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Canister of bear spray is best bet for Alaska backcountry runners

Craig Medred
OPINION: Two recent bear maulings of joggers in the Anchorage area have a common denominator. Neither of the victims was carrying bear spray, and that could've made a difference. Becky Bohrer

Two women badly mauled by grizzly bears in the Anchorage area in less than two months, with at least one common denominator: no bear spray.

Can anyone say with certainty that it would have kept either of them out of the hospital? No. But this much can be said: Without weapons of self-defense, both women were helpless against sow grizzlies instinctively attacking to protect their cubs.

Lots of people at this point can get into a nice debate about bear spray and guns. Let's not. Have you ever tried running with a gun capable of stopping a charging grizzly?

Nobody is running very far loaded down with a short-barreled .375-caliber H&H rifle or a sawed-off shotgun stuffed full of buckshot and slugs. And even the smallest .454 Casull handgun is a handful at 3 pounds, 9 ounces, fully loaded sans holster. (I just weighed mine.)

Bear spray weighs 10 ounces and fits easily in your hand. You can carry it like a running baton. It is there, always ready. And it is easier to use than a firearm.

Beware blowback

Yes, bear spray has limitations. It's pretty much a one-shot deal, and you wouldn't want to spray it into much of a wind. Neither of these maulings happened on windy days. My experience around bears is that, in general, they're spookier and more secretive on windy days than on calm days.

Some of the best bear people in the country think there might be a reason for this. Bears rely on their ears and noses for a lot of safety information, and wind diminishes both of those senses.

And you can use bear spray in the wind if you have to; it's just that you wouldn't want to. It's nasty stuff if it blows back in your eyes. 

There are, of course, other similarities between the two maulings this year. Both women were running. Both were on trails that are, if not off the beaten path, at least off the heavily beaten path.

Some will immediately latch onto the belief no one should be running in bear country. Fine, let's ban running in Alaska. The whole state is bear country.

Then let's ban hunting because, statistically, hunters are the people most often mauled. I have been chased by several bears while running. All stopped when I yelled at them. They were subsequently driven off. 

The only bear that got me down and chewed on me caught me out hunting. There have been several other close calls while I was hunting. I know friends of at least one hunter who was killed by a bear. The only runners I can remember being killed by a bear were Marcie Trent and Larry Waldron on the McHugh Creek trail back in 1995, but they weren't running when the attack happened. The attack came on a steep part of trail where they'd been slowed to a hike, and the reason for that attack was clear. They stumbled on a bear defending a moose kill.

That said, there is a strong argument to be made that if you are going to run in bear country, don't run alone. Two runners chattering as they go not only warn bears that they are coming, they make bears nervous.

A gang of runners? Well, no bear wants to deal with that.

Bears don't like to mess with groups of people, which is why -- again statistically --  most fatal attacks involve lone humans, and nearly all fatal attacks involve one or two people. There is safety in numbers. That is one thing to keep in mind, along with carrying bear spray.

Urban bears used to human traffic

And then there is the issue of in-ear headphones or any other type of headphones. One of the Anchorage-area mauling victims was wearing them; the other wasn't.

Wildlife professionals generally advise against headphones. They believe runners, hikers, mountain bikers and others are better off aware of the environment around them.

Like hunters maybe?

Personally, I've never worn in-ear headphones and don't like the idea of being out in the environment yet out of touch with the environment. That said, an argument can be made that some people might be better off out of touch.

What you don't notice could hurt you, but then again, that might work the other way around. Bears in the Anchorage area are used to the human world rolling past them all the time. They do not attack people in that world.

If you go past a bear in the bushes, and you're maintaining a steady course and speed, there is an argument to be made that the bear won't pay any attention to you. But if you're alert, and you spot the bear, and you stop. ...

Well, then the bear has just been warned that it has been spotted by what could be a predator, and it needs to make a decision: fight or flee. Most flee, but I had one that came running to me when I saw it and stopped last summer.

I yelled, loudly. It stopped. It was a 2- or 3-year-old bear. We played the sort of games young bears play. It would approach. I would yell. It would back off, then approach again.

The game went on until the bear finally got bored and wandered away. I probably should have sprayed it, but a can of bear spray costs almost $50, and I'm cheap. Plus I know some bear biologists in town who might have made fun of me upon learning I had to spray a young bear. The only thing more embarrassing would be getting chewed on by one.

Which is why I carry bear spray all the time when running or mountain biking in Chugach State Park. I've never used it on a bear, but it's better to haul a can around for years and never use it than to need it and not have it.

Contact Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary@alaskadispatch.com.