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The most dangerous bears are waking up

Craig Medred

craig-tease1Fifteen years ago this July, a grizzly bear killed two people one ridge over from my home on the Anchorage Hillside. I think about it every year about this time because there is a west-facing slope high on a mountain above the house where grizzlies often den. Sometimes in the spring we have watched them emerge and play in the snow on that mountainside. It is a reminder, as if one is necessary, that the bears are out. This is not something to be taken lightly in Alaska.

Seventy-seven-year-old Marcie Trent and 45-year-old Larry Waldron were on a normally pleasant hike on the trail to McHugh Lake on that fateful day they ran into a bear on a moose kill. They were horribly unlucky. A bear on a kill is the most dangerous bear most people will ever meet.

A bear on a kill is likely to be even more aggressively defensive than a sow with cubs, and surviving an encounter with such a bear may require violating the established rules for human encounters with grizzly bears. Everyone in Alaska knows these rules, or should. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has a pamphlet that outlines the basics:

Identify Yourself • Let the bear know you are human. Talk to the bear in a normal voice. Wave your arms. Help the bear recognize you. If a bear cannot tell what you are, it may come closer or stand on its hind legs to get a better look or smell. A standing bear is usually curious, not threatening. You may try to back away slowly diagonally, but if the bear follows, stop and hold your ground.

Don't Run • You can't outrun a bear. They have been clocked at speeds up to 35 mph, and like dogs, they will chase fleeing animals. Bears often make bluff charges, sometimes to within 10 feet of their adversary, without making contact. Continue waving your arms and talking to the bear. If the bear gets too close, raise your voice and be more aggressive. Bang pots and pans. Use noisemakers. Never imitate bear sounds or make a high-pitched squeal.

Those are the simple rules. The problem is that not all encounters with bears are simple.

That part there about "bluff charges," I used to believe nearly all charges were "bluff charges." I also used to believe the part about bears stopping within 10 feet. I still believe it. I've had bears stop within 10 feet, but it's never going to happen again because I once let a bear get within 10 feet once before stopping it. I ended up shooting that bear off my foot.

No bear is getting within 10 feet again if I can help it. It's getting gassed with pepper spray or shot at somewhere around 25 feet. The only way it is getting inside of 25 feet is if I don't have a weapon, or if my weapon lacks the range.

I usually do have a weapon, if only an ice ax. I don't think you could take out a grizzly by sticking the pick of an ice ax through its skull, but I do think you could do in an Alaska black bear that way, given that most of them aren't much bigger than man-size – 150 to 200 pounds.

I've come close to using the ax on a black bear, too. Possibly the only thing that prevented it was that I was armed and aggressive and the bear, behaving strangely as black bears sometimes do, seemed to understand that. He'd approach right up to the point I'd start yelling and waving that ax, and then he'd back off.

Bears, you see, are not our friends nor we theirs.

One of the most dangerous thoughts in Alaska might be that they are friendly or that, as you've probably heard someone say, "If I'm nice to the bears, the bears will be nice to me."

The bears don't care. For one thing, they can't tell the nice people from the not-nice people. And if they could, they'd probably most want to avoid the not-nice people intending to put a bullet in them and make them into a hide.

Fortunately, most bears don't want anything to do with humans at all. Most bears just want to survive. They recognize that spending time around humans — unless it's very sneaky time — is not a good plan for survival. We are every bit as dangerous to the bears as the bears are to us.

It is natural. No part of nature is Eden. It's all fang and claw, kill or be killed. We tend to forget that. We're human. We've civilized the world. We think civilized, or thankfully at least most of us do.

Bears don't. They think primitively, and they react instinctively. The bear that killed Marcie Trent and Larry Waldron was only trying to defend its food.

You don't reason with a bear like that. You also don't stand up to it, which is the problem with all this simple bear advice. Standing your ground when you meet a bear is generally a good idea.

But if you meet a bear on a kill, it might be a good idea to run like hell. You can't outrun a bear, but you might be able to get far enough away from the kill site to make the bear decide to go back and guard its food. Then again, what you do is also dictated by what you have with you.

With pepper spray in hand, I'd gas that bear near a kill. With shotgun or .375-caliber H&H in hand, I'd shoot that bear. Yeah, it would be sad to have to kill a bear that is only trying to defend its meal, but I'd prefer that to the alternative. I'll never forget what happened to Marcie and Larry.

Bears are wonderful animals. Bear man Charlie Vandergaw demonstrated they could be trained in amazing ways. But they are not our friends. As Tom Smith, a bear biologist formerly with the U.S. Geological Survey in Alaska, now at Utah's Brigham Young University, once observed, "There is a reason our pets are smaller than we are."

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.