By Bob Difley
You’re hiking a woodland trail on a warm sunny day, the forest alive with the twitterings of songbirds, sunlight dappling the forest floor, when suddenly you come upon a bear. What should you do? 1) Throw rocks and sticks at it to scare it away, 2) Turn around and run, or 3) Faint from fright.
Answer: None of the above.
If you hike in the woods a lot, as of course I hope you do, sooner or later you may find yourself in this situation and have to make a decision that could affect your safety. Instead of the above options, take a few seconds to determine what the bear’s actions or intentions are. Did it see you? Is it moving toward you or laterally across your path? Is it feeding? Is there a cub nearby? Is it agitated? The bear’s actions – and reactions – will give you a clue as to what to do next.
In most bear encounters on trails the bear will amble off or turn and run when it sees or hears you. It’s not a bad idea to let the bear know you are there if you are not sure it has seen you. Call out in a gentle, non-threatening voice, “Hey, good looking. You are a fine-looking bear. I just wanted to let you know I was over here.” If it doesn’t run or continue on his route passing you by and instead stands up to watch you, bear experts advise: 1) Drop your head and do not make eye contact, 2) Slowly back away from the bear until you are out of sight, and 3) Take a different route.
On rare occasions, a bear may make a bluff charge at you to frighten you off. In this case, no matter what your feet are saying, DO NOT RUN! A bear can run at speeds topping 30 mph – one-third faster than a world-class sprinter. Climbing a tree doesn’t help either. Bears can also climb trees – and faster than you can.
Now, this may sound hard to accept, but bear experts suggest dropping into a fetal position, legs tucked under your body, arms and hands covering and protecting your head. The theory goes, that when the bear determines you are not a threat it will go away. Bears are not interested in eating people.
On the VERY rare occasion where the bear thinks there is a “berries here” notice printed on your T-shirt, you should fight back with whatever weapons you have available. Sticks, stones, handful of dirt in the face, kick, scream – I know, screaming would come naturally without me having to tell you.
Now that you’ve had the wits scared out of you thinking of snarling, attacking bears, remember – you are much more likely to be struck by lightning than have a bear attack you on a trail. There were 52 recorded deaths due to black bears between 1900 and 2003 – about one every two years. However, there have been twenty-five fatal black bear attacks in North America during the last 20 years – about 1.25 fatal attacks per year.
Bears should not prevent you from enjoying the great outdoors, though they are not to be taken lightly. The best protection on the trail in bear country is: 1) Don’t hike alone, 2) Make noise, talk, let bears know you are in the area, so they can avoid you, and 3) Don’t carry a smelly dead fish in your backpack.
Other methods, such as wearing bells on your shoes, have been questioned as to their effectiveness. It has been suggested that they are not loud enough to be heard or, if heard, may cause the bear to become curious and move toward the sound. (Humor writer Bill Bryson says you can tell if droppings are from a bear if it has little bells in it.)
You are much more likely to be killed by a dog than a bear, and 2,000 times more likely to be killed by a car. We all seem to be more terrified and afraid of something that we know little about – like bears – which could even deter us from hiking. If this were a rational decision, then we would long ago have avoided pet dogs and we certainly wouldn’t ride in a motor vehicle.
Consider these facts:
- 100 human deaths occur in auto collisions annually with deer.
- 86 deaths from lightning strikes.
- 40 deaths from bee stings.
- 18-20 people killed by dogs (plus bites on 200,000 people).
- 12 deaths from rattlesnake bites.
- 3 deaths from black widow spider bites.
But if you’re still nervous, consider carrying a canister of bear spray as an added measure of defense if needed.
Basic wildlife observation safety
No wildlife should be approached close enough that they change their behavior to concentrate on you. Just because wildlife allow you to approach closer in National Parks, where they are safe from hunters, they are still wild. No wildlife should be fed, cut off from escape routes, or separated from their babies. They can fight, stomp, claw and bite. Stay safe. Observe wildlife from a safe distance. And enjoy your hike.