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The Essentials for Traveling in Bear Country One of the things that makes Alaska so special is that all three species of North American bears flourish here, providing a good chance for visitors to actually see one. Even if you don't see one, you will never be far from one, because Alaska is bear country.
In general, bears tend to avoid people. In most cases, if you give a bear the opportunity to do the right thing, it will. Many bears live in Alaska and many people enjoy the outdoors, but surprisingly few people ever see bears, and only a tiny percentage of them are ever threatened by a bear. A study by the state epidemiologist showed that during the first 85 years of of the 1900s, only 20 people died in bear attacks in Alaska. To put that in perspective, in the 10 years between 1975 and 1985, 19 people in Alaska were killed by dogs.
Most people who see a bear in the wild consider it the highlight of their trip. The presence of these majestic creatures is a reminder of how priveleged we are to share some of the country's dwindling wilderness.
How to Act Around Bears 1. Bears don't like surprises! If you are hiking through bear country, make your presence known--especially where the terrain or vegetation makes it hard to see. Make noise, sing, talk loudly or clap. If possible, travel with a group. Groups are noisier and easier for bears to detect. Avoid thick brush. If you can't, try to walk with the wind at your back so your scent will warn bears of your presence. Contrary to popular belief, bears can see almost as well as people, but trust their noses much more than their eyes or ears. Always let bears know you are there.
Bears, like humans, use trails and roads. Don't set up camp close to a trail with signs of bear activity. Detour around areas where you see or smell carcasses of fish or animals, or see scavengers congregated. A bear's food may be there and if the bear is nearby, it may defend it aggressively.
2. Don't crowd bears! Give bears plenty of room. Some bears are more tolerant than others, but every bear has a "personal space"--the distance within which a bear feels threatened. If you are standing within that zone, a bear may react aggressively. When photographing bears, use long lenses; getting close for a great shot could put you in danger.
3. Bears are always looking for something to eat! Bears have only about six months to build up fat reserves for their long winter hibernation. Don't let them learn human food or garbage is an easy meal. It is both foolish and illegal to feed bears, either on purpose or by leaving food or garbage that attracts them.
Cook away from your tent. Store all food away from your campsite. Hang food out of reach of bears if possible. If no trees are available, store your food in airtight or specially designed bear-proof containers. Remember, pets and their food may also attract bears.
Keep a clean camp. Wash your dishes. Avoid smelly food like bacon and smoked fish. Keep food smells off your clothing. Burn garbage completely in a hot fire and pack out the remains. Food and garbage are equally attractive to a bear so treat them with equal care. Burying garbage is a waste of time. Bears have keen noses and are great diggers.
If a bear approaches while you are fishing, stop fishing. If you have a fish on your line, don't let it splash. If that's not possible, cut your line. If a bear learns it can obtain fish just by approaching fishermen, it will return for more.
What to do in Case of a Close Encounter If you see a bear, avoid it if you can. Give the bear every opportunity to avoid you. If you do encounter a bear at a close distance, remain calm. Attacks are rare, and the chances are, you are not in danger. Most bears are interested only in protecting food, cubs, or their "personal space." Once the threat is removed, they will move on. Remember the following:
1. Identify yourself. Let the bear know you are a 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.
2. Don't run. You cannot 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, and never imitate bear sounds or make a high-pitched squeal.
3. Surrender. If a brown bear actually touches you, fall to the ground and play dead. Lie flat on your stomach, or curl up in a ball with your hands behind your neck. Typically a brown bear will break off its attack once it feels the threat has been eliminated. Remain motionless for as long as possible. if you move, a brown bear may return and renew its attack and you must again play dead. If you are attacked by a black bear, fight back vigorously, and use defensive pepper spray if you have it.
Pepper spray has been used with some success for protection against bears. These sprays may be effective at a range of 6-8 yards. If discharged upwind or in a vehicle, however, they can disable the user. If you do carry a spray can, keep it handy and know how to use it.
1. Avoid surprising bears; look for signs of bears in the area and make plenty of noise. 2. Avoid crowding bears; respect their "personal space." 3. Avoid attracting bears through improper handling of food or garbage. 4. Plan ahead, stay calm, identify yourself, and don't run.
In most cases, bears are not a threat, but they do deserve your respect and attention. When traveling in bear country, keep alert and enjoy the opportunity to see these magnificent animals in their natural habitat.
Did You Know? The willow ptarmigan is Alaska's state bird. It is snow-white during winter, but in early summer, it changes to chestnut brown plumage. Ptarmigan occur in treeless areas with low and scattered, brushy vegetation. Chicken, AK, was named because its residents could not spell ptarmigan.