We’re well into bear season in Alaska, and there have been some negative encounters in the news recently.
But bear experts will tell you a lot of human-bear interactions don’t make the news, because most of the time bears don’t want to mess around with humans. And people who know bears say there are some things you can do to keep it that way.
Wilderness safety and medicine instructor Deb Ajango teaches her clients about bear safety through her business, Safety Ed.
Ajango walked us through a hypothetical bear encounter, and says, first, you don’t want to surprise a bear.
If you spend time outdoors in Alaska during the summer, maybe you’ve run into a bear or two along the way. We want to hear your best bear stories. And let us know if there’s anything you do differently out on the trail since your encounter. You can send your story by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or head to alaskapublic.org/engage.
Deb: So if you stumble upon a bear and it’s a very close encounter, then that could go bad. But if you see a bear from afar, it’s not a big deal. Bears aren’t out to attack us, they’re not out to eat us. So the main thing you want to do is avoid stumbling on a bear. You don’t want to surprise them, you don’t want to get between a sow and a cub and you certainly don’t want to get near any food source they have.
Think a lot about where you’re hiking. Once you get into the high country- above tree line- it becomes a lot easier. You’re going to see the bear a long way away and vice versa. Same with smells. If you’ve got a wind behind you, that’s good for the bear, because if it’s coming from your back, the bear’s going to get a warning. If it’s a headwind then the bear doesn’t know you’re coming and you’ve got to be louder. If you’re around water, bears like salmon, you need to be more aware of that, make a lot more noise. Certainly don’t hang out near a water source. If you’re going to be in thick brush, make sure you make a lot of noise when you have blind corners, things like that.
Casey: So let’s say you do have a bear encounter though, then what?
Deb: Most of the time, the bear wants noting to do with us. It only has a certain amount of time to put on a lot of weight. We’re not on it’s menu, so if it considers us a threat, if it’s afraid of us or we’re threatening it’s child or food source then it might attack. Most of the time though, they don’t. Usually, it will just run away. If it’s really comfortable around, it might even take a step towards you and it’s probably just checking to see what you’re going to do. We’ve had people who, they’re approached on the trails, and they’re frightened, so they set down their cooler, or backpack and run off, thinking it’s better the bear gets the backpack than them. Now the bear knows, all I need to do is take a step towards a human and they’ll give me food, so the next person, it’s like, hey- let’s try this again.
The bear that’s stepping towards you, it might just want to see what are you going to do and we do not want to backoff, run away. Hold your ground. Let it know you’re not going to get anything from me. If it does start coming closer then that’s when you might want to think about getting that bear spray out.
Casey: So it’s not just going away, what do you do?
Deb: I would even back up and say before the bear spray, use other deterrents. If it’s a curious bear, maybe a teenager, just trying to push boundaries in life. That bear, if you throw rocks at it, it might work. If you have a loud air horn, or a pan of rocks, a lot of times that’s all it takes. If it’s going to continue to approach, I have found that bear spray works really quite well, because you can get close to that bear and spray it right in the face. If it’s a charge, then that’s going to be much more difficult because people tend to underperform. They don’t do near as well as a lower stress encounter.
Casey: How do people screw that up?
Deb: In a highly pressurized situation when a bear is coming at you full force, your amygdala, it’s an automated part of your brain, it starts to stimulate, so it’s going to give you a whole lot of adrenaline. Historically, that has allowed us to live. It actually dilates your pupils, so you have better vision, your blood is shunted from your skin to your core, so you don’t have as much blood if you’re mauled. So all of these things happen to keep us alive. But if they keep happening, its an amygdala hijack, and your ability to think and make decisions freezes, it almost goes away. So in a true emergency, a highly stressful emergency, about 85 percent of people under perform. If you want to prevent that, one of the most important things to do is to practice using bear spray before you need it. You really need that bear spray to be very habitual, comfortable and familiar. If you don’t want to use real bear spray then there’s inert bear spray you can purchase and practice with.
Casey: What are other things people should do? We hear in some cases you should play dead – what about that?
Deb: Any true attack, if it’s an aggressive charge, black or brown bear, hold your ground. Even if they’re coming at you pretty fast, still hold your ground. If an attack or contact is imminent, then drop into the fetal position if you can, and play dead. You’re probably a surprise to them and just as we have this automated response, they also have an automated response. So they’re striking out and if you crumple into the fetal position, the threat is gone. They may even stand over you for a second but if you don’t continue to scream or thrash, they will very commonly split, they’ll run off.