"Didn't see no bear, didn't see no bear tracks!" The old-timer said emphatically.
"Sure a lot of bears around here!" Another hunter declared.
"How many did you see?" I asked.
"Well, I didn't actually see any, but they're around!"
Maybe they are and maybe not. There seems to be a lot more thoughts and fears of bears than actual critters. Or might it be our innate need to have some danger in woods? My wife and I are in the outback virtually every day from the first of August until the last of the bears have denned, and we rarely see a track. I have personally seen three bears this fall. A sow with two yearling cubs crossed the Denali Highway in front of my truck at dark in mid-August.
More than 1,000 October miles on the back trails south of Delta Junction have yielded only a single set of bear tracks in the past three seasons. Still, my wife always asks if I am carrying a gun. (Rarely, shading toward never...)
More likely ways to die
It is impossible to get accurate statistics on bear attacks in North America. Backpaker.com lists 27 fatal bear attacks since 2000. They claim three of those occurred Alaska. Wikipedia lists 43 fatal attacks, eight in our state. Either way, here are some interesting statistics from the web.
• Twenty-six Americans are killed each year by dogs.
• Ninety folks are struck by lightning.
• Almost 40 people are killed by bee stings.
The most disturbing statistic I came across was that one person in 16,000 commits murder, but only one grizzly in 50,000 kills a human. Take these figures with a grain or two of salt because there is no way to substantiate the numbers.
However, at first glance, it seems that the fear of a bear attack is mostly unfounded.
Here is another angle. How many dogs does the average person see every day? How many bees does one encounter during the summer? How many people? Compare those numbers to the total number of bears one is in close proximity to during a lifetime.
Healthy respect for bears
I have had two close encounters with bears, one a grizzly with cubs and the other a black bear that seemed to be sizing up me and my hunting partner as a potential meal. Both turned out to be non-issues, but in both instances I was carrying a rifle.
A healthy respect for bears is a good thing. Fear is quite another. A few years back I was hunting along the Denali when a berry-picker came racing out to the center of the road screaming that a black bear had chased her from her berry patch. I immediately grabbed my rifle and headed over the road bank, expecting to get a nice bear. Alas, it was only a medium-size porcupine munching her blueberries.
Would this woman be able to stand her ground with a can of pepper spray in the face of a charging grizzly? Of course not; nor would most. The best way to minimize bear problems is to avoid them. Be very aware of where you are walking and the signs around you. Steer clear of late-run salmon streams. Carry a shotgun that you know how to use instead of bear spray.
Late season hikers are generally woods savvy. Be aware of potential bear den sites and circumvent them when possible. A fairly high percentage of attacks occur at dens. In Alaska's Interior, the Department of Fish and Game estimates the grizzly population at about one bear for every 25 square miles of suitable habitat. One won't see many. Bears are not very active this time of the year. Generally they are headed to the higher elevations and steeper slopes to den. October eschewal is easy.
The Denali Highway has 6 to 8 inches of snow on the eastern end -- with no bear tracks for 50 miles this past weekend. The Donnelly area has 14 inches of snow. I didn't see a bear track from the Jarvis Creek bridge near Delta Junction, all of the way to the Jarvis headwaters on Monday. No bears? No, I didn't see them, but they're around!
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.