Thursday, July 11, 2013

When Bears Attack

As most of you know, I love being outdoors, especially doing things like hiking, camping, swimming, and kayaking. I also live in bear country. Even before moving to Montana, I took bears very seriously when I was wandering around places like Yellowstone, Glacier, Sequoia, Yosemite, etc. If we saw a sign about current bear activity in a certain area, we'd take it to heart and go another way. It just wasn't worth it when our kids were little. However, now I'm getting interested in longer hikes, often without my kids, so I take the bears even more serious.

I always carry bear spray, even when I'm on very heavily used trails. Sometimes people give me weird looks, but that's okay. It's always better to be safe than sorry. They see me with my bear spray and probably think, "She's paranoid." I see them hiking at 6pm, in sandals, with no backpack, and only a cell phone that won't work where they're at, and I think, "They're crazy."

So, it bothers me when I see something about bears that is highly inaccurate. On Twitter I saw a camping company from the UK put up a graph of what to do if an animal attacks. True, we don't hear of too many bear attacks in the UK, and they did mention that. However, many people from the UK visit the northwest. I see them every time I'm in the parks. When I went to look at it, I was appalled by the misinformation on the chart. These were the things listed to do if you run into a black bear: wave arms, speak calmly, drop item to distract, walk away.

Only one applies, and that is to speak calmly. Waving your arms frantically could confuse a bear into thinking you're aggressive. Dropping an item to distract it could literally get you killed. People have had their lives saved because they kept their backpacks on. If you drop a backpack because you think the bear might go for the food in it, you're doing the bear a disservice. All you have now is no protection from a possible attack, and you have a bear who associates people with bags filled with yummies. That's not a good combination. Walking away is good advice, but there's a lot more to it. You need to evaluate the situation before you just turn your back on a bear and walk away. The bear's behavior should tell you whether it's afe to walk away, or to stand your ground. A chart with just "walk away" doesn't cut it for me.

For grizzly encounters, they suggest slowly backing away. That's true, however, each encounter is different. Again, you have to evaluate the situation. It suggested climbing a tree. That might save your life, but grizzlies have been known to climb trees. They're heavier than black bears, so it is harder for them, but it's certainly not impossible. The UK chart said to climb at least 4m. Most everything I've read says to shoot for 10m. That's about 33 feet. I'm not sure I could climb that high, to be honest. I'm not sure there would always be a tree with suitable limbs for climbing, also. Each encounter is different, depending on how the bear is behaving as well as your surroundings. The chart also said that during a grizzly attack to lie face down, legs spread, with your hands over the back of your neck. Everything I've read says to lie in a fetal position, curled up, with your hands clasped around the back of your next. The latter makes more sense to me, simply for the fact that there are less exposed limbs to be chomped on.

These might sound like minor differences, but they seemed major to me. I give them credit though, because the chart got others right. Always fight for your life against a mountain lion. You can play dead to deter a bear, but a mountain lion will kill you. The best thing you can do to prevent any animal encounter or attack is to be educated — read books about hiking in certain areas, read the signs at the visitor centers, stop and read the warning signs on trailheads, and learn to look for signs of any animal activity in the areas (tracks, scat, carcasses, disrupted plant life). The original chart is here, if you're interested in seeing it. Wolf sightings are very rare, and attacks even more so. On that note, the same applies for bear sightings, encounters, and attacks. Be prepared, but consider yourself blessed to see one of these amazing creatures in their own habitat. The chart shows moose too. Most people injured by moose are simply too close, trying to get that perfect picture. Buy a good zoom lens. Sadly, the chart didn't include bison, which I believe are the most common in Yellowstone. Again, those are from people thinking they can get just a little bit closer for that perfect picture. Idiots.

The most important thing to do when hiking in bear country is to carry spray. If you're going to be hiking in country with black bears, grizzlies, or mountain lions, a can of spray could save your life. Rick and I both carry Counter Assault. From what we've read, it's the best there is. Nice thing is that it is made right here where we live. The bad thing about it is that it costs about $50 a can. That can be expensive for a one-time hiker visiting Glacier National Park, so it's not surprising most people don't carry it. Experienced hikers do, and most locals will have it. I was happy to see one place just outside of Glacier renting a can of spray for $5 a day. I suggested that to the national parks ages ago, but I don't think they ever implemented it. Considering you can't fly with the spray, most people would have to buy it once they got to their destinations. It's expensive, so most aren't willing to dish out that kind of money for a one-time deal. Renting it is a great idea. I wish the NPS would start doing that.

Oh, and for the record, that's a grizzly bear on the top of this post. I know my title is When Bears Attack, but no one has to worry about Sheena. She lives with the infamous Brutus-the-Bear at the Montana Grizzly Encounter. She's a sweetheart — although I hear she's the alpha-bear when it comes to Brutus. She's a lot older than him. So, if you love bears, but aren't interested in hiking where they live, you can always come to the Encounter to see them up close, but safely. The rescue is run by Casey Anderson, who you might recognize from National Geographic Wild. If you want to see more of Sheena, click here. She has a new bed!


  1. Very interesting....were your ears ringing last week? I was telling D about you and your bear spray and hiking in Montana!

    1. How funny! Yeah, it's definitely the season around here. :)