Alaska isn’t known as the Last Frontier merely because of the thousands of miles of wilderness that separate us from the rest of America. We Alaskans are fortunate, for we share our state, cites, towns and villages with animals that most often are viewed from afar or with a fence between. Bears are one of our most respected and treasured renewable resources. Despite rumor, and with much sense and caution, one can actually subdue the fears that would normally limit chances for the thrill of a lifetime—observing a bear meandering about in its own habitat. Understanding how they behave and go about making a living easily minimizes confrontations with bears. Welcomed visitors are encouraged to keep in mind that Alaskans appreciate bears, even in Anchorage, and that efforts to maintain safety standards are usually effective, resulting in a low incidence of bear-human contact.
Often bears and tourists visit Alaska at about the same time of year. After a long winter’s nap, for bears are not true hibernators and are even considered to be light sleepers in early spring, increasing daylight hours and warmer temperatures awaken hungry bears. While in Alaska, be mindful that you are the intruder in their backyard. Brown bears prefer sparsely populated areas, but all bears can be found anywhere you can find trees. As vegetation comes to life and melting snow reveals a carcass of some unfortunate critter that did not survive the winter, bears can easily be provoked. Neither residential areas nor in-town waterways are exempt from bear traffic. Too, domestic pets, farm animals, available feed (especially millet and wild bird seed) are easy fare for the emerging bear who is bulking up for mating season.
Unlike most other animals at the top of their food chain, bears are not territorial and are sometimes social. However, food is never shared and each bear, regardless of age, must negotiate its own portion. Bears may co-exist and even forage in close proximity to one another, but when it comes to a meal, it’s every bear for himself. Competition for a food source can result in aggression; and if a human happens along unexpectedly disturbing the bears, a conflict could arise.
Discerning differences between black and brown bears can be the deciding factor in your success should an altercation occur. Because two different species are represented, food choices and behavior are dictated by adaptation toward a specialized niche. Remember that not all black bears are black. In fact, several black bears with brown coats have been sighted within the Anchorage area. Also, not all brown bears are brown and range in color from bluish gray to blond. There are, however, distinguishing characteristics that are easily identifiable. Black bears have a notable “Roman” profile that runs the length of their muzzle and they often exhibit a brownish patch before the tip of the nose. NOTE: If you are standing close enough to observe this patch, back up while keeping an eye on his movement! Blacks are also smaller when measured at the shoulder, which allows for about a five foot standing position. In contrast, brown bears are usually known for their “dish-faced” profile with an obvious indentation between the eyes and a protruding muzzle. The brown can stand approximately six and a half feet, portraying the classic grizzly “nightmare” depicted in movies, literature and cartoons. Too, black bears have much shorter claws, facilitating climbing and making their tracks much more difficult to detect on the trail.
Hiking in a serene, picturesque forest or mountain trail may tempt you to move about quietly, relaxed or meditating as you take it all in. That’s okay if you’re not in bear country. In Alaska, including residential areas, noise is your first line of defense. Almost all bear-human encounters are a consequence of surprise. Talk loudly—even if you are alone. (Many homeless people have taken this advice to heart.) You can sing or clap your hands as you walk as well. Bear bells can be purchased just about anywhere and should be part of your hiking equipment. Still, take refuge in numbers and don’t venture out on your own, walking with the wind whenever possible to allow your scent to precede you. Bears are curious and may choose to investigate your presence. Fortunately, this is usually done from a distance, if at all. Regardless of what the bear decides to do should you be noticed, always observe his movement, which will hopefully be in the opposite direction.
Just as people sometimes bump into each other, so might a bear lumber into your path. Often self-absorbed, they can be oblivious to their surroundings. This is particularly true of brown bears who have no predators and are most often hyper-focused on their next meal. While following a trail, it is entirely possible for a bear to surprise both you and himself. Nevertheless, most bears make every effort to keep their distance; they are not vicious or considered to be man-hunters. Age or extreme hunger can exacerbate the dynamics, so always be aware.
Prior to an outing, role-play in your mind, or with others, the steps of surviving an attack should the worst happen. First and foremost, remain calm. If that steadfast rule is planted firmly in your consciousness, you are already primed for success. Immediately identify yourself as human, letting the bear know what he’s dealing with. Don’t run, but stand your ground and literally visualize yourself as nine feet tall and unable to be knocked down. Orally express your demands for the bear to go away. Remember that most bears that could charge usually stop short and respect your orders to “stand down, you big galoot!” If you begin to calmly walk away and are followed, stop and hold your ground again. Know for certain you cannot outpace your adversary—some have been clocked at 35 mph. Don’t interpret a bear’s standing as a sign of aggression; they depend on eyesight, as do humans, and often are simply stretching to get a better look.
Ammonia is always an effective repellant. Pack some in a small Nalgene bottle and leave it open when resting or camping. Keep your tent and campsite free of enticing aromas and don’t leave food or garbage in a manner that encourages solicitation. Bear-proof containers are also available and required in some areas. Pepper spray is useless, however, unless you’re within 15 feet of less. Be cognizant that a drooling, open-mouthed bear with flattened ears may be preparing to attack, providing you with the final opportunity to recall and implement the tips that you might have been “bearing” in mind. If full contact occurs, you should roll into a ball, protecting your favorite organs and face while making every effort to convince the bear that you are dead. Severe injury has been successfully avoided using this strategy, resulting in the loss of only a few unimportant appendages along with minor (compound) fractures, lacerations, puncture wounds and occasionally some nerve damage. Fortunately, attacks of this severity are few and far between and shouldn’t discourage anyone from experiencing the awe and majesty of Alaska’s untamed splendor.