“That bear isstalking us,” said my friend Larry Suiter as we glassed for Sitka blacktaildeer on Alaska’s Sitkalidak Island. Larry was intently scanning the shrub-laced valley we had walked earlier thatmorning. An 8-foot Kodiak brown bear was walking the same route we had taken.The bear had its nose to our trail like a beagle on a rabbit track, though wehad taken no deer and our hip boots, clothing and packs were clean of deerscent and food. When I watched it pass within 30 yards of two blacktail doeswithout stopping, I knew we had a problem.
“Let’s get tohigher ground,” said Larry. We huffed to the next level of alpine tundra,where we had a clear view. I suggested a higher knoll, which would give us abetter field of fire and put a massive ravine between us and the bear. Larrylooked down just as we reached the top.
The bear, on adead run, cleared the ridge. It would have bowled us over had we not moved tothe higher position. It disappeared into the thicketed ravine, but soonreemerged in the open, on our side, 50 yards from us. We were already indefensive mode. Larry was sitting with his .338 shouldered. I took a steptoward the bear, threatening it with all sorts of consequences if it came onestep closer.
The bear held itshead low, swaying it from side to side, trying to get our scent. It movedforward a few feet and hesitated before slowly backing up. It crouched like acat, ready to pounce. Seeing we were not deterred, the bear eased sideways intothe ravine and disappeared. That put us on alert.
“He’s tryingto sneak around and get above us,” Larry said.
Perched on arocky point overlooking the ravine, I watched the bear weave through thethickets, trying to circle around us. I scurried to an outcrop above it. Itstopped, sat down and looked directly at me. The stand off lasted 20 minutes. Iwaved Larry over to me and we scurried up an opposite hillside out of sight ofthe bear. We never saw it again.
We later learnedthat a group of bowhunters had been in the area a week before. The bear mighthave associated humans with deer remains. Whatever his motivation, he presenteda potentially dangerous scenario that fortunately we avoided.
When a bear isdefensive, predatory or habituated to human activity, it might not run off. In2003, an Alaska brown bear famously attacked and killed Timothy Treadwell andAmie Huguenard at their camp in Katmai National Park. Treadwell had lived amongthe bears for 13 summers. Nevertheless, a bear was found feeding on thecouple’s remains, a gruesome reminder of the unpredictability of thesecreatures in the wild.
“Horrorstories like this make people reach for their guns and fire withoutthinking,” says Tom Smith, a research wildlife ecologist who specializes ininteractions between brown bears and humans. “Sterling Miller, an Alaskabear researcher, published a paper that showed there was a spike indefense-of-life-and-property killings following each well-publicized bearattack. Such incidents put people on edge and they respond to bears by shootingfirst and asking questions later.”
An inquisitive oreven an attacking bear can be effectively deterred without injury to the bear.Only as a last resort, when contact is imminent or your survival is threatened,should you consider using lethal force. Ultimately, it’s your obligation toproperly interpret each bear’s behavior and react in a responsible manner.
Confronting abear with nothing but one’s own hands can be terrifying. But for Steve Ranney,it’s simply another day in the woods.
On one occasion,Ranney was hauling equipment from a goat camp high in Alaska’s coastalmountains and not carrying his firearm. Right at treeline, a pair of youngbrown bears were working down the gully above him, playing and running in hisdirection. Cornered, Ranney climbed a spruce tree.
The bears wereperhaps 2 or 3 years old, large enough to hurt him if they became irritated ordecided to include him in their romp. One of the bears soon tired of playingwith its sibling and took a nap at the base of the tree Ranney had climbed.Ranney waited an hour for the bear to move. He was cold, his legs were tiredand he still had gear to haul. Rather than risk climbing down, he tossed sprucecones at the bear’s head and shoulders. The bear woke up and ambled off. Ranneywas lucky, but he was smart not to flee when he first came upon the bears.
“Encounteringa bear without a means of deterring it horrifies people and causes them to run,which is a mistake,” Smith says.
Always carry atleast two deterrents in bear country. One should be bear pepper spray, theother a flare pistol, air horn or firearm. Carry one deterrent in your hand;the other should be available immediately, like a handgun in a holster or ashotgun slung over your shoulder.
Bear pepper spraymight not be as macho as a firearm, but it provides the confidence to standyour ground and has a proven track record in Alaska. Pepper spray is effectivebecause the sudden, loud hissing sound of the spray and the sight of thebillowing cloud of red-orange mist frighten bears.
Smith maintains adatabase of more than 500 bear-human conflicts in Alaska. Bear pepper spray wasused in 65 cases and deterred 61 curious or aggressive bears, for a 94 percentsuccess rate. Of 258 incidents in which firearms were carried or used for beardefense, they were effective in 175 of them, for a 65 percent success rate.
While the .458,.375 and similar big-bore firearms are recommended to slow or stop an attackingbear, a U.S. Forest Service study shows that people have a problem handling thesevere recoil of these larger calibers. Smith’s records demonstrate thatvictims carrying large-caliber firearms often have no time to get off a shot atan attacking bear.
Smith suggests ashotgun and rifled slugs when lethal force is required. “You want stoppingpower and accuracy. Although buckshot gives you a wider pattern, it dividesthat energy too much.” Also, unlike some specialized rifle ammunition,shotgun slugs are easily replaceable if you run out of them or your luggage islost.
“Don’t mixrounds when walking afield,” says Smith. “Always chamber slugs. Only incamp, when you might need to deter a curious bear walking an outside perimeter,should you be loaded with shot. Load one shotshell directly into the chamber.If you suddenly need to use slugs, your remaining shots are lethalloads.”
However, afirearm is no guarantee that you’ll escape an attacking bear unscathed.”Many people carry firearms of insufficient caliber, while others areambushed so quickly they have no time to fire an accurate shot,” saysSmith. “All too often, when attacked suddenly, even the most accurate andexperienced shooters miss their mark. While the same elements of fright applyto people carrying pepper spray, the spray’s widespread multiple effect can’tbe overlooked.”
Alaska fishingguides often joke that sneakers are the best bear protection–“I don’t haveto outrun the bear, just my clients.” But in reality, you’re better offleaving the running shoes at home.
“When eye toeye with a charging Alaska brown bear, most people’s first instinct is torun,” Smith says. “But running usually entices a bear topursue.”
Stand yourground. Show strength, but don’t challenge the bear unless you absolutely must.Smith’s statistics show that of the 42 times a person chose to run whenconfronted by an aggressive bear, only 5 percent of the time did the personmanage to distance himself from the bear. Only twice did the bear leave withoutpursuit. In 83 percent of the cases the bear chased the fleeing person, and insome cases, attacked and mauled him.
Running tells abear that you are weak and would be easily overtaken. “Backing up says,’I’m passive and subordinate to you’ and bears understand and exploit suchlanguage,” Smith says. “Standing your ground is your first line ofdefense. It tells the bear, ‘I might be small, and I might suffer in the eventof an attack, but you, too, will suffer.'”
A hazingperimeter is an imaginary boundary. Choose a tree or other land mark to denotethe border of your circle of safety. Once a bear crosses the predeterminedline, begin your hazing in escalating order. First, make your presence knownquietly. More times than not, this will push the bear off. Next, make noise.And last, fire your pepper spray or a round from a firearm. Some times the bearwill cross the hazing perimeter slowly. If it charges, you’ll have only a splitsecond to respond.
Each person hashis own tolerance level with approaching bears.
“There’s noone-size-fits-all approach,” Smith says. “Individual comfort zones areindicative of a person’s prior experience in bear country, and this distancevaries widely.” My zone to begin hazing with pepper spray is 10 yards,while for others, 25 yards may be the limit.
It can beintimidating to see a large bear coming at you. When this happens to me, Irepeat the following to myself:
“I aminvincible. I am greater than the bear. I can deter the bear and, if absolutelynecessary, defeat the bear. I have the weapons that will turn it and, as a lastresort, kill it if it tries to kill me. I will turn the bear or kill it if ittouches me.”
Push Comes toShove
There is no gloryin shooting a defensive or surprised bear. The bear is responding to protectfood or its young. Yet bears do attack. When contact is imminent, defendyourself.
When a bear iswithin your hazing perimeter, other methods of deterrent have failed andcontact is imminent, focus intently on that first shot. Aim for the bear’scenter of mass and fire.
Then again, youmay not have time to shoot. Bears can reach speeds of 35 miles per hour, and anaggressive bear can knock you over before you have a chance to shoulder afirearm. If this happens, roll onto your stomach and play dead. If the bearcontinues to attack, if the attack is prolonged or if the bear begins to pullout chunks of your flesh, make every effort to maim, deter or kill the bear, asit is predatory.
If you are ableto get off a shot before impact, stay focused and keep shooting. A bear canrecover quickly from a direct hit and glancing shots are dangerous. Follow-upshots also keep the bear’s nervous system “off line” for a few moments.It’s important to break down the bear so it can’t continue its attack. Ideally,a slug should break down the front legs and shoulder bones.
Shots to thevitals guarantee eventual death and create a good blood trail to the carcass.If your first shot has hit the bear, keep firing until it is either dead or outof sight. If the bear is running directly away from you, place a bead on itstail and fire. Don’t worry about making a sporting shot; dispatching the bearis the most important thing. Allowing a wounded bear to escape is irresponsibleand dangerous to others.
Immediatelyreport the kill to the authorities. Local law may require you to salvage themeat, hide, skull and claws.
Bears arewonderful creatures, and it’s up to us to learn how to interact with themresponsibly. Take time to learn bear behavior. The appropriate response duringan encounter will help deter unnecessary killings.
[3 Keys to Survival]
1 ACT NATURAL: Be aware of the signals you send out inbear country. Research shows that bears are often attracted to colors thatcontrast with a background (bright red or orange on conifers, or black on snow)and scents that aren’t of the animal world, like cologne and shampoo. At thesame time, avoid carrying in your vest any bottled fishing scents, lunches orscented baits that might attract bears. Also, leave the iPod at home–neverlisten to music while walking through bear country.
2 BULK UP: We can’t grow thick hides, large teeth andsharp claws, but we can adapt. Wear a backpack that fully covers your back andneck area. Carry extra fly boxes, spare reels and your raincoat in your fishingvest’s back pocket. The bulk will protect your shoulders and upper back duringan attack. In the event of an encounter, wave a wading staff or a fishing rodto make yourself appear larger than you are.
3 EXPECT ANYTHING: Don’t depend on your own humanscent to deter bears. Plenty of times a bear has caught my scent andimmediately hightailed it through trees and brush to the next mountain range.But there were also times when my scent didn’t warrant a first look from bearsthat were desensitized to the presence of humans.
During the last 100 years, bear-human conflict inAlaska has resulted in 58 documented fatalities, hundreds of injuries andextensive property damage. Two people died of bear attacks in Alaska in2005.
Smith says surprise encounters, usually the result ofcareless travel in bear country, make up the lion’s share of bear attacks. Inthe vast majority of attacks, however, once the bear no longer feels the personis posing a threat, it tends to disengage.
“Even when a person is so incapacitated that he orshe couldn’t possibly fight back, the attacking bear will leave,” Smithsays. “This proves such attacks are often defensive, not offensive.Otherwise the bear would take advantage of the disabled ‘prey’ and beginfeeding.”
The odds of your being killed by a bear are extremelysmall. Yet the likelihood of a bear attack remains a very real threat tohunters, fishermen and anyone who enjoys areas where black and brown bearscongregate.
Here are the stories of four survivors.
GARY PATERNA, 2005 Paterna was walking his dog in the woods outside Anchorage–just 1,200 yardsfrom suburban homes–when he was attacked by a sow protecting her cubs.
SCOTT NEWMAN, 2004 Instead of waiting for morning to retrieve a client’s wounded brown bear,Newman, an Alaska guide, began his search at night. He was ambushed by theboar.
KIM HEIL-SMITH, 2003 Heil-Smith, of Grand Marais, Minn., was attacked by a sow black bear in hergarage. The bear fled when Kim grabbed it by the nose and screamed at it.
BOB JOHNSON, 2003 Johnson was mauled by a grizzly while searching for petrified rock in Tom MinerBasin, north of Yellowstone Park. It took 75 staples to reattach his scalp.
Chargeor Bluff? Being able to tell the difference between a bear’s false charge andthe real thing is crucial not only to your own survival, but also to that ofthe bear. Too often, defensive shots are taken in haste. On theWater Alaska guides know there’s no harm in packing a little insurance whenfishing on the state’s legendary salmon waters.