I had an uncomfortably close encounter with a Grizzly Bear last week and as bear attacks keep popping up in the news some of my friends asked me to share what I know about surviving close encounters with bears.
Bear attacks are relatively rare but deadly when they do occur. Just days after I was in Yellowstone on July 1 a man was mauled and killed after surprising a female Grizzly with cubs. Last week a group of seven teenagers in Alaska were attacked by a Grizzly, also reportedly with a cub, and two of the group were critically injured. And last weekend in my hometown of Missoula, where I am currently visiting, a woman jogging on a popular wilderness trail outside of town fended off a black bear attack — again after surprising a mother bear with cubs.
The protocol for responding to a bear encounter varies greatly depending on species and circumstances. Responding appropriately can mean the difference between life and death, but unfortunately, it’s not always clear what to do.
In the case of the black bear attack in Missoula, U.S. ski team member Ani Haas responded bravely and appropriately by fighting off the attacking black bear. As she explained on NBC’s Today Show, Ani realized she could not outrun the bear and needed to stand her ground:
For black bears it is almost always appropriate to stand your ground and fight off an attack.
Grizzly bears, on the other hand, require a completely different response. For one thing, Grizzlies are much larger than black bears and you cannot hope to fight them off. That is why carrying bear spray (industrial-sized pepper spray) or, if properly trained, a firearm is necessary when entering bear country.
The most common and most dangerous Grizzly bear encounter occurs when hikers surprise a mother bear, or sow, with cubs. Because these attacks usually only happen when the mother bear is taken completely by surprise the hiker usually has little or no time for defensive measures.This was the case in Alaska where the teens did not even have time to use their pepper spray.
If you don’t have time to use pepper spray or a gun, the recommended response when attacked by a sow with cubs is to play dead. You should roll into the fetal position and cover the back of your neck with your hands and your face with your arms. Doesn’t sound like fun, does it? Bears usually attack and cause the most damage to the face and head.
The Alaska teens claimed to have kicked and fought the bear off. Bear experts doubt anything the teens did actually drove the bear away, rather the bear simply attacked out of self-defense and then quickly fled. The rationale for playing dead is that the Grizzly sow is not attacking you as a source of food, so will therefore leave you alone after making sure you’re not a threat.
But what do you do if you encounter a Grizzly bear without cubs? This is where circumstances come into play and the appropriate response is not always clear.
In my case, I was hiking in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness (prime Griz country) last weekend with two companions and a dog. I was on one of my high-country cave-exploring expeditions and was fortunate to have some company with me this go around.
Six or seven miles before the trailhead one of my companions happened to look up to see a youngish-looking Grizzly bear directly on the path 50 yards in front of us — much, much too close for comfort!
Our immediate response was to stop, pull out our pepper spray and grab the dog to keep it from charging the bear. Bears usually avoid humans, so if you see one on the trail you know you’ve either surprised the bear or the bear is checking you out.
A surprised bear will usually run away immediately or possibly false charge you and then run away. This bear did neither.
A bear that doesn’t run away or charge you is a curious bear. Curious bears are very bad news.
Curious bears are usually young, sub-adult males who may have become habituated to the presence of humans. If a curious bear decides not to run away it’s hard to anticipate what they will do next. The worst case scenario is they will begin acting like a predator towards you.
That’s why the number one rule is to never turn your back and run from a bear (curious, motherly or otherwise). Running will trigger that predatory response and once it’s triggered the bear is not likely to stop until it’s made prey of you.
The appropriate response is to calmly back away from the bear. Some experts recommend talking loudly. If you’re in a group, stick together.
Your goal is to put as much distance as you can between you and the bear until you can get out of it’s line of sight and turn and quickly leave the area. Hopefully, your hiking agenda will allow for the change in direction.
Ours did not. The bear lay directly in our only path forward on a trail with a sharply rising mountain on one side and a drop-off to a river on the other.
As we backed off, but the bear followed, keeping us in its sight. We tried going off the trail up the mountain, possibly to flank the bear — but it continued to keep us in its sights.
We continued backing up facing the bear until we got to a large meadow (Pretty Prairie for the locals). The bear stayed in the woods on the trail but kept us in sight and we kept an eye on the bear with our binoculars. We discussed trying to circle around again higher on the mountain to get around the bear. At this point we were unnerved by its behavior and unwilling to let it out of our sight.
Fortunately, there was a stock camp for packers on the far side of Pretty Prairie (“packers” are folks who bring customers into the back country on horse back, rather than on their own two feet like us lowly hikers). After awhile a train of fresh horses and mules came into the prairie headed for camp. The noise and commotion of the pack animals must have been enough to scare away the bear because when we next turned around it had disappeared.
However, it made for a very nerve-racking hike when we finally continued down the trail past where we had encountered the bear. Although I wasn’t sad to see it go, I was almost more worried with it completely out of my sight.
What would we have done if the bear had attacked us? I’m fairly confident that the combined cloud of three cans of industrial-strength bear spray would have repelled any attack. But I was relieved not to test it.
As for my cave-exploring expedition? Sadly, I came up empty-handed this go around. I hiked nearly 30 miles deep into the backcountry only to find one cave entrance completely engulfed in a massive waterfall. I climbed an 8,300-ft. peak looking for a second cave entrance, but it eluded me. Here’s the view from that peak (Haystack Mtn.):