An Interlude on Bears

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June 4th 2010
Published: June 4th 2010
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Since I have been in Alaska I have had the great pleasure of encountering a bear on three occasions. I say “great pleasure” only because none of these encounters ended with me being eaten, mauled, dragged, charged, bluff charged, or slashed open like wrapping paper off your little sister’s zhu-zhu pet by the bear.
In Alaska everyone has a bear story. Without fail, everyone that has lived here for longer than about 12 minutes knows someone that has been attacked by a bear. And these aren’t the know-a-friend-who-had-a-coworker-who-had-a-cousin type “know someone” relationships: this is either a friend of theirs or they themselves were attacked by a bear. What makes it even more unsettling is that for some reason or another, Alaskans volunteer these stories with virtually no prompting. Just the mere mention that I do intend, at sometime, to possibly spend a short duration of time outside of a building has been enough for me to hear stories of people having their scalps ripped off, being dragged off trails literally by their bootstraps, and being holed up under siege in fortunately located cabins by particularly bellicose bears.
When told that I am going hiking, everyone always asks to be sure that I am bringing “protection,” which in the urban gang settings might mean a gun, but in Alaska means a BIG gun. I respond that I carry bear spray with me, which is kind of like saying I’m prepared for the hurricane because my drink came with an umbrella. Bear in mind (no pun intended) that this is not your average pepper spray that some Alpha Beta Gamma sweetheart carries to protect herself from the big bad mugger who’s trying to snatch Daddy’s pearls off her neck. This is a massive aerosol can of highly concentrated capsaicinoids that can shoot an accurate jet 30 feet in any direction. If this hits a human in the face it has a good chance of blinding them permanently. And I have seen footage of bears actually licking this stuff up like Augustus Gloop in the chocolate river.
I was privileged enough to go through an extensive training course on bear safety that is required and usually reserved for staff at the US Fish and Wildlife Department that consisted of four hours of how to be safe around bears, four hours of how to shoot bears, and four hours of actually shooting at bears (ok, so it was a paper cut-out, but it did the job). The bear safety training actually contained enough useful information to fill the four hours, but the after lengthy discussions on bear ethology and evolutionary conditions, the meat of it can be boiled down to one sentence: If you are being attacked by a brown bear play dead, if you are being attacked by a black bear fight back. There is also an addendum to this rule: If the brown bear decides to start eating you, then it’s ok to start fighting back. Your tax dollars are paying some for some biologist to formulate these genius tactics.
This is of course not nearly as simple as it sounds. For starters, all that crap you hear about grizzly bears and Kodiak bears is actually just lies spread by the bears themselves in a propaganda campaign to confuse Southern Boys. They are all actually the same as brown bears, only called different things depending on where you see them. Secondly, the species of bears are not easy to distinguish at all. Their color-oriented names are again just successful counter-intelligence tactics, as both brown bears and black bears can be brown, black, or even so blond they look like polar bears. The best way to distinguish them is actually by the shape of their facial profile. I will be sure to bring this up with the bear when it mauls me: “Excuse my ursine companion. Could you please focus your viciousness temporarily on my arm rather than my torso so that I may ascertain whether your profile is flat or dish-shaped so as to determine what course of action to take?” And then there’s that whole playing dead thing. Apparently this is not even that simple because as one of my classmates described, sometimes the brown bears like to “stomp on you like a tube of toothpaste” just to make sure that you’re dead.
If this is enough to make you never want to wander near a berry patch of moose habitat again, consider this. About nine times out of 10 that a bear charges, it is a bluff charge, and you should just hold your ground. This can be distinguished from a real charge because the bear keeps its head up. I heard about a biologist that was so confident when being bluff charged that he didn’t flinch even though the bear pulled up just two steps from him. That said, if you are betting that a bear’s charge is a bluff, you’d better be right.
And even if you do squeeze a bullet off in time at that sucker, there’s no guarantee that this will stop him. My bear safety class instructor said he has seen shot bounce off the skull of a bear like “stones skipping off a lake.” To prove my proficiency in shooting down bears, I had to put two out of three 12-gauge magnum slugs into the bear’s “kill zone” while the target ran at me very quickly. Anything that it takes more than one hunk of lead in something called the “kill zone” to actually stop is simply not fair. Further, it took me a couple of tries to get the requisite shots off in time, so it goes without saying that this is a theoretical skill set that I do not ever want to have to put to practical use.
Fortunately, my bear sightings have all been quite peaceful. Two were of roadside bears from the safety of the car. The third arose during a camping trip when, alone in my campsite 11 miles from civilization I awoke to the tell-tale sounds of a large mammal walking near my tent. Wanting to know what it was, I curiously stuck my head out to see a mid-size moose perhaps 20 feet away. Relieved, I put on my boots and walked to the other side of camp to give him some space. Only then did I realize that the moose was being stalked by a black bear about 10 or 15 yards from me. As I was trained, I raised my hands and calm spoke to it, “Hey bear. I’m a human...Not food.” Fortunately, he scrambled off into the woods and that was the extent of our encounter. It left me a little rattled yes, but also in awe of this majestic place and its beauty in all forms.


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