Outdoors: How to play safely in bear country

Live here long enough and you'll get your share of bear scares. Sometimes they're secondhand -- a post on Facebook, or someone telling a story that may have become just the teensiest bit embellished over time. Other times, you get the encounter firsthand -- a furry face lurking near the bird feeder or cubs tumbling on a forest trail, leaving you to wonder: Uh-oh, where's mom?

Those encounters are just like every other potentially dangerous but nifty thing you'll encounter in the Alaska outdoors: The more you educate yourself about what drives the bears and how you can affect the outcome of meeting up with one, the better your chance of having a safe encounter you can turn into a good story later.

Can you smell me now?

"We kind of approach bear safety from two different standpoints," said Elizabeth Manning, education specialist at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, in a phone interview. "One is making sure that people don't leave out attractants that might draw bears close to their home or camps."

Of course that means food, but it takes thinking with your nose to figure out what else might draw a bear in: Think garbage and toiletries (including toothpaste and lip balm) in the backcountry -- and garbage, birdseed, barbecue grills and anything fish-scented at home.

In both cases, the solution is keeping smells to a minimum and putting "smellables" where bears can't get at them. At home, that means stowing attractants like garbage, barbecues and (if possible) freezers full of fish in the garage or a sturdy shed.

If you're car-camping, those smellables should be stowed in your car; and if you're in the backcountry, keep them away from your tent. ADF&G recommends setting up your backcountry camp in a triangle, with your tent, cooking area and food storage each about 100 yards away from each other. Cooking and food storage should be downwind from your tent.


Over in the food storage part of your triangle, potential bear attractants should be stored in a bear-resistant container or bear-bagged. Personally, I am convinced that there is no occupation more miserable than attempting to bear-bag food on Southcentral Alaska spruce trees -- so I'd just like to take this opportunity to say bear canisters are a great option.

On the move

The second component of bear safety is knowing how to respond during encounters, and that starts by letting them know you're coming through. Traveling in groups makes you look bigger and sound noisier, both of which will deter bears from having anything to do with you. "There's no magic number, but obviously the larger the group the safer you are," Manning said.

Making noise is especially important when it's windy out -- the breeze can obscure the sound of your approach or blow your scent away from nearby bears. Clapping, singing and talking loudly all work. And while you're at it, leave the headphones at home. You want all your senses, including your ears and even your nose, engaged to help you determine whether a bear or bear kill (which they may defend aggressively) is in the area.

Be especially cautious if you're doing something like mountain biking, which moves you quickly and quietly through bear habitat, and increases your risk of a surprise encounter. One of Manning's suggestions was to go slower around corners or down hills; it won't eliminate the risk, but at least it reduces it a little.

Dogs, meanwhile, are a mixed bag. They can be a helpful bear deterrent (and bear detector), or they can run off into the woods, startle a large animal, then come running back to you for protection -- with the bear (or moose) in hot pursuit. Dog owners will have to decide that one on an individual basis. The one universal guideline is that you need to be able to control your dog in case of a surprise encounter.

(Futilely shouting "No, Fido! Come Fido! Fido, down!" and getting no response does not equal control of your dog.)

Now what?

If you do encounter a bear in the backcountry, the first, and hardest, thing to remember is not to run. Running can trigger a chase instinct in the bear. Instead, Manning says, you should stand your ground and group together if you're with other people (it makes you look bigger), and watch what the bear does.

If the bear doesn't notice you in the first place, you can just quietly leave the way you came. If it notices you and tries to figure out what you are, that's where all the classic "bear aware" advice comes in -- speak firmly to let it know you're human, clump together and wave trekking sticks or jackets over your head to make yourselves look bigger. If all goes well, the bear will lose interest and carry on with its business.

Experts used to divide their advice on how to handle up-close-and-personal bear encounters by the bear species: Do this for black bears, do that for brown bears. Now, Manning says, they classify their advice on whether the bear is in a defensive or non-defensive situation.

A defensive bear is a startled bear. The standard advice is to follow your standard bear encounter protocol (don't run!) and if it charges and knocks you down, play dead. Once it perceives that the threat has been eliminated, it should leave you alone.

If the bear has been following you for a while and looks interested, or is purposefully and directly walking toward you, it could be curious and seeking food -- and in rare cases predatory. That's a non-defensive situation; you should stand your ground and, if the bear knocks you down or strikes you, fight back aggressively.

That's a worst-case scenario, but the good news is that bear attacks of this kind are, again, very rare and people have survived them. While bear spray and firearms may provide a sense of security, they won't help at all unless you educate yourself on how to use them first (bear spray, for example, hangs in the air like a cloud to deter the bear -- it's best deployed before the bear is too close). The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has safety tips, online tutorials and classes posted on their website adfg.alaska.gov.

What about other animals?

Bears tend to get most of the "scary" press, but I'd bet good money that any outdoorsman will tell you moose can be at least as scary, especially if you happen to stumble across a new mother during calving season in late May and early June.

There's really only one rule when it comes to moose: Don't approach them, period. Even if they look like giant, knobbly-kneed Bambis, they're not -- and cows with calves can get very aggressive. Same thing goes for a moose that's already been annoyed by something else, whether it's a loose dog, a stalking bear or kids throwing rocks. You don't want to reap the consequences of someone else's behavior.


Give the moose space, and watch for warning signs the animal needs even more space, like ears going back or neck hair going up. And if the moose does charge or looks like it's about to, run. Get behind a tree or go into a building.

Teach the little ones

If you haven't already reviewed wild animal safety with your children, now's a good time. "Wildlife safety is just one of those things (Alaskan kids) need to get a refresher on every year," Manning said. She recommends making especially sure they know that the difference between how to respond to bears (don't run, make yourself look big) and moose (do run, get in a building or behind a tree). Why not do moose and bear drills to help them understand the difference and practice their responses?

And finally, Alaska Department of Fish and Game wants to know about bear sightings in town (especially brown bears) and about bears getting into trash. You can contact them at 267-2257.


Daily News correspondent