Do bear encounters come down to bad luck?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012 - 08:00

This summer — if you can call 50-degree temperatures and new snow at the 3,000-foot-level of the mountains on June 13th summer — there seem to be a rash of human-bear encounters that haven’t turned out very well for either the former or the latter. I suppose if we calculated the number of people out on the trails and the amount of area covered, we’d determine that the number of incidents is not that far above an average year.

Yet it’s still disturbing to hear about a person who is making noise and being careful stumbling upon a cub and inciting the protective wrath of its mother; or another person who inadvertently comes across a bear coveting its carrion — a bear with an appetite for seconds and even thirds when meals are not that easy to find.

There are very loud, rushing streams that I prefer to stay away from, simply because if a bear were present it wouldn’t hear my incessant noise making. The East Fork of Eklutna River is one example. Anyone entering that narrowing valley follows the same trail, including the wildlife. I’ve been on that trail numerous times and have never seen a bear, but noticed signs like scat. I sing, yell, whack the sides of trees with my walking stick, but I don’t think a bear could hear my bad singing any of this in proximity to that rushing stream.

I carry pepper spray, but based on recent incidents, perhaps it would be more appropriate to tote a short-barrelled, .12 gauge shotgun with slugs, a .44 magnum or .357 pistol.

I knew a Fish and Game biologist who on research projects travelled deep into bear country on Kodiak Island for more than 20 years, never carried a weapon and never had a problem. While working for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G) on the Alaska Peninsula back in the 1960s, I was charged a few times by grizzly bears. Thankfully, they stopped their charges before inflicting any physical damage. After such experiences, a person becomes “bear-spooky” for the rest of their life.

With ADF&G we put ourselves into bear country because we were conducting stream surveys and counting salmon along the rivers — literally walking across bears’ dinner tables. We carried .338 magnum rifles with 250-grain bullets. We sometimes saw 20 bears a day, but only one person over a number of years ever had to shoot one in self defense.

I was once charged in a valley not far from Eklutna Lake. The grizzly sow and cub were a long way off, about ¼ mile, which gave me time to conceal myself, quickly change direction and move out of the area. At the time I wasn’t even carrying pepper spray — just a .20-.20 shotgun for grouse.

I really don’t have a very good answer to this bear-encounter situation, except to make a lot of noise, remain alert and look around carefully. Pay attention to wind direction. Avoid going alone if you can. Groups of three or more seldom get bothered by bears.

I’ve run into people on trails who were dismayed that I was making so much noise. They wanted to see a bear. I have seen enough bears in my life. If I must see them at all, I’d like it to be at about 400 yards, minimum. I’m not sure of the effectiveness of bells. I think the human voice is a better alarm system. Some people report success chasing bears away with air horns.

In camping, I avoid messy camps where people have spilled food. I never keep the slightest scrap of food in my tent. I do not carry tasty, smelly food like salami or smoked salmon. I double and triple-wrap food in ziplock bags and seal it in a bigger plastic bag, then suspend it high from a tree that is far my camp. I often urinate around the periphery of my camp. I have never been bothered by a bear while in my tent, and I’ve camped in bear country often.

I have a short-barrelled, pistol-grip shotgun sitting in my closet that has only been out twice, and that was to the Birchwood shooting range. It weighs about seven pounds. I hate the idea of extra weight, but I’m tempted to start dragging it along with me on trips that I think will put me in bear country. I do know that for any kind of weapon to be effective (pepper spray, cannon-sized pistols or shotguns) they need to be in your hand and ready to go at the moment of an attack — safety on of course — but otherwise, ready to go.

The different scenarios — when to stand your ground, when to play dead, when to fight back, have been covered exhaustively in other places. Not retreating requires a lot of will power, but during one of the charges back when I was with ADF&G, I think it’s what saved me. The grizzly sow stopped, with the cub behind her, only 20 feet away. In another second I would have pulled the rifle’s trigger. I hesitated for a long time because I was truly afraid I would wound her and make things worse.

Common sense goes a long way in predicting bear locations. Bears will be where the food is, or they will be travelling from one food place to another. It’s obvious we’ll find bears high on berry-filled mountain slopes in August and September, just like we’ll find them along salmon-choked streams. Bears are often seen where South Fork flows into Eagle River and near the Nature Center, for example, because of the salmon present. Like us, bears travel paths of least resistance. Trails between such areas are bear thoroughfares. I always look for footprints, scat or other signs.

I don’t think we should allow the possibility of a bear encounter to stop us from enjoying the great outdoors. We just have to proceed with more caution, go in groups, and perhaps have more bear protection at the ready.

But then sometimes…after we’ve done everything possible to avoid bears, there’s plain, dumb, bad luck…when fate seems to draw us into a close encounter of the ursus horribilis kind. ‘Horribilis,’ by the way, is Latin for “horrible.” I must confess, I do sometimes worry about the law of averages. I haven’t had a bear encounter in quite a spell…


Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

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