The instinct to protect youngsters from danger is a visceral part of parenthood. We can control some components of childrens' safety in the outdoors, equipping kids with appropriate gear, knowledgeable mentors, and locations to fit their abilities. But not everything is simple, especially in Alaska where wild things live.
Alaska is bear country, of course, with millions of acres of habitat for black, brown, and polar bears doing what bears do — eating, sleeping, and raising their own youngsters. We know black and brown bears live right here in the Anchorage Bowl, fishing in local streams and wandering the same trails we do.
The literature is passed out every spring, the events are held, and we like to think we know what to do if we see a bear in the neighborhood park or along a mountain trail. But many parents are still fearful of a situation they won't be able to control, particularly when children are along. As a result, some families don't explore Alaska's outdoor spaces at all. Others do but feel so nervous they can't enjoy the experience, and translate that fear to their kids.
I've learned over the years that being bear aware is a multi-layered practice involving the power of observation, which actually works to our advantage when outdoors with kids. When we first moved to Alaska, I was one of those parents so fearful about Alaska's bruins my recreation was limited to city streets and parks. Almost 12 years and many bear-safety classes later (along with a few encounters), I've learned some things and packed away several tips from people who teach bear safety. The primary message? Knowledge is power, and knowing more about why bears do what they do, how they do it, and where they go increase the odds of a safe experience in Alaska.
Taking the time to teach everyone in the family about bears from a young age helps create a foundation for knowing how to act if (and when) the situation arises, before a deterrent like bear spray is needed.
Set the stage for kids
Elizabeth Manning is a mother of two sons and manages Wildlife Education and Outreach for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Anchorage. She spends a chunk of her time teaching bear safety, especially during spring months when bears emerge from dens and Alaskans from homes. Her approach to teaching kids about bear safety is a practical one, with messages tying together concepts of environmental awareness with a dose of preventative action.
"It's important for kids to know that they might someday see a bear in the wild. Alaska is bear country, but almost always bears will leave us alone if we leave them alone," she said in a recent conversation. "The basics of prevention — keeping a clean camp, making noise, staying in a group, paying attention — all these are things Alaskans just need to know, like fire drills at school."
Manning usually begins her bear-safety discussions by asking kids and parents about the sorts of areas bears like to hang out and how they can tell if a bear has been there. She teaches how to avoid bear habitat or how to behave if you find yourself in it.
Within your own family, talk about places kids like to hang out, like their bedroom, backyard, or favorite playground. Now ask if they'd like a stranger to wander in and plop themselves down on a swing without announcing their arrival. Not so nice, huh? Kids relate to concepts of personal space because they have to deal with it in their own lives at home or school.
Channel the senses
Kids are keen observers, and capitalizing on this ability is the perfect way for them to become more bear aware. Ask kids how they can tell if a bear has been in the area — answers like tracks, scat, or hair are common. Dig a bit deeper with older kids who may be able to recognize things like uprooted plants or vegetation bent over because a bear wandered through a berry patch or a grassy meadow.
Encourage this awareness — even on local trails that feel more urban. Younger kids can be taught to use their "eagle eyes" and "listening ears" to detect all kinds of natural sights and sounds and build a foundation for bear-aware strategies as they age. Bigger kids, especially tweens and teens, should know that ear buds will greatly reduce awareness of what's going on around them. Making a point to watch and listen, which may prevent an unexpected encounter with a surprised bear that just wants to eat or sleep in peace.
Let’s stay together
The most effective bear-aware strategies with kids, Manning agrees, are also the simplest. "Make noise and stay together," she tells people. The first is easy when going anywhere with children. The second, not always. But this is where a little practice comes in handy.
Each spring, my family and I take a bear-aware class, or at least take a few minutes at a bear-safety event to remind ourselves of the "stick together" concept. At 12, my son is now well versed in safe-hiking tactics, so it's easier than the toddler years of run-amok wilderness experiences. That said, any family or group of families hiking together knows that some people will be faster than others, and kids, with their boundless energy, always want to be in front. And this, Manning knows, does not work well in bear country.
The solution is a firm rule that an adult must be in front and at the rear of any hiking group. We used to call it a "family sandwich" with kids in the middle. Before leaving a parking lot or trailhead, review the rules and "turn on" those eagle eyes and listening ears.
Loud noise is a second safe practice in bear country. Bears don't want to hang around humans, but they need warning when we're around, so making frequent loud human noises gives them a heads up to leave.
Singing songs is an excellent strategy. So is talking, laughing, and yelling at siblings (wait, don't kids do that every day?). The key is to keep it up, so assigning a pair of kids to sing their favorite songs, then passing the job down the line is a fun and easy way to save voices. We have a chant that says, in short "Hey bear, ho bear, don't you eat my toes, bear!"
There are many jokes about the efficacy of bear bells, and I used them during my son's younger years mostly so I could keep track of his whereabouts, but Manning says it's really the human sound bears want to avoid. Kids need to know making noise is the "polite thing to do," since we are entering the bears' home, so saying "Hey bear!" is like ringing a friend's doorbell and asking for permission to come inside.
Practice, then practice more
Everything we do requires practice, and bear-aware skills are no different. Manning and her team, along with The Anchorage Bear Committee and other land management agencies in Alaska are ramping up their 2017 schedule of bear-aware classes. Nearly every public event between now and September will feature an element of bear safety, so there's really no excuse for not attending at least one. Some classes even offer a chance to practice using bear spray (spray manufacturers offer dummy canisters filled with inert ingredients) for even further education.
The key for parents and kids, though, is reviewing and rehearsing at home or on the trail. Practice in the yard, at a trailhead or campsite, and ask kids to tell you what they think they should do. Teach them concepts of distance (feet, yards, miles per hour) and the biology of bears in general. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has excellent online information about bears in Alaska, and places like the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and Alaska Zoo both have strong education departments dedicated to facts and myths about bears and bear safety.
The key is enhancing knowledge of parents and kids. This leads to empowerment for situations involving bears, and thus creating a more confident, and fun Alaska outdoor experience.
*Alaska Department of Fish and Game calendar of bear-aware events: http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=education.communityevents
*Alaska Public Lands Information Center's Bear Safety For Kids page: https://www.alaskacenters.gov/bear-safety-for-kids.cfm. Also features video and activities for kids and parents.
*Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center Bears of the World Curriculum, with a STEM component for educators. https://www.alaskawildlife.org/bears-of-the-world-curriculum/
*Alaska Zoo Education Department offers summer camps, field trips, and behind-the-scenes tours.
Erin Kirkland is author of the Alaska On the Go family travel guidebook series and publisher of AKontheGO.com.