Commentary

Beary dangerous

 

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Signs of spring – black bear scat/Craig medred photo

 

Almost on cue with serious thoughts as to the dangers of  mountain biking in Alaska, the sharp hoof of a young, bull moose missed Lar’s head by a mere couple millimeters.

Twenty feet ahead on the trail, he’d crossed just below the 500-pound animal when it bolted downhill at the sound and fury of a bike chattering 15 mph down a trail of loose rock on a Chugach Mountain ridge 2,000 feet above Alaska’s largest city. 

Thankfully, Lars is a Labrador retriever. He’s low enough that the foot, not to mention the rest of the moose, went over his head. If he’d been another cyclist, there would almost certainly have been a collision, and it would have been ugly.

But moose weren’t what had cued the thought of danger. That was rooted in an inexplicable “bonk,” the athlete’s term for a sudden loss of energy; a cold and howling Southeast wind; a lack of adequate clothing; and, of course, the bears, which were really the least of the concerns.

The real concern was the thought of how stupid it would be to collapse and die on a ridge top only miles from home. Yes, I felt that crappy; the fingers were already so cold they weren’t gripping the handle bar well; and the maybe lifesaving phone was back home on the desk useless.

Not until thankfully making it to where the trail dropped to treeline and out of the wind, did the thought of bears arise. And then largely only because of  the writing of others.

Scare us, scare us, scare us

“Bear experts have long expressed concern that cyclists violate many of their recommendations for traveling safely in bear country,” Rick Sinnott, a retired biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, opined in the Alaska Dispatch News late in April.

“Cyclists travel much faster than hikers. Focused on the trail immediately in front of their tire, bikers tend to pay less attention to their surroundings. And a bicycle takes more time to stop than a pair of hiking boots. Runners are more like bikers than hikers in this regard, although bikes move faster than runners, especially downhill or on relatively smooth trails.

“Bikes are also relatively quiet. In tests conducted by Mathew Schmor, a University of Calgary graduate student, mountain bikes produced very little noise over ambient environmental sounds. A bike’s noise lessens until, at 55 yards, the sound merges with ambient sounds. Schmor said his tests ‘dramatically illustrate how silently a mountain bike can travel on backcountry trails.'”

Or at least Schmor’s test illustrated how quietly a mountain bike can travel in his tests. There are unfortunately a whole bunch of variables. The level of noise depends on the bike. Those with newer derailleurs with clutches don’t create nearly the noise from chain slap of those without. Those with wet, squealing disc brakes can be heard hundreds of yards away even by people, who don’t hear nearly as well as bears.

And many of bikes, sans squealing  brakes, can approach silently to within 10 feet from downwind if it’s blowing 30 mph or more.

You can read Sinnott’s full Dispatch story here. Be forewarned this is a pay-to-view site.

Everything Sinnott wrote on Dispatch has some basis in fact. The devil is in the interpretation.

Cyclists do travel much faster than hikers. That might be a bad thing. It might also be a good thing.

Some cyclists might pay less attention to their surroundings, but it’s a big maybe as to how much less.  There are a lot of people on Alaska trails not paying much attention to anything. It’s not unusual to meet a bear somewhere along a Chugach Trail and later warn others about the bear in the area only to have them say, “Oh, there are bears here?”

It’s also frighteningly common to encounter people running or hiking on Chugach trails rocking to the sound coming from their earbuds that can make them almost impervious to anything going on around them. You can yell at them from 10 yards behind without their noticing.

A  bicycle does take more time to stop than a pair of hiking boots. Again that could be a bad thing, or it could be a good thing.

Little science

It is not unreasonable to assume, for the various reasons Sinnott cites, that biking in bear country is more dangerous than hiking in bear country all other things being equal – an alert hiker versus an alert biker, a surrounding environment uncluttered by noise or wind (or both) that could diminish both the range and direction of human sound and scent, an alert bear (not a small factor), and the lack of a food cache a bear might be defending.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean it is more dangerous, and the data doesn’t really support this conclusion. As Sinnott himself admitted, “maulings are rare,” and maulings of cyclists, a subset of maulings, are even rarer.

Not to mention bear-human interactions tend to be complicated, very complicated. Here’s how complicated:

On May 4 of last year, I was on a mountain bike that went roaring past a grizzly bear on a kill less than 20 yards off the trail I was traveling. I would not have known the bear was there if not for an email I saw when back at the house.

It was from a neighbor hiking the same trail with her pack of dogs about the same time:

“We just met our first brown bear of the season.  He was well below the trail .  I was just going up the first hill past the first small painted bridge.  He was below the clearing in the brush.  He  wasn’t moving with (one of the dogs) barking at him, so I don’t know if he was on a kill.  There were a few ravens around.  I wouldn’t have noticed him without the heads up from the dogs.”

From the description, it sounded like it was a bear on a kill. I let the area sit for a day before going back to look armed with a short-barreled shotgun full of slugs. I don’t usually carry a shotgun. I’m a big believer in bear spray. But there are certain situations in which I lack faith in better living through chemistry. This was one of them.

Only one ridge over, Marcie Trent and Larry Waldron were killed by a grizzly bear in 1995. I have no intention of dying that way. Thus the shotgun.

As for the need to go back given there are those sure to ask why, the answer is simple: The location of the bear as described would have put it in the middle of a parallel trail primarily used in winter, but so obvious in May that anyone casually hiking this time of year might follow it.

Checking to make sure the bear was gone and then putting up a warning sign if it wasn’t, seemed the neighborly thing to do. I probably should have gone sooner, but I figured it safer to wait 24 hours. In that span of time, a grizzly bear will easily have cleaned up the remains of a newborn moose calf and left.

By the time I arrived on scene, this bear had pretty well cleaned up and left, or at least moved away for the time. But it wasn’t a calf that it had killed. It was an adult, cow moose. Maybe the bear got lucky and caught her at the moment of birth and claimed two for the price of one. Who knows.

The evidence made only one thing clear. There’d been a bear there for days sitting on what in bear world would be considered a bonanza. And grizzly bears don’t easily give up this sort of bonanza. They never venture far until it is all eaten.

moose remains

The remains of a bear kill/Craig Medred photo

All the bad

So let’s us now count all the bad things that should have led to a problem with a bear on a kill.

1.) The fast-moving cyclist inattentive to his surroundings. I wouldn’t call myself exactly inattentive in this case. I keep a good eye ahead far down the trail, but when you’re moving fast on a bike there’s no doubt the width of your zone of observation narrows.

Good thing or bad? In this case, you could argue good thing. I clearly came and went so fast the bear didn’t respond.

2.) Hiker with dogs. Canadian Stephen Herrero, the dean of bear attack research, and colleague Hank Hristienko in 2104 published a short paper suggesting dogs might spark bear attacks.

“What the data does suggest is that in the vast majority of cases, it seemed as though the dog(s) had been running loose at the time of the attack and drew the bear to their owners,” they wrote. “It also appears that many of the bears weren’t focused on the dogs, but came right after the owner.”

Were bear-human-dog encounters this simple and predictable, the dog owner mentioned above would have been attacked multiple times by both black and grizzly bears. Her dogs are almost always off leash (something upon which Herrero and Hristienko frowned) because they can be. She hikes in an area where she is highly unlikely to run into other humans during the snow-free months, given that there are now so many bears in the area most humans avoid the trail from May to September.

She’s a highly educated professional trained in the sciences. She has spent her life working with animals. She believes the dogs make her wilderness travels safer. Given her experiences, which include contacts with lots of bear, it’s hard to argue.

She might be right, and Herrero might be right.

The problem with the data on humans, dogs and bears is exactly the same as the problem with the data on humans, bike and bears. All we know about are the attacks that end with bears injuring people.

No one knows how many bears are spooked and run away because there is a dog in the area or because they are startled by a fast-moving mountain bike. No one knows how many bears fail to react because the bike has come and gone before a bear can finish assessing the threat.

I have had at least two friends report riding between grizzly sows and cubs in Anchorage Hillside park.  They saw the cubs, realized mom was on the other side of the trail, and decided the best thing to do was just to keep on going.

Nothing happened.

I have ridden past a lot of black bear sows with cubs, but they don’t count. As Herrero and Hristienko noted in the above linked story, “a myth continues to be perpetuated in the media – that female black bear with offspring will attack people to protect their cubs.”

Black bear sows are hardwired to get their cubs safely up a tree, not attack. Black bears and grizzly bears are much different animals, something underlined by the evidence on collisions between bikes and bears.

Bad luck

As Sinnott noted, “in at least five of the 18 incidents (of bikers injured by a bear), the cyclist actually broadsided the bear. Some have speculated that Anchorage’s Petra Davis collided with the grizzly that mauled her during a 2008 night-time race in Bicentennial Park because no obvious skid marks were visible and she had no memory of seeing the bear.

“Colliding with a grizzly, as (Montana’s Brad) Treat did, is likely to provoke a mauling. In two of four instances where bikers collided with a black bear, the bikers escaped with road rash, facial injuries, nothing more painful than a few cracked ribs, all spill-related.”

In a third, the biker suffered no injuries at all.  None of the cyclists who ran into black bears, now a common animal in North America, were killed. The only one of the five killed was the one who hit a grizzly bear.

One would expect that if a cyclist hits a bear someone would get injured. When there is no collision, cyclists tends to get away unharmed. Sinnott was forced to ask, “why aren’t more cyclists mauled?”

The answer to that might be simple. Black bears, being pretty timid creatures, might view bikes as a threat. I have personal experience with several, maybe as many as half dozen,  bears spooking and fleeing (just like the moose at the start of this report) in fear when approached by a fast-moving bike.

How many do this? We don’t know, and it wouldn’t be easy to figure out how to design a controlled experiment to find it an answer. Not to mention the question of whether it would be worth the cost.

Personally, I don’t worry about running into a black bear. There’s every reason to believe they see us as scarier than we should see them.

Grizzly bears are a different matter. I was one of those who speculated Davis might have run into that grizzly bear in Bicentennial Park largely because of the damage it did to her. That bear was either being predatory, which seems unlikely given that it didn’t hang around, or aggressively defensive, as was the case with the bear that killed Trent and Waldron.

The danger posed by an angry or upset grizzly is enough that when riding in areas with evidence of grizzly activities, I’m a lot more cautious than when riding in areas mainly frequented by black bears, such as Anchorage’s Kincaid Park. And when riding in areas where there’s suddenly a whole lot of bear scat around, especially this time of year, I get downright nervous.

Why? Because a concentration of bear sign in May often means a grizzly bear on a fresh kill or a winter kill, ie. a moose already dead due to over-winter starvation or stress. And a grizzly on a kill, as the deaths of Trent and Waldron illustrated, is a very dangerous bear.

So, too, is a grizzly hit by a cyclist. But the odds of that happening…?

Well there is Treat and maybe Davis, and maybe Davis and Treat. To say that odds of running into a grizzly and being mauled  are “extremely low” would be to overstate the case. The odds are infinitesimal. It’s a senseless thing to worry about.

Real dangers

Suffice to say, you face a much greater risk of being mauled by a car if you decide to ride your bike along a road to get to where the mountain biking starts, or decide to ride your bike home along a road after the mountain biking ends.

Still Sinnott, who has spent more time around bears than most if not all of the people reading this and deserves due respect based on his experience, did offer some good advice to cyclists. It is advice everyone moving about off the road system in Alaska should remember:

  • Be vigilant. I always am. More so because of the moose than the bears. We have had far more cyclists injured by moose in Anchorage in recent years than by bears.
  • Carry bear spray. I do. I even pulled it once when a sow grizzly in the brush along an alder thick trail grunted at me or at her cubs. I don’t know which. I just know she grunted. Thankfully, I did not need to use the spray.  You might also note that in a pinch bear spray can be used on belligerent moose. 
  • Make lots of noise. I do. My tone-deaf singing on the downhill descents of some neighborhood trails would be enough to scare the dead away, and on the uphills I’m invariably barking at Lars to “wait up.” Yes, he often goes along on rides, but he long ago proved himself an asset around bears. But that’s another story for another day. I tend to agree in general with Herrero’s warning about dogs and bears until the dog is proven OK around bears.

Lastly, Sinnott offers this advice: Travel in groups. It’s not bad advice. Follow it if you can. But I’m tired of hearing it. I’m not staying home because I can’t find someone to ride with on the spur of the moment, although I guess Lars could be declared part of a “group.”

Lastly, there is only one key thing to add to this list, and that is to be vigilant everywhere – not just when mountain biking.

The closest I came to a collision with a bear was while on a road bike in the bike lane doing about 20 mph along Elmore Road in the city. The bear came charging out of the woods near the offices of the Bureau of Land Management. I had to swerve and brake to miss it, and we didn’t miss by much.

The bear kept going across Elmore. It didn’t look back. It didn’t slow down. There had been some problems with bears in garbage in the adjacent at subdivision at the time. I could only guess that maybe the bear was late for dinner.

 

 

 

 

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1 reply »

  1. If you’re riding single track below treeline in the summertime you’re playing Russian Roulette here on the Kenai. I don’t do it anymore, but I do ride the hills on Skilak Road between Jims and Engineer Lake in July/August and have had at least a half dozen encounters with black bears in the past few years. Never any problems. Going downhill at 30 mph if I see a bear I scream my head off and put the hammer down and they always bolt. Going uphill at 3 mph if I see a bear I stop, pull out my bear spray and wait for a vehicle and ask them to give me a block as we pass the bear. I think the difference is that maybe the bears know the road as a place of (mostly) large loud fast moving vehicles and they don’t mess. Trails are a great place for surprises (maybe that’s how Surprise Creek across from Jims got its name?). Of course, this theory could be disproven when the road encounter involves a brownie. Hope not.

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