care we were there. This bear was not tamed at all, there were no signs of human habitation within 100 miles of where we were—this was truly the middle of nowhere. And yet it was like we didn’t exist. I got some really great photos of him, I hope you enjoy them.
So by now, Judy is pretty freaked out by the bears–and reasonably so! It seems like they are everywhere in Canada! In fact earlier we had passed a Black bear late in the day and pulled over to camp for the night about an hour later. It’s pretty easy to understand that she felt uncomfortable going out and cooking dinner on our table outside; we knew beyond any shadow of doubt there were bears all around us. So I explained to her that all the bears we saw were busy eating an abundance of food and weren’t in the least bit hungry. Then I reminded her that we were in Alberta and not far from Grand Prairie so these bears were hunted and had a lot of natural fear of humans. We weren’t going to have any trouble with bears. That seemed to relieve her mind.
Later, in Anchorage, when we went out to see the Eagle River Nature Center, there are signs everywhere warning about the dangers of bears because there is a large population of them in the Eagle River Valley. In fact there was a wall dedicated to bear safety and how to avoid problems with bears and what to do if one comes up. Of course that brought back all Judy’s fears. As a precaution, I always carry bear spray in Alaska, and that reassured her. So we went for a beautiful hike and when we got back a young lady was also just coming back from walking a different trail and asked us if we had seen the bear. She explained that she had walked down by the river and came around a corner and came face to face with a grizzly and that it had terrified her! Of course that is NOT a good thing for Judy to hear, all her fears spring back to life! But, that night we slept in Anchorage and so she wasn’t afraid.
The next day we were tired of black-top camping and decide to go down to Hope, Alaska to camp in a free National Forest campground. Well, Hope is a tiny, tiny “town” and as soon as you drive away you are in true wilderness and on top of that we were going out of our way to go where few people go. As we were driving back the Forest Service road, we see piles of dung on the road and she asks if they are bear and I say yes they are. Bear dung is pretty obvious because there is nothing around there that is anything like it. When we get to the campground, each site has bear boxes and there are multiple signs warning about bears, plus, we are all alone, there is no else around. So she is now on red-alert about bears; and rightfully so; this is bear country and without a doubt there were bears very near us.
There are three essentials to have in bear country:
- A whistle you blow often. One of the worst things you can do is surprise a bear because it has only a split second to react. Usually the reaction is to turn and run, but not always. If it’s a mama with cubs, her reaction will be to protect the cubs and that can either mean run away with them, or neutralize the threat—which happens to be you. You want to avoid putting her in that position and the best way to do it is carry a whistle and blow it often. So Judy put her whistle on a chain around her neck and blew it often!!
- Carry bear spray. Bear spray has been around for a long time now and has been involved with many interactions with bears and the overwhelming evidence is it works and works extremely well. If there is any chance I can encounter a bear, I carry it! Period! There is only one brand and model I carry and it is what I recommend to you. It’s made by UDAP and comes with a chest holster. You can get it from Amazon.com here: UDAP Bear Spray with Chest holster
Many other brands are as good, but you want the chest holster. Bears are incomprehensibly fast, and bear encounters happen so fast it must be instantly available and nothing does that as well as a chest holster. People ask, “Why don’t you carry a gun?” Because they’re big and awkward and you’ll get tired of carrying it and either leave it at home or carry it some way that will be too slow to get out. But the bear spray in the chest holster is super easy to carry and super fast to get out and is MUCH MORE likely to save me from a bear. A bigger problem with guns is if you do get it out and fire a shot it is extremely unlikely to instantly kill the bear; but, it’s certain to enrage the bear! Because most charges are bluffs and the bear breaks it off without contact, by shooting it you’ve escalated a minor problem into a truly horrible, probably fatal situation. There has never been an incident where bear spray was used that turned fatal for the person, NEVER; that can’t be said of incidences where people fire guns. I don’t recommend guns, I highly recommend bear spray! Read this article if you want detailed information on this topic: http://www.alaskadispatch.com/article/are-guns-more-effective-pepper-spray-alaska-bear-attack
- A clean camp. Most of you won’t walk enough in bear country to see a bear during a walk but you may camp in bear country. If you keep a clean camp you won’t have a problem. Bears are attracted to food, and if you make yourself or your camp smell like food, you turn yourself into bear food. Don’t do that! Never have food or anything with odors inside a tent; NEVER! Keep your food and anything that might smell like food stored inside your vehicle or in a bear box. This is one of the best articles I’ve found on bear safety while camping: http://fwp.mt.gov/mtoutdoors/HTML/articles/2011/BearProofCamping.htm#.U6dhzvldWSo
We got a break in the rain and decided to go for a walk and of course Judy took her whistle and blew it very loud and very often, and I had my bear spray. We were walking down the road and Judy called me over and told me take a look at something. The grass was very tall and wet and there was a very obvious path where something very large had had just gone down over the edge of the road and laid the grass over behind it. We knew it had happened only minutes ago because we could see the grass actually springing back up right in front of us. A bear had been on the side of the road just a few minutes away and when he heard the whistle he took off running down the hill to safety. That ten cent whistle may have saved our lives.
Too Close to Home
The next day we had a slight break in the weather and headed down to Seward. We found a wonderful campsite literally right out on the gravel sandbar of a braided river. We spent 4 days there and had two other very slight bear encounters. One day when it finally got sunny we took off and spent the day out taking pictures. Late in the evening (remember, it never gets dark here) we got back and parked in our spot and sat in the front seats chatting and unwinding from the day. I’ve spent enough time in the wild that my eyes are trained to spot movement and I noticed some movement on the mountain across the river from us. There were two small black dots moving across a snowfield at the bottom of the mountain. I told Judy to “Look over at the two bears!” Oh great, now there were bears here too! The base of the mountain was probably half a mile away and they were about 150 yards up the side, they were small dots but in truth they weren’t that far away! I assured her that they weren’t in the least bit interested in us and look how far out of their way they had gone to avoid us; we were safe! Plus, there was nothing on the gravel bar to hide them, we could see them coming from a long ways away.
Bear Prints Under a Bridge
Our last “encounter” (if you can call them that) also happened in Seward. On another sunny day there was a picture I wanted to get on the edge of town. The road crossed a bridge and the river ran straight towards a beautiful mountain/glacier scene and I wanted to take a picture of it. So we parked as close as we could and I walked back to the bridge and down the sides to the river. It was very thick with willows and brush and I thought to myself “This would be a terrible place to run into a bear!” And of course we were so close to town I didn’t think to bring my bear spray or whistle. Not good! The next best thing is to talk very loudly so the bears won’t be surprised by you. The standard thing is “Hey Bear!!” Followed by “Don’t eat me!! I won’t bother you if you won’t bother me!!” So I did that the whole time I was shooting. On the way back to the car I went a different route because I saw it was going to be easier and less dense. Immediately I spotted some really big bear tracks near to where I had come in! I’m no tracker so I have no idea how long they had been there. But they certainly were made in the last month or less because spring break-up would have washed everything older away. They could have been made minutes before, I just don’t know!
- 1 person killed by bears
- 26 people are killed by dogs
- 53 people a year are killed by bee stings
- 90 people are killed by lightning
- 130 people a year killed in their cars by collisions with deer
Does that really sound like bears are something you need to obsessively worry about? No, the odds of being killed by a bear are totally insignificant. Now, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be bear-aware and take every reasonable precaution—you should!! It just means we should tone down the rhetoric and our extreme obsession with bears and get out there and enjoy god’s wonderful creation!
One should probably not try to do a Timothy Treadwell
One should probably not try to do a Timothy Treadwell.
Sorry for the accidental double post.
You mean be an idiot! The two are synonymous. Alaskans have no sympathy for morons like him or Chris MaCandles. At least Christ only killed himself while Treadwell killed himself and his girlfriend.
Yeah, I saw the documentary Grizzly Man. He was just too close for comfort and took way too many risks. Unfortunately, he paid for it.
By itself that would have been fine, we all make our own decisions, but his girlfriend was with him and she was killed also. For those that don’t know, he was incredibly stupid n approaching bears. He honestly thought he was the “bear Whisperer” and family to them. An old sick boar was too sick to hunt and here were these stupid humans who were begging him to eat them, so he did.
Amazing pics Bob!!
You know my passion for bears. I’d be In heaven with such a selection to photograph.
I also agree with you that a few simply precautions go a long way.
When I was in Glacier NP in ’97 walking sticks were being sold with little bells on them. The intent was to keep from surprising a bear. The joke going around was that you could tell black bear scat from grizzly scat by the little bells in the griz scat.
David, yeah, I’ve got bear bells that strap on to my walking sticks and they have to help a little. But they just don’t seem to make enough noise. I prefer a whistle.
Thank you for the education and of course for the great pictures of the bear and the paw print. I may never get that close to a grizzly but if I do I hope I have the presence of mind to take a good picture.
Calvin, it’s a lot easier to do when you are inside a running van with someone in the drivers seat ready to take off!
I’ll bet that deep down in the the human genetic memory (if there is such a thing) there is a fear of being eaten by bears.
Rob, there is no doubt about it in my mind! When the mountain men first came to the Rockies there were huge numbers of grizzlies and many of the trappers were killed by them.
I think that is a fear that is millions of years old.
Excellent bear photos, Bob! I’ve never seen a grizzly (we don’t have them around here) but I’ve seen many, many black bears in my treks through the woods. They’re plentiful here on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia. I also wear a whistle around my neck although I never seem to use it and I usually remember to bring my bear spray along unless it’s winter, when I leave it at home. Just last week I had an interesting encounter. I left a trail to photograph a barred owl and coincidentally there was a big pile of bear scat where I left the trail. I was standing there quietly for half an hour or so, photographing the owl. As I was leaving I saw a flash of black on the trail…sure enough it was a bear and he’d heard me walking towards him. He ran off into the woods in the opposite direction. If I’d been standing there another 10 seconds he would’ve walked right by me.
Maybe I shouldn’t post this link but it’s such an extraordinary encounter, I can’t resist: http://video.ca.msn.com/watch/video/black-bear-stalks-runners/2gvgv8mo7?from=en-ca-Video&cpkey=d91153a6-ceea-413e-886e-87c096880388%257c%257c%257c%257c …talk about having to change your underwear after!
One good spritz of s I me bear spray and I dont think he wld have followed them . Yes crazy video.
hot rod, yes, that’s a perfect example of where a bottle of bear spray around his chest could have saved his life and wouldn’t have been inconvenient at all.
Thanks for the link Peggy, amazing! Black bears are much more likely to stalk humans than brown/grizzly. I think that one was just trying to work up the courage to attack them.
Safely sitting here at my computer this video gave me goosebumps and brought your post home. Yowzaa!
I know! Pretty scary, right? I thought the second guy to get back in the car might have a heart attack.
lol, that’s exactly what I thought!!
jonthebru, me too! Black bears are much more likely to stalk you as food. That’s why the advice for black bears is to fight them with all your might going especially for their nose and eyes. It’s very rare for a Brown to stalk a human as food, but it does happen. With them the advice is to play dead unless the attack continues too long. Then you fight them with all your might–and expect to lose!
It’s hard to figure out…I’m 50/50 on whether the bear was playing or thinking about attacking them.
Peggy, I tend to agree with you on that. I’ve had a lot of interest over the years of owning dogs in learning animal body language (there’s a good book about that called “Calming Signals”) and that bear looks young and curious. He still looked dangerous, but he didn’t look to be in a predatory stalk. I’ve had a couple of friends get stalked by bears and it was terrifying to hear how they described the eye contact of a bear intent on getting to them.
I don’t know either, but I do know I would be changing my underwear when I got home!
lol, heck yes! Nothing between you and the bear but a rock, yikes!
Excellent pictures and tales from the North… being from WA. where it is full of Black Bears, I found that a boat air horn works wonders to chase a bear out of camp… Bears when they smell something delicious go into a tunnel vision of sorts and follow their noses… The air horn is so foreign to them that it wakes them from that trance and then they scatter when they see they messed up…
Till the nest post, Steve & Zeke…
I always wondered if that would work, good to know that it does. I think I’ll add one to the bear spray when camping in bear country then.
Ming, it works great! More than anything it helps with the helpless-hopeless feeling you have around an animal like a bear.
yes, it’s great to feel that you have some recourse. I already carry bear spray, but I was thinking that the horn could be used at a greater distance, and saves your spray for the really close range last ditch maneuvers.
I’ve heard that one of bear spray’s main function is to help you stand your ground which is a communication to the bear… and prevents you from running which is a big no-no.
Ming absolutley! The spray gives you some confidence and if all it does is keep you from running it has already done it’s job. Running is near to a death sentence.
Thanks Steve, that is an excellent and well proven idea with the air horn!
No worries, a boat air horn is a good stand off harmless tool to use at distance… I have Bear spray but the issue I see is distance, wind, and wind direction… One might blind ones self in a dangerous situation with a bear, not good LOL…
Steve & Zeke…
PS air horns are also good in a number of emergencies where you want/need to get attention…
That’s such a good idea I’m going to get one to keep in the van. Thanks!
Wow! This is so informative, Bob. I’ve saved the links you shared and I added the bear spray with holster to my Amazon wish list. I’ve now officially camped in bear country near Lake Tahoe. I kept an ultra clean camp (as I typically do, but, even more so) and stored trash in triple black trash bags to keep the scent nil. That seemed to work wonders, I think. I feel much better after having camped in bear country and successfully not attracting them. I do look more forward now to meeting them! Someday, when I don’t have to do summer classes, I hope to do Alaska!
The black bear that walked into our backpack campsite in the Minnesota north woods stuck his nose in my pack as it leaned against a tree. I’ve since learned that toiletries should probably go up in the tree (or in the bear box) with the food pack. He didn’t hurt anyone but he did steal three packs that night. Not mine, thankfully.
Linda, odors of any kind are what bring bears into camp, so best to keep them all out. As was your experience, nearly all bear incidences end without any real trouble.
Hi Bob, what a nice summary of bear country etiquette. I love the photos. I am still waiting to see my first grizzly, and I had to laugh at the “oh yeah, just another black bear” feeling.
I came across some surprising research by Stephen Herrero recently (the human-bear encounter expert) on the role of dogs in bear attacks. It seems that people are much more likely to get attacked by bears if they are accompanied by an off leash dog that harasses bears. Here is the link to the article:
I think I will keep my dog on leash a lot more often when hiking in bear country now. BTW, I found that one way to make myself make noise in bear country when hiking alone is to keep talking loudly to my dog. I wonder what the dog thinks about that?
Ming. that has been my experience also. Homer once chased a black bear right back at me and another time chased a black bear cub up a tree. Now, they sounds funny, but at the time I honestly was afraid for my life.
Keeping your dog on a leash will be safer.
Thanks bob. Great info here. I had considered a big gun when I go out to the forest but, I think your advice is the best. Yes I will have my gun with me but, I always do. Its for the two legged animals only. A big bummer for me wld be no convenient snacking, no bags of chips handy. I guess its a tradeoff. You have your food, you cook it , eat then clean up and head back to your sleep camp. Also a hard shell camper not a tent gives me just a little bit more security to sleep. And just to show how statistics work, bent down to pick up dropped razor this morning and hit my head on corner of table. Nice big scratch with running blood…….and wld you believe there was no bear aroundto blame it on. 🙂
hot rod, I like guns!! I have them and will probably get more. But this is one time when there is a better alternative.
Terrifying creatures, but they are also so beautiful! The coat on that one you took pictures of is so glossy and almost blonde/orange! Very magnificent animal. I’m just super frightened of them!
Myddy, I think we all are! It’s in our genetics! Being afraid of them is normal!
When I was in Yellowstone years ago, a ranger gave a talk on avoiding bears. He showed us the new trash barrels they had and explained that with the older design bears could crush the barrels and yank them out from under what the Park Services had thought were bear-proof lid mechanisms. And I seem to remember photos of vehicles that were torn apart — windows broken, body panels peeled back — by bears going after food. So I don’t know if I’d want to keep food in my van in bear country.
Al, I’ve had those exact same thoughts. But keeping it either in the car or in a bear-proof locker is what everyone says now I go along with them. You’re only other option is to leave it out and that it almost guarantees a bear in camp if they are around.
Besides, it’s the law and most places they will give you a ticket for not obeying it.
what do you think of the idea of leaving the food outside your car but in a bear barrel? If I had a large enough bear barrel, hypothetically. Car camping food is so much more voluminous than backpacking food.
Ming, it’s not just the food, it’s the stove as well and anything that has ever had food and isn’t washed totally. The little backpackers bear-proof vaults are way too small. I can’t imagine it being practical.
In the Colorado Flat Tops area last summer there were black and brown bears seen, including several incidents at a Lodge at 9800 feet next to Trapper’s Lake. The innkeepers were not careless. A bear climbed into a non bear-proof dumpster and threw things around looking for food. He/she was a “respectful” intruder in that no mess was made. 🙂 The other incident involved a bear at an open but screened window at the bunkhouse–probably smelled food. Forest Service personnel spoke about “habituated” bears–those, who by multiple opportunities, have come to recognize what coolers in vehicles look like. There were articles about bears elsewhere in Colorado breaking into vehicles to get at coolers. So, be careful and enjoy them when you seen them, like I did, a thousand yards off. Not too many opportunities like Bob & Judy had. Nice fotos, Bob & Judy!
Boy Blue, very good point, these bears are not habituated to humans at all. They are used to seeing people but do not associate us with food. That’s why it is so important to never feed a bear in any way:
A Fed Bear is a DEAD Bear!
There was a story on the news last night about a bear breaking into someone’s garage to get at the contents of a freezer. People who live in the outskirts of Vancouver have bears in their back yards all the time.
It’s when I read comments like the ones on this post that I realize how close we live to wildlife here in BC and how most people don’t have that in their lives. I feel very fortunate. It’s a special experience to be walking down the street and have a bald eagle swoop over your head to land right in front of you with prey in its talons.
Ming you are very fortunate! We need a connection to wild nature much more than we realize!
thanks Bob and wonderful commenters for the advice, I just got a boat horn, and it’s refillable too! I’ll let you know how it works if I see a bear, I’m going on a short trip tomorrow into bear country (that would be everywhere in BC).
I hope you don’t see a bear, but if you do I’m looking forward to the report.
I’m back now from a lovely, too-short stay at Birkenhead Lake in BC. I did not see any bears but did try an experimental toot with the horn. Wow, that thing is loud! I felt quite happy to have it in the tent with me at night.
I ended up buying the refillable kind, mine is made by Airzound, makers of a similar kind of bike horn. Some reviewers have found that theirs died after a while, I will have to see how long this one lasts. I do know that bear spray “expires” after 4 years. Does anyone replace theirs every 4 years?
Ming, I’m glad you had a good trip! I didn’t know that about bear spray. Mine is much older than that so I’m glad you said that. I stupidly forgot it so I bought a new one in Wyoming. When I get home I’ll shoot it off and take some photos.
yes, they say to use the old ones for practice to get familiar with the range, with how wind conditions affect it, with the mechanics of popping off the safety tab… I’ve never done it yet, so I look forward to reading about your experiences.
Being an Albertan living in Canada all my life with both black and Grizzley Bears, I am curious as to your statements of the “dangerous Black bears” and how they are more likely to stalk you as food?????
Black bears are numerous compared to grizzlies and therefore more bear encounters involve black bears, but grizzlies rarely back down when encountered and they are huge. Black and brown usually run the other way unless real hungry or protecting cubs. Their favourite is berries, Grizzlies are notorious for stalking and circling humans as a food source and for play. They prefer rotting carcass’s to fresh meat. Even if you have scared any bear off a great deal of the time they just circle around you and approach from a different angle a half hour later if they are hungry.
Both bears are very, very strong and quick, but Grizzlies tend to be a great deal larger and more muscular than black or brown bears (a grizzly is not known as a brown bear) brown and black are both way smaller than a Grizzly.
The Grizzly is the one that is big and has a large hump on his shoulders.
Here is an educational post:
North American Bear Center – How dangerous are black …
Carol, it is extremely rare for Grizzlies to stalk a human for food, it almost never happens and when it does it is an old or sick bear that can’t get food any other way so it takes the easiest target it can.
It is also rare for black bears but as a percentage it is much higher for them than grizzlies. I think it’s because they are so close to people. It’s common for blacks to become so used to humans they come into town and campgrounds and just run around with the people. That almost NEVER happens with grizzlies. They seem to have much more natural fear of humans.
We are just going to have to agree to disagree.
Hi Carol, like you I have lived in bear country all my life (Alaska for 45 years) and I am very familiar with both bears. I also have spent a LOT of time in the remote backcountry and so staying safe with them is very, very important to me. Based on everything I know and have learned, I stand by my statement; black bears are much more likely to stalk humans for food.
It is extremely rare for grizzlies to stalk humans. However, accidental encounters in Alaska are fairly common but even in those more often than not the grizzly breaks off the attack with out killing and certainly without eating the person. In those extremely rare cases where a grizzly eats a person, it is almost always an old or unhealthy bear who can’t get food any other away.
It is also rare for black bears to stalk humans, but as a percentage there are more than with grizzlies. I believe it is because black bears are so adapted to humans they lose there fear. It’s common for blacks to go into towns, camps, even homes because they are so used to humans. That almost NEVER happens with grizzlies. They have a much greater natural fear of people. Maybe if they were around them all the time they would lose it and be as likely to stalk humans. But they aren’t and they almost NEVER stalk humans for food. When it does happen, it is a very big deal so you hear about it.
We will just have to agree to disagree.
Bob, thank you for this post. I am a single female planning to lead the van life next spring. My greatest fear is bears! I live in Colorado so have seen bears which terrified me. This post is super helpful though so thanks. One question, should I be worried about keeping food in my van? It will be a minivan with windows. Would a bear bash through a window for food?