The chilliest winter in some years has come to an end in Alaska’s largest city with April looking to be the first month since December to end with the monthly average temperature near or above normal.
The bears that have been absent for six months have emerged from their winter’s sleep – surprise, surprise, surprise.
And the cute and simplistic advice on how to deal with bruins has begun.
“While we’re all steadfastly following COVID-19 protocols, getting out into the fresh air is allowed assuming physical-distancing guidelines are being adhered to. While you are out doing just that, should you happen to see a bear, DO NOT RUN. Are you going to want to run? Of course you are,” an Anchorage Police Department (APD) “Community Message” emailed to city residents on Saturday said. “Bears are big and smelly, have sharp teeth and claws, and have a super scary growl. Here’s the thing, though: you most definitely are NOT Usain Bolt. And even if you were, you would still get caught and chewed on. Usain was once clocked running at just under 28 mph. Bears can run over 30 mph. Do the math. Also, prey runs. The second you start to beat feet, the bear will believe you to be fast food (although not fast enough) and will chase you down.”
So many things are wrong there it’s hard to know where to begin in breaking this down. So let’s start with the issue in big, bold type: “DO NOT RUN.”
This is good advice if – and keep in mind the if – if you come face-to-face with a bear on a trail. If that happens, stand your ground.
And then what?
APD offered neither a clue nor a link to the website of “our partners at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game” where you might find some advice. Maybe you can just stand there contemplating the running speed of Usain Bolt until the bear either gets bored and leaves or attacks you.
Actually, the first thing you should do while standing there is make a quick determination of what kind of bear you are looking at because that could play a key role in dictating how you deal with it.
But before we get into that in detail (I have some experience here in that I’ve dealt with hundreds of bears and once shot one off my leg because I made a bad decision), let’s revisit that DO NOT RUN advice.
The advice against running is premised on the idea you are in a situation with no refuge nearby. Often in urban and suburban settings – say in Alaska’s largest city – refuge is available.
If you some morning walk out on your deck on the Anchorage Hillside, or in any other neighborhood for that matter, and see a bear on the end of the deck, don’t stand there. Turn around, run your butt right back in the house, and slam the door.
If you’re still near your car or truck in the ever-popular Glen Alps parking lot of Chugach State Park below Flattop Mountain above Anchorage, and a bear sidles out of the woods 50 feet away, the advice is much the same.
Sprint back to that motor vehicle and jump inside.
Lastly – and pray you are never in this situation – if you stumble on a bear on a moose kill, and you are unarmed – run!
The bear might still come after you. It might even catch you and mess you up. But the animal’s main interest is in defending its food, and the farther you get from its food, the better the chances it will leave you alone – even if it catches you – to go back and defend its food.
If you’re half nuts and bold enough, you might be able to drive it off the kill. I’ve done this three times – once with the aid of a dog with truly bad judgment – and do not recommend it. I was also armed in all three cases, and in one of them had armed back up. And in the other, well, there was that dog who really did not like bears.
(Dogs are there own issue which we won’t get into here. The good ones are a great aide. The bad ones can bring trouble. Bear behavior expert Stephen Herrero, who has studied hundreds of bear attacks, believes the latter outnumber the former.)
I also knew one of the two Anchorage residents who were killed by a bear on a kill in 1995 one ridge over from my home in the foothills of the Chugach Mountains. Seventy-seven-year-old Marcie Trent was well known to everyone in the Anchorage running community.
Her son-in-law – Larry Waldron, 45 – was a runner, too, but best known for his skill on the saxophone. By all accounts, neither he nor Trent had time to react when the bear came out of the brush, but the thing to do would be to run.
Stand your ground!
OK, with that out of the way, let’s revisit you and the bear you’re staring down. Here’s the advice from Fish and Game:
“Stand your ground and talk to it calmly. Let the bear know you are human. Talk in a normal voice. Help the bear recognize you. Try to appear larger by standing close to others in your group or wave your arms slowly above your head. Try to back away slowly, but if the bear follows, stop and hold your ground.”
If you’re with others, bunch up. The last thing any bear wants to deal with is a pack of humans. Bear attacks on more than two people holding their ground are extremely rare. An attack on a group bigger than that is almost unheard of.
Four hikers in Glacier Bay National Monument (now a park) in the 1970s were able to drive off a lone grizzly that had already killed and largely eaten 25-year-old Alan Precup.
The group was “establishing camp when the animal approached,” the Associated Press reported at the time. “He came as close as 12 feet, but was driven off when the four banded together and ‘made lots of noise and threw rocks,'” according to a National Park Service spokeswoman.
The bear-repulsing power of the human mob is the best reason for hiking with a group in Alaska even in these days of COVID-19.
Floridian photographer Betty Snyder – a 2016 visitor to the Denali National Park and Preserve in Central – captured a series of pictures demonstrating exactly how a group of hikers can team up to drive off a bear, in this case a young grizzly.
The photo how-to and a detailed account of that bear encounter can be found by clicking here.
In the vast majority of bear encounters, a face-off will be the end of it. You see the bear; the bear figures out what you are; the bear flees; and you go on your way.
But let’s assume you’ve met the one in 1,000 or 10,000 or 100,000 bears that don’t behave in this way, and you lack a weapon to repulse an attack. That’s where it is important to know what kind of bear you are facing.
Here is an identification guide from Fish and Game which beats any explanation:
If the bear in question is a grizzly sow with cubs at close range, she’s probably already attacked you. Mama grizzlies are aggressively protective, but they rarely kill.
Curl up in a ball, clasp your fingers behind your neck, cover your head with your forearms, and hope she quickly decides she’s rendered you a non-threat. Stay still until she and the cubs have left, and then go get help.
If it’s a black bear sow with cubs, don’t worry about it. Stand your ground. They’re invariably all bluff and no bite. They might stomp their feet and pop their teeth, but it’s a show.
If it’s a lone black bear that keeps approaching while trying to pretend as if its not, find a weapon – a stick, a club, rocks, stones, anything. That’s a bear looking at you as food, and you’re going to have to defend yourself.
If you are approached by such a bear, throw stones at it as those Glacier Bay campers did. Grab a tree limb or stick with which to hit it. Kick it. Do whatever you can.
If this bear gets you down and starts chewing on you – if in fact any bear does this – you’re in a fight for your life. Find a weapon – a rock, a knife anything.
The situation at this point is grim, but not hopeless. Sixty-eight-year-old resident Gene Moe killed a Kodiak brown bear – a grizzly – with a folding knife after it attacked him while deer hunting in 1999.
Now here’s more helpful advice from APD:
- “When you’re out and about have a can of bear spray and know how to use it. When a bear is charging you that most definitely is NOT the time to be removing the spray from its store packaging or trying to figure out how to deploy it. The bear spray also needs to be readily available (attached to your belt for example) the moment you need it. The bear is not going to pause to give you time to dig it out of your backpack.
- “Lose the earbuds. We all like to listen to music but bears are big and make noise. Seconds are precious when it comes to putting distance between you and the big fuzzy fish-eater. Having your ears plugged up can inhibit you from possibly hearing a bear prior to you stumbling upon it.”
Some bears are big, but even a 120-pounder can kill you. And they usually don’t make much noise. It’s amazing how quietly they can move through cover, even thick cover, if they want to do so.
The problem with listening to music whether with ear buds or headphones is that you lose situational awareness. You not only don’t hear things, you don’t see things because you’re tuned into the music and not paying attention.
Hearing is often the least of the problem given that the best way to avoid bear problems is to avoid bears. If you see them before they see you and can alter your route to avoid them, you’ve already won.
You don’t want to end up in the situation where you are trying to put “distance between you and the big fuzzy fish-eater” because that would be running. See above: DO NOT RUN.
Which brings this to an issue Alaskans can debate for hours: bear repellant pepper sprays and firearms. Both can be used for self-protection. Both have pros and cons.
Spray is cheap, light and easy to carry. It requires little skill to use. If you’ve used a fire extinguisher, you’re already half-trained. Still, it is best to get a can with which to practice how to take the safety off and fire.
If you have old cans of spray, they’re great for practice. Take them out somewhere where others are unlikely to get into the residual spray left from your practice and spray some targets.
Spray has generally proven successful, but there is some debate as to whether it will stop a truly determined bear, say one trying to defend a kill. Spray is a problem if you have to shoot into the wind. Some black bears have demonstrated unusual persistence after being sprayed.
If you accidentally shoot yourself with spray, it will be painful (the stuff burns like crazy), but there is no long-term damage. Spray isn’t quite a one-shot deal, but you’re not going to get many shots out of a can.
Firearms are deadly and can be reloaded (if you have extra ammunition). They will kill the bear and that permanently resolves the situation. They can also punch holes in your body if you’re inattentive, careless or accident-prone.
They require more skill to use than spray, but in the hands of a skilled shooter there’s no debate about their ability to stop bears. In remote areas, a firearm doubles as a survival tool if necessary. There is no problem shooting into the wind.
Firearms are also far more expensive and heavier than spray. In general, the better the firearm’s use as a bear stopper the heavier its weight. A short-barreled, tactical shotgun loaded with slugs weighs more than 8 pounds; a can of bear spray weighs 11 ounces.
As with bear spray, a firearm is useless if you don’t have it handy when you need it. Handguns are easier to carry with you at all times than rifles or shotguns, but require more skill to shoot and lack the stopping power of long guns.
Whatever you decide to carry, it should not be “attached” to anything no matter what APD tells you. In the case where a weapon of self-defense is needed, the situation invariably develops rapidly.
Ideally, you have the weapon in hand when things start to come undone. If not in hand, in an easily accessible holster that allows quick and easy removal.
Spray is easier to carry in hand. With practice, a handgun is easier to draw quickly, aim and shoot.
If you ever have to stop a grizzly bear, a short-barreled shotgun stuffed with slugs or a .375 H&H-caliber rifle or even something larger offers a lot more comfort than either a handgun or spray.
Cue the debate.