I have had the wonderful opportunity to live in rural Alaska most of my life. Over the last 10 years I have taught hunter safety, bear defense, and have worked along side geologists and biologist as a bear safety guide. In over 20 years of being in around brown bears and black bears I have been lucky enough to only have positive outcomes in each circumstance.
Now granted luck definitely plays a role in bear interactions. Its not like a bear takes classes on how to interact with humans, they are instinctual, which means they will either decide to defend, attack, or evade. It’s pretty much that simple. There are rare occasions where a bear will hunt a human being for food, there are usually environmental factors lead to this and it usually deals with the age of bear, food scarcity, and possible past encounters with humans.
So lets just jump into it. 5 bear safety tips to keep you safe:
- Attitude is everything
The way we approach the outdoors says a lot about who we are and what are intentions are. If we move around the Alaskan wilderness with confidence and appreciation for this land and it’s animals, we will interact with the wildlife and the terrain with respect. So often aggressive bear encounters have very little to do with what the bear did, but our actions leading up to it. Remember bears are instinctual, but for those individuals who move around the Alaskan wilderness with little respect for its surroundings, or who push the safe distance between a bear to get that “perfect” picture or Alaskan “experience” are putting themselves as well as the bear in a difficult position. There has been some recent research recommending at least 100 yards distance between yourself and a bear. Some states in the lower 48 actually make it prohibited do get any closer than 100 yards to a bear while approaching, viewing, or engaging with them. Although, bears are amazing to see up close, it is important to respect them and their surroundings by maintaining a safe distance at all times.
2. Stay in a Group
I know I am not your parent, and as an adult we love our independence, but moving around in bear country in Alaska alone is a risk that we shouldn’t take. Not only is traveling alone in bear country dangerous, but the environment and terrain here in Alaska can be deadly. With the wet and cold climates, hyperthermia is a real risk, as well as sheer cliffs, dense vegetation, and limited communications. Breaking an ankle alone in Alaska could mean certain death. As we look at statistics around North America there is not a single incident where a bear has attacked multiple people moving together. Staying in a group not only can protect you from an aggressive bear encounter, but it has a variety of other safety benefits.
3. Always Carry a Deterrent
I know this can be a hot topic, the efficiency between bear spray vs. firearms. I am not here to give you a clear answer on the two, as I personally believe you should carry what fits with your comfort level as well as experience. However, I would like to share what I consider a third option, and I consider it the best of both worlds. For years growing up in a small village in northern Alaska, we only carried a firearm. Maybe it was a large caliber handgun (not going dive into the caliber topic at this time), a 12 guage shotgun, or a rifle. As I got older and started to explore the Alaska wilderness on my own, I have opted to carry both bear spray and a firearm.
This is my reason why.
First, lets start out by addressing the elephant in the room and the major argument for both. We know that each of these items has it’s own limitations, and each situation and encounter will be unique. One of the major arguments with bear spray is that it is not 100% reliable and that the environment and the distance can have a major role to play in its effectiveness. However, under the right circumstances bear spray can be an excellent tool and one that will provide both a positive benefit for both the bear and human alike.
Next, lets look at the major arguments for a firearm. First, if you only carry a firearm you only have one primary deterrent to use, and under some circumstances this could cause both serious injury or death to both the bear and human alike. Firearms also require an in-depth knowledge of firearm safety, control and accuracy. Also, depending on the environment we have to worry about not only the initial target, but also the surround area and other bystanders that may be in the area. However, it has to be noted that many lives have been saved due to the effective use of a firearm during a bear attack.
This brings me to my personal decision of carrying both. I believe the more options we have especially in deterring a bear, the more responsible we are. Rarely does a bear encounter require a firearm solution, often bear spray will be enough, plus bear spray can be used with impunity. Also, carrying both options provides the user with confidence and options. This confidence whether it is justified or not can lead to better judgement and determination of the bears actions. It should be note that if you kill a bear in Defense of Life or Property (DLP) in Alaska you are required to contact the local ADF&G Wildlife Conservation office or Alaska Wildlife Troopers immediately. You are also required to fill out and submit a Defense of Life or Property Report Form questionnaire concerning the circumstances within 15 days. More information can be found here.
4. Use Noise Appropriately
There is nothing worse than accidentally sneaking up on a bear. These accidental encounters account for a high number of bear charges and attacks on humans. The idea of accidentally sneaking up on a bear may seem unrealistic, but I can say from personal experience that the majority of my close encounters with both brown bear and black bear has been because neither one of use new the other was there. Everyone of those encounters ended with the bear running off in one direction and me moving off swiftly in the other, but these encounters could have easily ended up with the bear moving in my direction. I have found that the easiest way to let a bear know you are there especially in blind spots or heavily dense area is to speak up and let the bear know you are there. I have had friends and colleagues talk to the bear or clap their hands, the truth is the bear has no idea what you are saying, so don’t overcomplicate the situation. Just talk loud, let your presence be known, and do your best to let the bear know that you are there.
5. Always Store Your Food Properly
More human and bear encounters will take place because of improperly stored food. Remember bears are opportunistic, they will never pass up an easy meal, and food left out or in your tent is an easy meal. Bearproof canisters although bulky and limited in volume are almost 100 percent effective. I have seen first hand a coastal brown bear doing his best to open one of the bearproof canisters to no effect. Hanging can also be effective in food bags, but if you live where black bears are present, it is necessary to follow the basic guidelines of height and distance from the tree trunk. Here is a quick diagram below.
I would like to end with not exactly a safety tip, but a survival tip in the event of a bear attack. The rule of thumb is if you get mauled by a brown bear, don’t fight back, lay on your stomach, use your hands to protect your neck and play dead (fingers crossed) until the mauling stops. If it is a black bear, FIGHT BACK!!! Black bears only attack to kill.