Be Bear-Aware & Not Bear-Anoid: Practice These Safety Tips

In 2017 I traveled to Alaska with several members of my family, including my sister Donna who was looking forward to hiking many of the trails while visiting there. It didn't take long for her enthusiasm to be dampened by a series of bear attacks that occurred while we were there, some of which were fatal. Here are the ones that we remember while there:

 14 June - 3 hikers near Eagle River Campground were attacked when they surprised a sow brown bear & her cubs on the trail. 3 hikers injured by brown bear with cubs near Eagle River Campground

18 June - Patrick Cooper, a 16 y/o boy was killed by a black bear while running a popular marathon on Bird Ridge Mountain in the Chugach Mountains south of Anchorage. The trail is near mile 100 on the Seward Trail.   Black bear kills teen runner during trail race near Anchorage

19 June - Ellen Trainor & Erin Johnson both Alaskan residents and contract employees for Pogo Mine, Alaska were attacked by a predatory black bear while collecting soil samples. Erin Johnson died, but Ellen Trainor survived likely due to bear spray which she was unable to use prior to the first attack. Black bear kills mine worker

20 June - James Frederick was attacked by a sow brown bear while riding a bicycle on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. He was saved by his friend and fellow bicyclist Alex Ippoliti who was carrying bear spray in his backpack. Cyclist mauled by brown bear near Eagle River

24 June - Joshua Brekken was attacked while gathering firewood on Palmer Creek Rd near Hope on the Turnagain Arm. The sow brown bear charged him from 30 yards away. Brekken tried to climb a nearby tree but was swatted out by the bear, who then took off with her cub into the woods. Bear attack in Hope leaves man with minor injuries

Even those born and raised in Alaska were surprised by the number of attacks in 2017. And though there was much speculation as to why there was an increase in the numbers of bear attacks, nobody, even the experts came up with a definitive answer. 

To make matters worse, my own daughter Kaitlyn was charged by a sow bear while she was visiting with us. She has lived and hiked in Alaska, and has been trained on bear safety, so when she and her friend saw tourists getting too close to cubs near a trailhead that they were about to set out on, she called out to them to back away. Kaitlyn had barely gotten the words out of her mouth when the mama bear emerged from the woods and did charge. However, she charged my daughter & her friend, not the tourists. (No good deed as they say...) Her friend grabbed her arm urging her to run, but she knew better and instead forced her friend to stand their ground. Sure enough, the bear broke her charge as will happen most of the time. Which leads me to the crux of the article. You must be bear aware, and practice safety at all times. Here are some tips for doing so.

Bear Safety Tips

  1.  Let others know where you are going and never hike alone. There is safety in numbers.

  2. Make noise. Talk loudly with your hiking partner. It is better than just carrying bells, as a bear will not necessarily understand that the noise from a bell is associated with a human, but a conversation will alert it to your presence. Or better yet, play music using a speaker that you carry on your backpack. It is difficult to keep up a conversation long term, and the music will fill in the gaps.

  3. Know how to use & carry bear spray. Don't put it in your backpack where it is inaccessible. Instead, clip it to your belt or backpack. And practice using it with a dummy can. You don't want to be fumbling with the can trying to read the instructions when being charged. And FYI, a can of bear spray is meant for one use. So if you have to use it, don't let go of the trigger until the entire contents are gone. 

  4. If you spot a bear, don't approach. If you can identify that what you are seeing is a bear without binoculars, then you are too close. Find another direction to reach your destination.

  5. If you do encounter a bear at close range, back away slowly while keeping your eyes on the bear, and your hands in the air. Try to remain calm and speak in a low voice.

  6. If charged, hold your ground. Bears will usually break off their charge if you do so. But if you run, their instinct is to run after you. Put your hands above your head to make yourself look larger. 

  7. If attacked, your response depends upon the type of bear. A grizzly is usually making contact out of curiosity and will move on, so play dead. Curl up in a ball with your full backpack protecting your spine, and cover your neck with your hands. If it is a sow with cubs, it may not be a case of curiosity. If attacked by a black bear, always fight back.  Remember that animals noses are very sensitive areas so hit them there to defend yourself.

 Learn more at the National Park Service's Website:

NPS Bear Safety 

NPS - How To Use Bear Spray

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