From The Archive
How To Be A Man In A Bear Encounter
By Mr Frank Miniter, author of The New York Times bestseller The Ultimate Man's Survival Guide
Now, if you're thinking, “Bear attack, what are the odds?” the answer is: going up all the time. In fact, there are actually more bears now than at any other time in centuries. In North America alone there are now more than 750,000 black bears and more than 55,000 grizzlies (including brown bears) and their populations are still increasing. This is a tremendous environmental success story, but it also means those of us who like to trek off the pavement have to prepare for encounters.
When you happen upon a bear in the forest, you've stumbled into a test reminiscent of that found in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber (if you don’t know this short story by Ernest Hemingway, acquaint yourself; it's manly as hell). Set in Africa, it tells the tale of Francis Macomber who, while on safari, runs from a charging lion, an act his wife perceives as cowardly. In fact she loses so much respect for him she sleeps with the professional hunter guiding them. Over the years I've been false charged by black bears twice and have had quite a few grizzlies growl and slap their jaws at me. The key to staying manly in such primal moments is knowing what to do and of course, what not to do. Here are a few pointers.
Don't run away screaming
Don’t base your knowledge of bears on the old joke: “‘No, you don’t understand’, the skinny man says to the fat man. ‘I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.’” Turning your back and running from a bear – especially if you scream like a little girl – may trigger a bear’s predatory instincts. Hold your ground and back away slowly.
Bear spray isn't like bug spray
I was on the Aniak River in Alaska fishing for salmon with brown bears. I ran into a few hikers who smelled so much like pepper I got a spicy chilli craving. I asked what they’d been eating. I soon learnt they’d sprayed bear spray on their packs – they were all flavoured up for the bears. Bear spray (sometimes called pepper spray) uses capsicum and is made to spray into a charging bear’s face. It works. But not like bug spray. Get it from UDAP (udap.com) and make sure you holster it on your belt.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
I’ve worked with Mike Madel, a 30-year veteran grizzly bear specialist. He uses a Karelian bear dog to ward off grizzlies, deters bold bears with rubber bullets and has the unfortunate task of killing problem bears. Yet he also swears by bear spray, and a can is always on his hip. He can draw it faster than John Wayne ever dreamed of pulling his six-shooter. His advice: “Aim low and then bring it up into their face. Keep spraying until the bear turns. And carry a spare.” You have to practice. If you think you can read directions on the side of a can as a bear charges, good luck.
HANG YOUR FOOD
Unless you want to have a bear looking for a way into your tent, hang food or dirty dishes in a tree 50m or more from your camp. Select a pair of branches that are 4 to 5m apart and 4 to 5m high. Attach one end of a rope to a fist-sized rock and tie the other end to a tree trunk. Toss the rock over both branches in succession. Tie a knotted loop in the cord midway between the branches. Attach the food bag (a sealed, waterproof sack) with a slipknot. Pull on the unsecured end of the cord to lift the bag approximately 3m up. Tie it off.
KNOW WHEN TO FIGHT
OK, you see a bear. Pull out your bear spray and stay calm. Black bears are mainly docile and just a few attack people each year. But when they do attack they’re predatory, so playing dead is just saying, “Eat me”. Any bear that attacks at night should be considered predatory. The time to play dead is when you’re dealing with a sow protecting her cubs and your bear spray hasn’t worked. Black bears are great climbers – you won’t get away by climbing a tree – while mature grizzlies are poor climbers. Loud noises can dissuade a bear from attacking. Banging pots together has worked for a lot of people.
“Look, a bear. Let's go feed it.”
“Oh, those rangers are always hanging bear warning signs. I can just ignore them.” Last year a man was killed in Wyoming who did this.
“I'll just leave this sandwich right next to my sleeping bag in case I want a midnight snack.”
“Bear attack? The odds are greater that I'll be hit by lightening.” Actually, when you go where bears are, your odds increase. By comparison, if you like whitewater kayaking, then your odds of drowning are not the national average.
“I'll just leave my can of bear spray in the car for safe keeping.” The cans are aerosols. Their contents will expand in a hot car and might even explode.