Being Bear Aware

Alaska is home to a majority of the United States bear population. This population is made up of four different species and a variety of subspecies. The most notable are the brown bear, black bear, grizzly bear, and polar bear. These species are differentiated by adaptations and environment. No matter the terrain, or species you may encounter, being bear aware is of a top priority for the safety and health of yourself and the surrounding environment.

Many of us are excited to encounter a bear on a trip through Alaska, but hopefully at a distance. Although bear encounters are rare, preventatives can be followed to help ensure that bears stay wild. When you go into the wild you are bound to encounter wildlife, and being bear aware focuses on the measures to maintain respect and support for Alaska’s wilderness.

Bear Behavior

A bears main job at all times is to eat. Black bears are affectionately referred to as forest dumpsters at times. In the same vein, bears are opportunistic eaters. If an opportunity presents itself,  say a granola bar left in an unlocked car, these clever critters will find a way to get to it and devour it by any means necessary. Even if that means shredding your car interior and ripping off door handles.

Bears are some of the top predators in Alaska. Many hit record sizes due to the vast terrain and abundance of food sources. Some bears, such as the grizzly, are known to be more aggressive and territorial. Having adapted to live in the open, barren tundra means needing to fight when threatened. Other bears such as the black bear have adapted to run up the nearest tree if threatened, an advantage of living in forested areas. Since bear behavior can differentiate, being bear aware is critical.

What Does it Mean to be Bear Aware?

First, being generally aware is important. That means not wearing headphones on hikes and cautiously approaching blind corners. Bears are not typically looking to encounter humans. More likely than not the meet-up is a surprise for both parties.  Having a group or buddy to hike with will make your presence more easily detectable. Human voices are very distinct and let bears know who we are in the wilderness.

Carrying conversations and singing songs are great ways to let bears know that you are coming and give them time to take off. When hiking with dogs and small children be sure to keep them close to the group. Bottom line, make lots of noise and stick together.

Since bears are always on the prowl for their next meal it is essential to secure your food. Check food storage regulations in any area you will be staying in, as some may provide a bear resistant container or hang site, while others require that you bring your own. It should go without mention, but do not feed any wildlife! When we leave food easily accessible or create the connection to humans as being a food source we habituate animals. This can lead to aggression towards humans and placing animals in threatening situations that are not conducive to their natural life cycles.

Wilderness Camping and Bears

When camping in the great outdoors there are a few more measures to keep in mind. Keeping your camp clean is critical to not having a bear wandering into your campsite when you least expect it. This means eating meals away from where your primary camp and sleeping areas reside. Store your food appropriately wherever you are.

Always check for petroleum products (including fuels) and any ‘smell-goods’; lotions, toothpaste, hand sanitizers, or soaps should be kept away from camp. In addition, no garbage such as snack wrappers should be left on you. Always double-check the nooks and crannies of your gear and clothing before climbing into your tent. Any of these items should be secured with your other food items.

For information on requirements and guidelines concerning bears you can contact the local Forest Service office for up to date information. Leave the wilderness wild and always be bear aware.

What To Do in an Encounter

In the rare event that you do have a close and unexpected encounter there are a few guidelines to follow. These do not ensure safety but rather are suggestions based on observed behaviors. Its easier said than done but first and foremost, remain calm. Contrary to our instincts, it is essential to be quite and to show that we are a non-threat. Group together and pick up any small children. Continue to face the bear and walk away slowly, speaking slowly so as to identify that you are a human.

If the bear continues to approach you, and only then, make yourself as large as you can by outstretching arms and making loud noises. If all else fails, carrying bear spray with you and knowing how to use it is your next step to detract an advance. Some bear spray retailers even have cans filled with water so that you can practice spraying.