Until my recent move to Seattle, I've lived in the midwest United States my entire life. In the untamed wilderness of mid-Michigan, southern Indiana, and Chicago, Illinois, wildlife tends to include the whole gamut from squirrels to raccoons to birds to moles, and on special days, the occasional deer. About the most dangerous thing such animals can do to you is run out in front of your car when driving.

Now that I'm going hiking in the Cascade Range, I have to remember that wildlife tends to be a bit wilder. I had already been on a couple hikes in areas where mountain lions had been seen in the past, and it took a little bit to get used to the concept that there was the possibility of running into animals that had the potential to kill me in ways other than rabies.

My last hike, though, really got my attention. At the trailhead, where they posted general trail rules and the latest update on the shape of the trail, was a sign with large type reading "This is Bear Country". The four of us hesitated a bit at seeing this - until that moment, none of us had considered the concept that bears were really something to worry about.

I had previously wondered, in the manner of letting my mind wander, what to do if I were to encounter a bear in the wilderness. After all, they can run faster than a person, knock over small trees, and are just much bigger and stronger. Fortunately, the trailhead also had a posting that listed what to do in just that case. And while it didn't put me competely at ease, I did feel much better, and we went ahead and hiked to beautiful Talapus Lake, soon forgetting to worry about the possibility of bears.


Safety in Bear Country

Bears have long been categorized as having unpredictable behavior. However, some claim that not to be the case "Bears have reasons for doing things. It's only from our lack of understanding that their behavior seems unpredictable," says John Hechtel, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

While nothing can guarantee your safety in areas where bears are known to roam, a proper understanding can highly increase the chances that if you do encounter a bear, that you'll be able to walk away with only a story to tell people. Hetchel claims that in as many as 95 percent of bear encounters, it is the people, not the bear, that hold the key to determining the outcome. Because you don't want to be on the receiving end of a bear attack.

This is meant as a summary of what to do - for more information, see Stephen Herrero's book "Bear Attacks...Their Causes and Avoidance".

Camping:

The first step when camping in bear country is to make sure to choose a safe campsite. There are locations that bears are more likely to approach, and if you are camping there, they may be curious enough to wander in. Like people, bears will walk along trails, so being back a ways can make it more likely one will wander by. Streams also attract bears, especially those with fish. They may be beautiful campsites, but if you're in the way of a popular feeding spot, you're more likely to get invaded. Besides, you shouldn't be in such sites anyway, to assist in preserving the site's beauty.

Avoid camping near things that may have the smell of food, such as a large firepit which may have leftover odors, and especially stay away from animal carcasses, though that should be rather obvious. Try and choose a large clearing, one where you can both see and hear nearby wildlife, and they can do the same.

While camping, you'll want to keep the camp clean of items that can attract scavenging animals. Food is the primary culprit, but the smell of lotions may also prove attractive. No matter what time of day, keep such items stored away when they're not in use, and make sure what they're stored in will keep odors sealed in, and is bearproof. Do the same thing with any garbage, as it can often smell just as appetizing to bears as food. And store them outside of camp. Don't bother burying your garbage, as a bear can smell it and dig it up.

Try and avoid activities that will spread food odors into your campsite. Cooking, for example, should be done outside the campsite and downwind, preferably at least 100 feet away, and you should just not cook anything with a very strong odor. Eat outside of camp also, and definitely do not bring any food into your tent, lest a bear think the fabric contains a yummy center. And definitely do not sleep outside of a tent.

As food is the number one attractor for bears, how best to store it for long periods of time in a way to avoid the attention? In a tree. It is always good to bring at least 100 feet of light rope, some cloth bags to store food (bear bags), and a few weights that can be attached to the end. With all this, you don't even to climb the tree to get the food off the ground. (Note: fuzzy and blue informs me that apparently bears, in some places, have started to learn how to get down bags of food in such situations, so be forewarned.)

Find two trees about 20 feet apart, with good branches about 17-20 feet off the ground. Attach the weight to one end of the rope, and toss it over the branch. Take the end, and tie it around the trunk of the tree. Now toss the weighted end over a branch in the second tree. Attach the food bags to the middle of the rope, then pull the end of the rope until the food is at least 12 feet off the ground. Tie the other end around the second tree. Now your food is well off the ground and safe from bears, and you didn't have to get a scratch on you.

Keeping food and trash away from bears is not just for your safety, but for the bear. A bear that is rewarded with food for entering camps will soon become "food-conditioned", learning to associate people with food. Such bears often become a nuisance or worse, and usually end up needing to be killed.

If you see a bear approaching your campsite, your goal is to scare it away. Get everyone together in a group, and make loud noises. Yell, bang pots and pans together, and even throw rocks and such at it. Do whatever you need to get the bear away before it gets any food.

See: camping in Bear Country

Hiking:

Remember, for the most part, bears want nothing to do with people. The most common result when a bear and people are near each other involves the bear avoid the people completely, without them even knowing the bear was around. With proper caution and awareness, you can usually avoid a dangerous situation even if you do spot a bear, and avoid injury even in those situations. Hechtel has spent 18 years studying bear and human encounters, and there have been a number of times he's been in potentially dangerous situations. However, he's never been actually attacked.

Most situations where people are on the receiving end of a bear's temper actually bring it upon themselves, either from ignorance of how to act around a bear, or in a few cases, doing things they should know better than to do. "I’ve seen people do stupid things to bears," Hechtel says. "I’ve seen people throw rocks at a grazing bear from 2 feet away just to get a better picture."

So if a bear usually avoids people, what might lead a confrontation with a bear when you're out hiking through nature? There are two general possibilities. First, the bear may not realize there are people nearby. Second, the bear may be aware, and for some reason decide not to just avoid the people.

A bear might be upwind from you, and unable to smell your approach, and busy doing other things like eating or watching her cubs. This gives a person the opportunity to accidentally enter a bear's personal space - which can be rather large, especially if it's a female with cubs.

What may make a bear intentionally approach people? In areas where there is significant human traffic, such as near popular campgrounds, it is possible for a bear to become accustomed to the presence of people. Once they get past the initial avoidance instinct, often curiousity can take over, and a bear may approach someone just to find out more. If you have food on you, the bear may smell it and decide it wants it more than you do. Perhaps it's a young, bold male wanting to assert dominance. And in rare cases, the bear may actually see you as prey.

It is best to be aware when hiking, to try and decrease the chances of an encounter. A bear sighting will be posted at the trailhead, so you'll know there is an increased potential for running into one. Talk to any rangers and learn more about the bears in the area - they may even be able to give you information on particular bears that are seen frequently. Watch around you as you hike - not just for bears, but for signs of bears. Look at any footprints left in the ground, keep an eye for bear droppings, and watch for evidence of feeding on popular bear foods such as berries and beargrass.

Hiking in larger groups is safer, as larger groups make more noise and make suprising a bear much less likely - and if there are high concerns about a bear, pehaps due to a recent sighting, your group could even have fun singing during the hike, to make it even more likely you'll be noticed. Noise is even more important on windy days, or when traveling against the wind, as noise may be the only clue a bear has about your approach. Bear bells are recommended by some people, but often they may not be as loud as a human voice, and as the sounds aren't identifiable as human, can occasionally even pique a bear's curiousity.

Dogs are not good to have along when bears are nearby, especially dogs running off the leash. More than once, a curious pooch has come running back to its master with an angry bear right behind. It is best just not to have your dog along in bear country, but if you do, keep them leashed. It's just better for the trail and other hikers, even if there are no bears nearby.

You may want to consider carrying something to protect yourself if you're frequently hiking in bear country, especially when hiking in places where they are commonly seen. The best thing to bring along is bear spray. Bear spray is just a very strong pepper spray, which is meant to be sprayed in the eyes. It hurts, and should scare a bear away, but without causing lasting damage. Keep the spray easily accessible, such as on your belt, and know how to draw and use it quickly.

If you do want to carry a firearm, be careful, and verify that they are allowed where you are hiking. Consider this carefully, though - people carrying firearms in bear country are more likely to be hurt by their firearm than by a bear. Make sure you select one that has the power to stop a bear - many handguns may do little to stop a bear, as they have thick skin and a sizeable layer of fat. Something such as a 12-gauge shotgun or .300 mag rifle will usually do it. If you ever do have to kill a bear in self-defense, immediately contact the local ranger or Department of Natural Resources.

Mountain Biking:

Mountain biking in bear country has a higher potential for unpleasant encounters than foot travel - the higher speed on a bike, can leave even an aware bear little time to get away before you're too close, and the chances for suprising one are much higher. And as bears are very fast, you may not be able to get away on your bike.

As with hiking, watch closely for signs of bears, and make plenty of noise. Some sort of noisemaker on your bike can help warn bears from a longer distance away. Ride in groups to increase your noise level - this also helps by having people around to assist you if something does happen.

Try to avoid trails where bears are commonly spotted and lined with popular food sources, and try and keep your speed lower. Sure, that's one of the most enjoyable aspects of mountain biking, but is one ride down worth a meeting with an unhappy bear?

Bear Encounters:

What to do if you see a bear:

Your first goal should be to keep aware of the location and the mood of the bear once you know it is there. This can help you become aware if you're doing anything that it sees as threatening, or if the bear becomes aware of you and wants to get closer.

If the bear never notices your presence, the recommended course of action is to make a wide detour if you want to continue onward, or just turn around. Do not shout or make loud noises to make the bear aware of you - they can startle it, and a startled bear is less likely to stay peaceful.

If you cannot get out of the situation without the bear becoming aware of you, the first thing to do is make sure the bear knows that you're human. In a low voice, talk calmly and from as far away as possible. Slowly move your arms out to the side to appear bigger, and try to slowly back away. The bear my eye you intently during this situation - don't panic, as the bear is just taking in the situation and deciding on its course of action - usually leaving.

If possible, move upwind so the bear can catch your scent. Leave the area as soon as possible, backing away as long as you can see the bear, then walking away afterwards. Never run from a bear - they're much faster than you, and running may trigger a predatory response. The only exception is when there is safety nearby that you're absolutely certain you can reach.

If you ever see young bears, especially cubs, it is extremely imperative that you leave as soon as possible - a female can be much more aggressive when defending her cubs than a normal bear.

Just because a bear is coming toward you does not necessarily mean it is threatening you. If you watch the bear's body language, you can often deduce enough to know when to be threatened, and when not to. But be aware for any changes in behavior.

A curious approaching bear will not show agressive behavior. It may start off by circling around to get downwind and get your scent. If that's not enough, and the bear stars closing in, it should do so slowly, perhaps with their ears cocked and their noses raised to get a better scent and view. A bear may even stand on its hind legs to be able take in more - this is not a threatening action unless accompanied with vocalizations. Bears that have become human-habituated can get rather close without be concerned, or allow people to get suprisingly close. However, never take such activities as an invitiation for you to approach them - the odds of a bear allowing you to come very close are miniscule, and entering their personal space and crowding them can make a situation dangerous very quickly.

Don't take such an approach to be a sign that you're safe, however. An approaching bear, even if calm and curious, is still a threat to get away from. Curiousity can give way to attempting to establish dominance, or even a predatory situation.

What to do if a bear threatens:

If you see a bear displaying threatening or defensive behavior, you've most likely accidentally done something to threaten it first. You may have approached too close, entering its personal space, and suprising it. Or you may have come into range where a female feels the need to defend her cubs.

Try to appear totally non-threatening to the bear. Talk in a calm but firm voice. Don't shout or throw objects at the bear, as those are threatening actions that can provoke a response. As long as the bear is not moving at you, slowly try and increase your distance, either going backwards, or to the side and away. As most likely you've just come too close, getting away will resolve things. The bear should calm down as you get further and further away.

If the bear approaches, stop, and stand your ground. Keep talking, and wait for the bear to stop. If you have bear spray or a firearm, you may want to carefully and slowly get them ready, but don't use them at this point in time.

A bear may charge at you. Do not run, as that'll provoke the hunt-and-kill response. Instead, stand your ground. Yes, it may be tough and extremely frightening to watch a bear charging at you, but most charges are simply bluff charges to scare away threats, and will stop short of you. Short may mean as close as a few feet. Brace for impact if it will make you feel better, just no matter what, don't run.

If the bear is approaching without any indications of being stressed, this threat is likely due to agression or predatory behavior. Being non-threatening is not going to help in the situation - it's time to take a different manner toward scaring the bear away. Such bears are often young bears, and much more prone to being intimidated than older bears.

You want to look and sound as intimidating as possible. Shout at the bear. Stare it in the eye. Stomp your feet, and climb uphill, or on a rock or log. Hold your arms out to the side. Convince it you are too dangerous to mess with. Threaten it with nearby objects, such as rocks. If you have bear spray or a firearm, get them ready now.

What to do if a bear attacks:

If you reach this point, then you are now in a very dangerous situation. After all, a bear is a large, heavy, strong, and resilient animal, and if it decides to kill you, there isn't much you can do to stop it. So, depending on the reason for attack, you'll either want to convince it you're dead, or that you're not worth the trouble of killing.

If the bear attacks out of defense, at the last possible moment, fall to the ground - you want it to think it got you (if it didn't actually do so). Lay either on your stomach with your legs slightly apart, or in the fetal position. Lock your fingers behind your head. As a bear will focus defensive attacks at the face, this will help protect you. If the bear flips you over, continue rolling until you're back on your stomach.

At this point, the bear is just wanting to neutralize you as a threat. If you remain motionless, the bear may feel that it's done so, and eventually leave you alone. Listen closely, and don't move until the bear is gone, as that can cause the attack to resume. If the bear doesn't stop the attack at this point, continuing to be violent, or shows indications of wanting to eat you - or actually starts to do so - this is no longer a defensive attack and you need to change your survival strategy.

If a bear is agressive toward you, but not showing signs of stress, then it is not being defensive. It may be just testing you, displaying dominance, or even see you as a meal. The typical posture in such cases will be for the head and ears to be erect, and it will come at you quickly and persistently. However, such attacks are incredibly rare.

If a bear is attacking for non-defensive reasons, playing dead is useless. This is the point in which you need to fight back to the best of your abilities. Your only chance at this point is to convince the bear that you aren't worth the trouble.

When fighting back, use whatever weapon is available. Focus your attacks on the face, especially the eyes and nose, as those areas are the most vunerable and the most likely to cause the bear to break off the attack.

And if none of that works, well, hope for a quick death, instead of being eaten alive or something unpleasant like that. Try and take comfort in the fact that there's a chance people will track down and kill the bear, as small of a comfort that may be as nature reminds us that we're not the strongest things on the planet.

Sources:
Government of Yukon, Dept of Environment, http://www.environmentyukon.gov.yk.ca/fishwild/bearenc.shtml
Bear Safety, Alaska State Parks, Alaska Dept of Natural Resources, http://www.dnr.state.ak.us/parks/safety/bears.htm
A Guide to Living and Playing Safely in Bear country, http://www.mountainnature.com/Wildlife/Bears/

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