I can’t help myself. This blog post is entirely about bears. So if you don’t like bears, or naturey documentaries, feel free to skip this post. But if you are like me, and are simultaneously enthralled, slightly terrified and fascinated by bears, keep reading!
I grew up going to Yosemite and other places in the Sierra Nevadas in California where black bears are extremely prevalent, and in most cases, habituated to humans and human food. Going to Yosemite meant putting ALL food and scent related items, including deodorant and toothpaste, in bear proof bear boxes. We were taught that bears knew what coolers looked like, and saw videos in visitor centers of black bears effortlessly shredding the crap out of vehicles for a loaf of bread or bag of chips. There were some summers where a bear would come to our campsite almost every night to rattle the bear box, looking for food. I knew that bears could be dangerous if you came between a mother and her cubs or if you got in the way of a bear trying to get food. But I really didn’t think of these bears as being dangerous as long as you didn’t do anything stupid.
We have seen around 20 bears on this trip, most of which have been black bears (several cubs!) We definitely saw a juvenile grizzly crossing the road, and may have seen one fishing on an island across from our campsite. We have been hoping to see the mysterious Kermode bear that is native to Northwestern Canada (a white black bear). Camping in grizzly territory has been a new experience for me. None of the bears are habituated to humans to the point where they would tear open a car for food, so there aren’t any bear boxes. Our car is stuffed with food. I have definitely had a couple sleepless nights because I was convinced I could hear a bear rummaging around, and felt sure that my car would be in several pieces in the morning. We also made sure to get bear spray in case of a potential encounter at camp or while running on the road.
Despite watching lots of bear documentaries, and reading about bears in visitor centers, I feel like there is lots of conflicting information about what to do if you encounter a bear. Besides the advice to “don’t run.” That seems to be something everyone agrees on. Never run from a bear. What do you do? Throw things and shout? Try and look big? Move out of the way? Play dead? Fight back? I’ve read all of these suggested courses of action. I think I’ve even read something that said you might be able to outrun a bear as long as you are running downhill. Ridiculous.
I finally feel like I’ve gotten a comprehensive flow chart of “what to do if you encounter a bear” from the bear center in Stewart, Canada, and I want to pass on the info to you! For the most part, bears tend to interact with humans as they would with other bears (unless they’re looking for a meal), and so it’s helpful to understand bear behavior. For the most part, bears are very tolerant of each other and would rather avoid altercations if possible. Likewise, a lot of the time you won’t even see a bear in the wild because it will naturally take steps to avoid you if it can. Most of the time bear encounters occur with you and the bear staring at each other for a couple moments, and the bear deciding to move on. In this case give the bear space by slowly backing away while keeping eye contact.
Bears are a lot more dangerous when they are startled close up, when you come across them while they are feeding, or if you come between a mother and her cubs. What to do then? Start by identifying the bear. Never assume a bear type by color alone. Grizzlies can be brown to black, and “black” bears can be white, tan, brown or black. The best way to tell is by looking at the bear’s shoulder/back – if it has a hump on its shoulder, it’s a grizzly. Also, grizzlies tend to have flatter faces, whereas black bears have a more pronounced nose.
Ok, now to determine whether the bear is behaving defensively or not. Defensive bears are visibly agitated and may make grunting noises, cry, growl, and charge to let you know that they see you as a threat. At this point a grizzly is much more dangerous because they are more prone to defend themselves (they typically live in the open and have to), whereas a black bear would prefer to run up a tree or flee into the forest. At this point you should put your hands up, talk to the bear quietly, but firmly, and if possible stand upwind to give it your scent and identify yourself as a human. Slowly back away to give the bear space. Keeping eye contact, and stand your ground if the bear charges. Charges almost never result with contact. DO NOT RUN! Bears rarely run from each other; if you run, you have just identified yourself as food. Don’t throw anything (this is only going to make the bear mad). If the bear does make contact, this is the time to “play dead.” Lie face down to protect your vital organs, and cover the back of your neck with your hands. Make sure you don’t move until the bear is far away, or you may encourage a second attack. A defensive bear will stop once it no longer sees you as a threat.
If the bear is not acting defensively, it may be curious/a juvenile testing its authority, it may want you to get out of its path, or it may see you as food. Again, you should put your hands up, talk to the bear quietly, but firmly, and if possible, stand upwind to give it your scent and identify yourself as a human. Get out of the bear’s path. This may be all it wants. At this point a bear that is merely curious will have backed off. If the bear appears calm, is maintaining eye contact with you, and is not backing off you have a problem. If you see a black bear in this situation, it is stalking you to eat you. Fight back and DO NOT play dead. This has happened in the news recently in New Jersey. Same goes with the grizzly – be loud and aggressive, and fight back if the bear attacks. If a bear comes into your tent or house, always fight back – this is not normal.
Bear spray has been shown to be fairly effective at deterring bears, but you need to wait until the bear is 2-3 feet away when you can spray it in the face. Guns are more iffy. You need to be a good shot under pressure – a bad shot is more likely to make the bear angry and more likely to attack.
Generally, bear attacks are really rare. It doesn’t hurt to know what to do in these situations though. Caleb and I are always thrilled to see a bear, and half of the time we have gone looking for them. As long as they don’t come into camp at night, I’m happy.