Steelers versus Patriots. Miller versus Budweiser. Polaris versus Arctic Cat. Meaningless debate feeds the male ego. We've all heard the ribbing, witnessed the bets, heard the trash talk. It infiltrates locker rooms, bars and work. I'll bet you a case of MGD the Patriots crush the Steelers. Or, you'll owe me a six-pack of Bud after my Polaris tows your Arctic Kitty home.
In Alaska, such verbal flexing extends to bear protection. Real Alaska men skip the pepper spray versus gun debate, since real men know pepper spray serves only as seasoning on human flesh. Real Alaskans jump right to the 12 gauge versus .44 mag slapdown. Or, if they're really tough, the .45/.70 versus 454 firepower preference. After a few Millers or Buds, the debate becomes more nuanced: hollow-point versus soft-point ammo, slugs or buckshot, single action or double action, semi-automatic or pump.
I'm an Alaska man, but I don't much resemble one. I don't watch football, I drink local craft beers and I don't own a snowmachine. But I do travel through bear country regularly, often alone. Some say hiking alone in bear country invites trouble. In reality, it's difficult to find partners with matching fitness levels and schedules. And I'm seldom armed. To some, being unarmed defines courage. To others, this personal choice makes me a wimp. So, which it? Let's start a meaningful debate.
Why don't I carry a gun? As is true of most people, I can't react quickly enough to squeeze a round into a surprised bear at close range, let alone the two or three shots likely required to put it down. I only occasionally carry bear spray for the same reason. Instead, noise is my bear deterrent. If we humans alert bears to our presence from a safe distance, then we need neither spray nor guns. With ample noise, the gun-versus-spray debate becomes moot.
Employing noise for bear protection, however, forces another debate. What kind of noise should we make? Some carry air horns and whistles in the backcountry. But this gives the silly appearance of attending a hockey game or a political protest somewhere deep in the wilderness. Air horns and whistles serve as effective signaling devices, but little else.
Many hikers choose bells for bear protection. This is where I jump into the debate. Bells in the backcountry activate my male ego. I consider bear bells worn by bikers and hikers and runners to be "dinner bells." The rumor that bells attract bears is unsubstantiated, but the bells emit a muted, rhythmic cadence, and bears are curious. Furthermore, the tinny tink-tink is inaudible near rushing water or in gusting wind. For me, a bell's ineffectiveness is secondary to its annoyance. I won't accompany someone who wears bells. Hearing bells in a forest or in the mountains is like being assaulted by Christmas carols in July.
Judging by the number of hikers and bikers who wear them, however, many people believe bells work as a bear deterrent. Unfortunately, this leads to a false sense of security and may lull the solo traveler into thinking that making noise is unnecessary. Many leading outdoor gear stores promote this false sense of security by continuing to sell bear bells. Apparently, even bear bell wearers tire of the incessant ringing, as manufacturers now sell a bear bell with a magnetic silencer. The best option, short of purging the market of bear bells, is a bell in permanent silence mode.
Most amusing are bear bell wearers who leave bells attached to packs year-round. I was ski touring in Chugach Park one day last December when I encountered a fat-tire biker with bells on his pack. Wearing bells in winter is a bit like wearing a life jacket on shore. I wondered, in jest of course, if a sleepy bear might mistake a winter bell for an alarm clock and awake from hibernation. The image made me smile, which hid my annoyance. Oh well, at least it was December and close to Christmas.
Dr. Hook melodies
So, what noisemaker do I use while traversing the backcountry? I sing. Or, I try to anyway. Loudly. And usually the same song — "Cover of the Rolling Stone" by Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show.
Well, we're big rock singers,
We got golden fingers
And we're loved everywhere we go … (that sounds like us)
We sing about beauty and we sing about truth,
At $10,000 a show… (right)
You'll know it's me by the gusto with which I sing. No racing river will drown me out. No alder thicket will block the high notes. You can recognize me by the lyrics and the volume at which I broadcast them. And by my off-key singing.
We take all kinds of pills to give us all kinds of thrills
But the thrill we've never known
Is the thrill that'll gitcha when you get your picture
On the cover of the Rollin' Stone.
No bear will mistake my singing for dinner bells. No bear will grow curious and approach me. Bears will hear my singing and flee. With luck, the bell ringers and gun toters will too.
Sometimes I abandon singing, especially when I forget the lyrics and repeat the chorus in an infinite loop. Besides, even the best singers need to rest their vocal cords.
That’s my theory
So when I don't sing, what do I fall back on for noisemaking? Usually it's a combination of yips and whoops and hups and hi-hos. I produce the noises in random order, a human public-address system on shuffle mode. I change up the pitches and the frequencies, similar to a car alarm. This makes a bear think I'm not one person, but several people, and take flight. It's just a theory, in much the same way any bear protection strategy is based on theory. But my verbal sirens can't maim anyone, and I can turn them off at will.
The only drawback to my form of bear protection is a bit of embarrassment when I encounter other people. I don't feel inhibited, however. My safety in the backcountry depends on discordant sounds and an atonal voice. Bad singing should not be limited to the shower.
We got a lot little teenaged, blue-eyed groupies
Who do anything we say
We got a genu-wine Indian guru
Who's teaching us a better way
While hiking several years ago, I grew complacent and neglected to make noise. I was hiking alone in the Chugach Mountains. It was fall. The leaves had turned, but had not yet fallen. I moved quickly up a steep, brushy draw, focused on my destination, a rocky peak well above tree line. I had just climbed out of the final alder patch onto alpine tundra, breathing hard and moving briskly, when a loud WOOF! hit me. It's the only time a sound nearly felled me. I knew it was a bear, and I knew it was close. So close that I instinctively threw up an arm. In a half crouch, I caught movement and saw the brown bear sow stand upright, with three grown cubs behind her. I had space, but not much. She could be on me in five or six bounds, as could any of the sub-adults. I raised my ski poles in front of me and clacked them together, talking to the bears the entire time, advertising a human presence.
Any one of those bears could have snapped my neck with a single motion and used my ski poles as tooth picks. And had I been 50 yards downhill in the brush when I encountered them, they might have done just that. Nonetheless, I'm convinced that had I been armed and had I surprised the bears in the brush, I never would have gotten a shot off. Had the two bluff charges that followed been real, I might have shot one aggressive bear, but probably not four. Fortunately, the bears traversed out of the drainage and disappeared into a distant alder patch. The next year, a woman was mauled when she surprised a brown bear in the brush downhill from my standoff.
Never say ‘bear’
Ever since my encounter, I make constant noise — songs, sounds, gibberish — until I'm above tree line and can see any potential danger. But one word I never incorporate into my backcountry chorus is "bear." Like bear bells, the use of the word "bear" (as in "Hey, bear! Ho bear!" ) should be banned. Some bear safety websites and videos promote the use of "Hey bear."
In a recent Alaska Dispatch News column on teaching children backcountry bear safety, the author cited these very same words. I believe yelling "bear" is like crying wolf and should only be used in the known presence of a bear. Several years ago, when biking at Kincaid Park, I rode past a walker with leashed dogs. About 30 seconds later, I heard shouts of "bear" coming from behind me. I turned around, thinking this individual had encountered an aggressive bear. I backtracked to within sight of her, only to realize she was yelling "Hey bear!" indiscriminately as she walked.
If I hear the word "bear" in the future, I will still respond. But now I will question whether it's a bear attack or just a misguided recreator employing poor word choice.
I don't expect to win any bear safety debates. Nor do I expect to win over any gun-toting or bell-ringing converts. And I definitely won't win any singing contests. Ultimately, we adopt our own bear safety strategies that provide each of us with the greatest sense of security. But the bear protection debate is a conversation we should all engage in to heighten awareness and reduce aggressive bear encounters.
So, the next time you hear Dr. Hook playing in the backcountry, hold fire. Call off the dogs. Holster the pepper spray. It's only me.
We got all the friends that money can buy
So we never have to be alone
And we keep gettin' richer but we can't get our picture
On the cover of the Rollin' Stone
Please remember to silence bear bells to better enjoy the performance.
Wanna see my picture on the cover…
Wanna buy five copies for my mother…
Wanna see my smilin' face
On the cover of the Rollin' Stone
(I can see it now … we'll be up front, smilin' man … ahh beautiful.)
Thomas Pease is an Anchorage outdoor enthusiast who prefers to view bears from safe distances. He enjoys old-time rock 'n' roll, although classic rock songs he attempts to sing might not be recognizable.