It's that time of the year again, the bears are awake and sharing trails with us humanoids. And it's not just bears: the past few days have seen moose and mountain lions as well. Just days after we published this article last year there were two more bear attacks near Anchorage. Each was a brown bear sow with cub, and there were no fatalities thankfully. In one case bear spray almost certainly saved a pair of cyclists. One lesson from that encounter that we neglected to mention below: at least two people per party – and preferably every adult – should have bear spray, and know how to use it. In this case only one did, and luckily he was not the one initially attacked so he was able to deploy the spray effectively, driving off the bear so he could rescue his friend who was badly wounded.
Where we live we take animals on trails for granted. Gearflogger is based in Anchorage, Alaska, a city with the motto "Big Wild Life". The wildlife part of that is a big attraction, and it can also be a source of big danger. Tragically this was the case this past week when two Alaskans were killed by bears in separate incidents just a day apart.
Bears live in a good chunk of North America, primarily – although definitely not exclusively – in the Northwestern parts. A few years ago I was at an outdoor wedding rehearsal dinner at a hotel in South Lake Tahoe and a very large black bear came ambling around the corner, no doubt following the scent of the buffet. I did what all good Alaskans do, made myself tall and shouted and waved my arms, assuming I would be joined by other guests. The bear continued to advance, and I looked around to find that everyone else had exited the area. Luckily a few brave souls came back to stand with me and the bear thought better of it, zipping right over a six-foot fence to leave.
The National Park Service has good info on staying safe around bears, as does National Geographic. The basics are to travel in groups, make noise by carrying a bear bell or talking or singing a bear song, don't run and carry bear spray. If camping, secure your food in a bear-resistant container, preferably hung from a tree. If attacked, don't run: play dead for a brown bear and fight a black bear. It's also smart to carry a noisy signaling device: it probably won't deter a curious or aggressive bear, but it will let people know where you are and it's a great idea to make sure all children have one attached to their person so you can quickly locate them if they become separated from the group.
Here in Alaska there is endless debate about bear spray versus guns. One study indicated that bear spray is generally more effective, but there are simply too many variables to make a blanket statement. My personal opinion: if you are not shooting hundreds of rounds a year through your gun – and preferably thousands – you probably shouldn't own one at all, much less rely solely on a gun for defense against bears or anything else. Bear spray requires minimal training (although definitely practice), comes out in a cloud, you can carry it in your hand if you're nervous, and in the event of a negligent discharge the consequences are much less severe.
Bears are magnificent animals, smart, curious and often unpredictable. Your best defense, as always, is to be smart yourself and avoid dangerous encounters in the first place. Educate yourself, equip yourself and unlike a bear strive for boring predictability in your safety routines.