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Close Encounters of the Bear Kind
Bears are a Big Deal! But Don’t Let Them Spoil Your Fun
We have seen a LOT of bears on this trip and even had some encounters with them; fortunately, none very close. Because I get many questions about bears, I want to tell you all about it in detail and then what I do to stay safe.
As we drove by we barely saw it so we turned around and went back. It saw us and ran across the road into the woods so I just got a few mediocre pictures of it. I was disappointed, but what are you going to do? So we turned around and headed north again. But just 100 yards up the road was another grizzly! And this one was a beautiful blonde color and not even 30 feet off the road. So we stopped on the road across from it and I rolled down my window and started taking pictures.
And then an odd thing happened, instead of being spooked and running off, it slowly grazed its way closer to us. Eventually it wasn’t 10 feet away from my open window. I gotta tell you, this was one of the neatest, coolest things that has ever happened to me! Here was a truly wild Grizzly bear so close I could spit on him and he seemed to not even care we were there. This bear was not tamed at all, there were no signs of human habitation within 100 miles of where we were—this was truly the middle of nowhere. And yet it was like we didn’t exist. I got some really great photos of him, I hope you enjoy them.
So by now, Judy is pretty freaked out by the bears–and reasonably so! It seems like they are everywhere in Canada! In fact earlier we had passed a Black bear late in the day and pulled over to camp for the night about an hour later. It’s pretty easy to understand that she felt uncomfortable going out and cooking dinner on our table outside; we knew beyond any shadow of doubt there were bears all around us. So I explained to her that all the bears we saw were busy eating an abundance of food and weren’t in the least bit hungry. Then I reminded her that we were in Alberta and not far from Grand Prairie so these bears were hunted and had a lot of natural fear of humans. We weren’t going to have any trouble with bears. That seemed to relieve her mind.
Later, in Anchorage, when we went out to see the Eagle River Nature Center, there are signs everywhere warning about the dangers of bears because there is a large population of them in the Eagle River Valley. In fact there was a wall dedicated to bear safety and how to avoid problems with bears and what to do if one comes up. Of course that brought back all Judy’s fears. As a precaution, I always carry bear spray in Alaska, and that reassured her. So we went for a beautiful hike and when we got back a young lady was also just coming back from walking a different trail and asked us if we had seen the bear. She explained that she had walked down by the river and came around a corner and came face to face with a grizzly and that it had terrified her! Of course that is NOT a good thing for Judy to hear, all her fears spring back to life! But, that night we slept in Anchorage and so she wasn’t afraid.
The next day we were tired of black-top camping and decide to go down to Hope, Alaska to camp in a free National Forest campground. Well, Hope is a tiny, tiny “town” and as soon as you drive away you are in true wilderness and on top of that we were going out of our way to go where few people go. As we were driving back the Forest Service road, we see piles of dung on the road and she asks if they are bear and I say yes they are. Bear dung is pretty obvious because there is nothing around there that is anything like it. When we get to the campground, each site has bear boxes and there are multiple signs warning about bears, plus, we are all alone, there is no else around. So she is now on red-alert about bears; and rightfully so; this is bear country and without a doubt there were bears very near us.
There are three essentials to have in bear country:
- A whistle you blow often. One of the worst things you can do is surprise a bear because it has only a split second to react. Usually the reaction is to turn and run, but not always. If it’s a mama with cubs, her reaction will be to protect the cubs and that can either mean run away with them, or neutralize the threat—which happens to be you. You want to avoid putting her in that position and the best way to do it is carry a whistle and blow it often. So Judy put her whistle on a chain around her neck and blew it often!!
- Carry bear spray. Bear spray has been around for a long time now and has been involved with many interactions with bears and the overwhelming evidence is it works and works extremely well. If there is any chance I can encounter a bear, I carry it! Period! There is only one brand and model I carry and it is what I recommend to you. It’s made by UDAP and comes with a chest holster. You can get it from Amazon.com here: UDAP Bear Spray with Chest holster
Many other brands are as good, but you want the chest holster. Bears are incomprehensibly fast, and bear encounters happen so fast it must be instantly available and nothing does that as well as a chest holster. People ask, “Why don’t you carry a gun?” Because they’re big and awkward and you’ll get tired of carrying it and either leave it at home or carry it some way that will be too slow to get out. But the bear spray in the chest holster is super easy to carry and super fast to get out and is MUCH MORE likely to save me from a bear. A bigger problem with guns is if you do get it out and fire a shot it is extremely unlikely to instantly kill the bear; but, it’s certain to enrage the bear! Because most charges are bluffs and the bear breaks it off without contact, by shooting it you’ve escalated a minor problem into a truly horrible, probably fatal situation. There has never been an incident where bear spray was used that turned fatal for the person, NEVER; that can’t be said of incidences where people fire guns. I don’t recommend guns, I highly recommend bear spray! Read this article if you want detailed information on this topic: http://www.alaskadispatch.com/article/are-guns-more-effective-pepper-spray-alaska-bear-attack
- A clean camp. Most of you won’t walk enough in bear country to see a bear during a walk but you may camp in bear country. If you keep a clean camp you won’t have a problem. Bears are attracted to food, and if you make yourself or your camp smell like food, you turn yourself into bear food. Don’t do that! Never have food or anything with odors inside a tent; NEVER! Keep your food and anything that might smell like food stored inside your vehicle or in a bear box. This is one of the best articles I’ve found on bear safety while camping: http://fwp.mt.gov/mtoutdoors/HTML/articles/2011/BearProofCamping.htm#.U6dhzvldWSo
We got a break in the rain and decided to go for a walk and of course Judy took her whistle and blew it very loud and very often, and I had my bear spray. We were walking down the road and Judy called me over and told me take a look at something. The grass was very tall and wet and there was a very obvious path where something very large had had just gone down over the edge of the road and laid the grass over behind it. We knew it had happened only minutes ago because we could see the grass actually springing back up right in front of us. A bear had been on the side of the road just a few minutes away and when he heard the whistle he took off running down the hill to safety. That ten cent whistle may have saved our lives.
Too Close to Home
The next day we had a slight break in the weather and headed down to Seward. We found a wonderful campsite literally right out on the gravel sandbar of a braided river. We spent 4 days there and had two other very slight bear encounters. One day when it finally got sunny we took off and spent the day out taking pictures. Late in the evening (remember, it never gets dark here) we got back and parked in our spot and sat in the front seats chatting and unwinding from the day. I’ve spent enough time in the wild that my eyes are trained to spot movement and I noticed some movement on the mountain across the river from us. There were two small black dots moving across a snowfield at the bottom of the mountain. I told Judy to “Look over at the two bears!” Oh great, now there were bears here too! The base of the mountain was probably half a mile away and they were about 150 yards up the side, they were small dots but in truth they weren’t that far away! I assured her that they weren’t in the least bit interested in us and look how far out of their way they had gone to avoid us; we were safe! Plus, there was nothing on the gravel bar to hide them, we could see them coming from a long ways away.
Bear Prints Under a Bridge
Our last “encounter” (if you can call them that) also happened in Seward. On another sunny day there was a picture I wanted to get on the edge of town. The road crossed a bridge and the river ran straight towards a beautiful mountain/glacier scene and I wanted to take a picture of it. So we parked as close as we could and I walked back to the bridge and down the sides to the river. It was very thick with willows and brush and I thought to myself “This would be a terrible place to run into a bear!” And of course we were so close to town I didn’t think to bring my bear spray or whistle. Not good! The next best thing is to talk very loudly so the bears won’t be surprised by you. The standard thing is “Hey Bear!!” Followed by “Don’t eat me!! I won’t bother you if you won’t bother me!!” So I did that the whole time I was shooting. On the way back to the car I went a different route because I saw it was going to be easier and less dense. Immediately I spotted some really big bear tracks near to where I had come in! I’m no tracker so I have no idea how long they had been there. But they certainly were made in the last month or less because spring break-up would have washed everything older away. They could have been made minutes before, I just don’t know!
- 1 person killed by bears
- 26 people are killed by dogs
- 53 people a year are killed by bee stings
- 90 people are killed by lightning
- 130 people a year killed in their cars by collisions with deer
Does that really sound like bears are something you need to obsessively worry about? No, the odds of being killed by a bear are totally insignificant. Now, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be bear-aware and take every reasonable precaution—you should!! It just means we should tone down the rhetoric and our extreme obsession with bears and get out there and enjoy god’s wonderful creation!