Only in Alaska will an April shopper find the cases of bear spray stacked five high a dozens aisles before the broccoli, butter and blueberries in the local Costco Wholesale warehouse.
What does it mean? It means the bears – grrrr! – are emerging from their dens in the most heavily populated part of Alaska.
And what does that mean?
It means there is no better time than now to make use of that old bear spray, according to the bear experts.
Use it for what? you ask.
Practice, practice, practice.
Bear spray is a self-defense weapon. As with all weapons, it performs better in the hands of the experienced than the inexperienced. When a bear charges is not the best time to be figuring out how to remove the safety catch on the canister, find the trigger, figure out how to aim the can and…
Oops, the bear just ran over you because that was taking too long.
This is why you practice, and if you have old canisters of bear spray sitting around the house – as many Alaskans do – what other use is there for them?
OK, you could season some Mexican food. The main ingredient in the bear spray is red pepper and as anyone who has come into the contact with the contents of a can of bear spray knows, it’s big-time hot sauce. But a bottle of Tabasco in the kitchen is probably easier to use than a canister of bear spray.
And surely safer.
Given safety issues, there are some things you should be aware of before you take that old can out to practice.
“Make sure you’re pointed downwind,” said Sean Farley, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist with a couple decades of experience with bears and with bear spray.
You don’t want to spray into the wind because it could blow some of the spray back into your face and that would be an uncomfortable, possibly even painful, experience.
You also don’t want to practice anywhere that people are likely to come in contact with the spray or where it might attract bears. Yes, believe it or not, the spray that will repel bears when you spray them in the face will attract bears when sprayed elsewhere.
The pepper has a very strong smell, and bears instinctively investigate strong smells. Biologists working around bears in Alaska have reported them gnawing on rubber objects previously sprayed and rolling in residue.
Given this and the possibility anyone who picks up pepper residue on their clothing could get it in their eyes, it might be best to practice on a day when it is raining lightly, which will help drive the spray to ground level and wash it away, thus minimizing the chances of attracting bears or exposing any other humans to the pepper.
And there is no sense using new spray for practice.
If you don’t have any old spray, ask friends; they might. The spray is everywhere in Alaska these days. If you have multiple cans of old spray, ask friends to join you for a practice session. Maybe bring some kids along and teach them, too.
Counter Assault – one of the major manufacturers of bear spray – says its product has a four-year shelf life. After that, the company says on its website, the spray should still work for an indeterminate period but a can’s range will diminish because “all aerosol canister seals will weaken over time, allowing the propellant to escape.”
Farley said he has heard of people with dead cans of bear spray, “but it is pretty rare.”
He has not heard of anyone being mauled because the gas in their can had run out, though it seems inevitable that could happen someday.
Canisters of bear spray are little different from home fire extinguishers. Both contain a substance designed to be driven out of the canister by the pressure of the gas inside. No pressure; no powder.
The National Fire Protection Association says disposable fire extinguishers – those with a plastic head and no dial – must be replaced every 12 years. Kidde, a major manufacturer of fire extinguishers, says refillable extinguishers – those with a metal head and a pressure gauge – should be recharged every 10 years.
If you have bear spray that old, now is probably a good time to take it to a practice area. A spokeswoman for Counter Assault said Monday the company started date stamping its product in the late 1990s. If you have Counter Assault lacking a date stamp, and it’s not unusual to find such cans in Alaska, it’s probably a good idea to use it and replace it.
Tom Smith, a professor at Brigham Young University who worked for a long time as a bear biologist in Alaska, is in the process of testing old cans of bear spray in an attempt to ascertain exactly how long the are likely to last. He has yet to push the trigger on a can that failed, he said, but he recommends people at this point follow the expiration advice of manufacturers.
Aim and fire
Bear spray, unlike a firearm, doesn’t take a lot of skill to use.
Pull the plastic safety tab out from beneath the thumb trigger on top of the canister and push the trigger down. The spray emerges in an orange cloud that can be steered to the target as the bottle is spraying.
In an actual bear encounter, you want to focus the spray on the bear’s head. You want the bear in the middle of the orange cloud. The spray works by irritating eyes, noses and throats. The spray has a proven record in repelling grizzly/brown bears, but there have been some issues with black bears.
In an encounter with a predatory black bear – an extremely rare animal but an animal most likely to be found in remote Alaska or Canada – you might want to be prepared to spray the animal multiple times.
Canadian biologist Rob Foster of Canada tells a harrowing tale of a black bear that pursued him for almost an hour across the Canadian wilderness in 2013.
“I sprayed (the bear) four times,” he said last year. By the third time, he added, he could see that one of the bear’s eyes was swollen shut, an apparent reaction to the powerful irritating powers of the pepper spray.
Despite the limitations of the spray in that particular encounter, Foster added that he is convinced it saved his life. It wasn’t the perfect weapon, but it was still an effective weapon.
Spray’s big advantages over a firearm is that it is lighter than any gun, easy to carry, and has yet to result in anyone being mauled by a wounded bear. Its disadvantage is that it’s not perfect; a large-caliber rifle or shotgun in the hands of a skilled shooter will result in a dead bear, and a dead bear has never harmed anyone.
While bear spray is a good weapon for self-defense, authorities on bear behavior say constant vigilance is the true ticket to safety.
The best way to avoid bears this time of year, or any other time, is to be on the lookout for bears, and for the potential meals that might attract bears. Bears emerge from their dens hungry in April and May, and there is not yet much to eat in Alaska because nothing is growing.
So bears range widely in search of winter-kill carrion or whatever else they can find. If you find, or even smell, the carcass of an animal that has died over the winter, avoid it and give the area a wide berth until the bears clean it up.
The bears will be there soon, and they can be very defensive about any food they might have discovered.
Bear spray had only appeared on the market a few years earlier, and they were not carrying any. It might have saved their lives. Hundreds of bears have since been repelled by bear spray, but it is no substitute for being bear aware.
Anchorage residents need be aware now in more ways than just renewing their bear spray, too, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game adds.
It’s time to take down the bird feeders – which draw black bears like magnets – and reset the garbage-day schedule so as to take the trash to the curb in the morning just before the garbage truck is due to arrive.
Fish and Game officials say most bear problems in Anchorage are tied to bird feeders, trash left out on the curb overnight or unsecured during the day, and domestic animals – most especially chickens. Bears seem to share Col. Sanders’ affinity for chicken, although they prefer theirs raw, not fried.
Fortunately for humans, bears have never shown a taste for featherless, two-legged creatures, but they can do plenty of damage by accident, which is the reason to learn how to use the spray and keep it handy when hiking area trails.
The only thing worse than not having bear spray is having it and discovering it was left at home when you need it.