Photo: Chase Dekker/Shutterstock

5 Ways to Avoid Bear Attacks

Montana Hiking
by Benita Hussain Aug 12, 2011
Avoid harm when hiking in bear country.

“IT’S A BEAR.” I said it so calmly it was surprising. It surprised Noah too, who was standing four feet down the trail from me. I stared at him. Moments before, he had murmured that the rustling at the left of our trail was in all likelihood a deer. But after nodding at him, I had looked to my left, spotting something larger and darker in the corner of my eye.

Glancing up, there was a black bear also looking back at me. My eyes widened, and all the rules the Glacier Park Rangers had told me, even the video they made us watch, crumbled away. The one thing I did know was that I had just made eye contact with a bear (that was bad, right?) and was immediately thankful for my sunglasses.

After informing Noah, I peered sideways again. She was still there, 30 yards away max, but then I saw her turn on her haunches and bound away from us, deeper into the brush.

We debated going back from where we came—the direction in which the bear ran—or continue on our trail towards Cosley Lake and wait it out. We decided on the latter. We sat at the lake’s edge, where I took my shoes off and let the icy water wake me up from the faintness I felt after the adrenaline spike.

Twenty minutes later, we returned to our trail to see whether the bear had also returned. I started to clap, the way we had on the way to the trail, the way were supposed to while hiking to alert bears that we were approaching.

Noah whispered, almost a hiss. “Stop that. She already knows we’re here.”

We tiptoed to our original spot. More rustling. I held my breath. This time the bear was back with two cinnamon-colored cubs. She stood up on her hind legs and twitched her nose at us. We stayed in silence, trapped until we knew she was gone, possibly dead if we made any sudden moves. Then she retreated again, as did we, back to the lake for another hour.

Black bears are typically less aggressive than grizzly bears, both of which inhabit some of the most-visited US National Parks: Wyoming’s Tetons and Yellowstone Parks and Montana’s Glacier Park. However, all bets are off when it comes to baby cubs. Chances of a mother attacking a perceived threat are exponentially higher for either type of bear when her cubs are present.

And with this summer’s late snowmelt that has affected all of the above Parks, foraging bears and their litters have been pushed downhill and closer to trails and campgrounds more than in the recent past. It is always helpful to get a refresher, especially in light of the recent spate of bear attacks, since the Parks’ peak tourism season is right now.

1.Never hike alone, scare it off before it sees you… and stop using bells

The number of people on our trails using bells to scare off bears was not only surprising—since they’re so ineffective–but irritating. OK, maybe not as irritating as us clapping our way down miles of trails, or hollering inane mantras like, “Roll oooon, you beeeaars!” Or, worse, telling an endless number of irrelevant and frankly boring stories just to keep the conversation going, since human voices are the best ways of putting bears on notice. It expended more energy during our day hikes, but our fear after our encounter made us do it with more fervor.

2. If you do see a bear, don’t make eye contact, speak softly and make yourself appear physically harmless.

Well, I violated this rule within the first minute. But after turning away and stopping my clapping, Noah and I stood facing each other, pretending we were invisible and whispered as we waited for the bear to make a move. At some point, I asked Noah to put me on his shoulders so that I could get a better glimpse of the cubs. He refused. Why? Because he’s smarter than me.

3. If the bear appears to be aggravated (lowered ears, rocking its head side to side, huffing), grab your bear mace, which should be packed accessibly, and back away slowly.

This thankfully did not occur, although I did sometimes mistake the bear’s grunting for huffing. Also thankfully, a bear standing on her rear legs means that he or she is just observing you, and is not acting aggressively.

However, the minute we heard the initial rustling, Noah already had his bear mace in hand. Had the bear begun to approach us, we’d be in a perfect position spray and go.

4. If the bear does start to approach or begins to stalk you as you retreat, use the mace and/or make large gestures with your hands and nearby sticks to appear threatening.

This is the time to either really blast that bear mace, or if available, swing objects that would make you appear a step above river trout. At the time of our encounter, I wasn’t sure how helpful this rule would be for me, standing at five feet tall and 98 pounds, versus a 300 pound bear that stood at over six feet on her hind legs.
I should note, though, that most bear charges do not lead to a physical attack. The bear will often run towards its target and then make a last minute turn; it’s more of a scare tactic. But…

5. If the charge is the rare attack—and you haven’t been able to mace the bear–keep your backpack on, protect your head, chest and stomach, and roll with the punches.

This is easier said than done, I know. When or if a bear physically attacks you, it’s just best to take the fetal position, remain quiet and allow it to bite and claw at you. You’re not its food, but it perceives you as the enemy. At this point, by mitigating the damage, you’re doing yourself a bigger favor that trying to fight back or panic, which could aggravate the bear more.
None of these are failsafe, as shown by some of the fatal bear attacks in recent months.

I’m sure the hikers read the same literature at their parks as Noah and I did, but when it comes down to the event, these rules are nuanced and hard to keep straight, especially under distress. Clearly, Noah and I lucked out, but for anyone who might find themselves in the same situation, I hope they’ll keep these rules more straight than I did.

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