Only in Alaska: Living – and traveling – in bear country

Bears: everybody fears them, everybody wants to photograph them from behind a tour bus window. In my neighborhood, black bears constantly get into garbage cans – when people express disappointment at not having seen any bears on their vacation, I encourage them to hang out on my street on garbage day.

Alaska has plenty of bears, and if you follow a few rules you’re unlikely to ever encounter a bear in the wild.There are really only two types that you might encounter casually: the black bear and the brown (or grizzly) bear. I often meet tourists who are too timid to venture on even a basic nature walk after I warn them that they need to be bear-aware. This attitude is unfortunate, because they don’t realize two things:

1. Bears in Alaska don’t just hang out in the woods, so you’re not necessarily “safe” by staying in town. Though urban bear encounters are generally confined to the fringes of town, last year a grizzly wandered down a popular greenbelt into downtown Anchorage, the state’s largest city.

2. If you follow the right procedures, you’re unlikely to encounter a bear in the wild.

Here are a few tips for avoiding bears, and what to do should you encounter one:

  • The best rule, the holy grail of all rules, is to make noise. I’m a trail runner, an activity that is the third-most dangerous in bear country (just behind getting between a sow and her cubs or a bear and its kill) since it involves moving (slightly, in my case) fast and quietly. I used to carry bear spray (and we’ll get to that) but now I just yell. As my friend told me, “if you run into a bear, you weren’t making enough noise.”
  • On a related note, in my opinion you should forget bear bells unless you’re putting them on your dog’s collar. They don’t make very much noise and give you a false sense of security. Better to sing, yell or clap your hands.
  • Learn to identify a black bear and a brown bear – your response should you run into one will differ depending on the bear. Despite their common names, color is not always the best indicator of a type of bear, so shape and size are important. Black bears are smaller than brown, and are flat between the shoulder blades while grizzlies have a large hump.Black bears also have a straight profile, while grizzlies have a dished-out shape.

If you encounter a bear:

  • Don’t run – you’ll never outrun a bear and you don’t want to encourage it to chase you. Stay calm, talk to the bear to let it know you’re there, and raise your arms to make yourself look bigger. If the bear stands on two legs, it’s just trying to get a better look at you.
  • Don’t climb a tree – bears are better at it than you.
  • Don’t give it food. It might come back for more.
  • Throw something on the ground to try to distract it – a camera or book.

If you’re charged/attacked by a bear:

  • If it’a a black bear, it’s likely bluffing. I’ve had several friends charged by black bears, and each time the bear veered at the last second.
  • You can use bear (pepper) spray on a black bear, but I’ve read that pepper spray only annoys brown bears, which is why I don’t carry it any more.
  • If attacked by a black bear, fight back! Punch it in the nose, kick it, whatever.
  • If attacked by a brown bear, play dead. Cover your neck and head. Typically a brown bear will stop attacking once it doesn’t feel threatened any more.

Remember, bear encounters are not that common, and shouldn’t keep you from enjoying Alaska’s trails. Simply making a lot of noise will reduce your chances significantly.

Come up and visit!