There’s been a lot lately about people heading off into the woods, seeking adventures and Instagram opportunities in the great outdoors. In those hordes, there are a lot of folks that probably shouldn’t head to the grocery store without a chaperone- but now they want to get an “adventure bike”, put on their adventure hat and have a goddamn adventure. Who am I to say that the guy riding their bike with their helmet on backwards shouldn’t ride the Great Divide Trail? It’s a free country, dammit.
South Central Alaska is the awe-inspiring place that I call home. It’s also bear country, and bears are seen on my trips to the woods (hopefully at a distance) more than human trail users. When viewed from a safe place they can be very entertaining to watch- cute, even. Traveling through their backyard on the other hand can be unnerving, even risky. Bears can be unpredictable and dangerous. A predator that can attack when it feels that it or its cubs are threatened, if it’s starving or if it doesn’t like your stupid Primal tattoo print arm warmers. So I give you two options:
Option 1: DON’T GO OUTSIDE, YOU’LL DIE!
Option 2: Take the precautions you can, know the risks, realize you can’t control everything and be smart.
Spoiler Alert: Option 1 will eventually catch up to you, even inside your crappy apartment- so what the hell- go for a bike ride!
For most of us, we’re concerned with two types of bear. Black bears and Brown bears. (Those worried about polar bears should do more research, and those worried about koala bears should probably stay home.) The best we can do is learning what is typical of the species and to not threaten or piss them off. If we act in a respectful way and give bears a wide berth, chances are- things will be fine.*
Get to know your bruin:
Black bears are smaller than brown bears, weighing up to 570lbs for the male- with females being smaller, a large sow weighing around 350lbs. Though they are called black bears, the coat can vary from brown to black (some even white.) Black bears don’t have the noticeable shoulder hump that brown bears do. Up to 80% of the black bear’s diet is vegetarian, though like all bears- trash will heartily be eaten when available. Black bears are smart, have good eyesight, can climb trees, have been known to open jar lids and doors and can run faster than you can ride your bike.
The size can vary greatly between brown bears, so I’ll be talking about our local subspecies of bruin- the Kodiak brown bear (Ursus arctos middendorffi.) The male Kodiak brown bear can weigh up to 1400lbs, with females weighing about half that.
There are also what people refer to as “grizzlies,” which is a subspecies of brown bear. Grizzlies, or Ursus actos horribilis can be found in Northern and Western Canada, Alaska and the NW United States. A large grizzly weighs about 800lbs. A regional and size distinction- a grizzly is always a brown bear, but a brown bear is not always a grizzly. Then there is the California Grizzly (California Golden Bear)- the last one was shot in 1922, because California can’t have anything nice.
Brown bears have an excellent sense of smell, rivaling any mammal around. They also have longer claws than black bears, which hopefully you don’t get too close a look at. Don’t be fooled in their lumbering gait- they can outsprint you and can be on top of you before you have time to shit your chamois.
I am just going to jump out and encourage you to avoid bear encounters while riding your bike. You can ride up on a bear rather quickly on a bike, startling it- which is never a good idea. Bears have a tendency to walk on maintained trails, chances are good that you’ll eventually cross paths with our friend Yogi at some point. That means you’ve got to play nice (and be smart.)
Things to look for:
- Bear scat. Shit. It’s big. Like if Andre the Giant was eating berries and took a dump in the middle of the trail. Is it warm? Then it was recently in the neighborhood.
- Footprints. They look different than sasquatch foot prints- more like bear. Just the other day I saw wet bear tracks across the road connecting two ponds. On a hot day, that means I missed it by a couple minutes.
- Your dog is acting funny. If you are riding with a dog, remember they have a better nose than you- and the nose knows. If the hair on the hide is up and they are a little barkier or skiddish than normal, chances are there’s a bear around. The flip side of that is that dogs can be unpredictable around bears and are often better on a leash- difficult to do on a bike.
How to prepare for riding in bear country:
- Learn about bear behavior. Just as it is important for you to understand the terrain you are entering into and the equipment you are using- an understanding of bear behavior will make your trip much safer.
- Put a bell on it. If you are riding alone, using a bear bell may be a good thing to do- not nearly as effective as human voice, but better than nothing. The idea is to make noise. Don’t surprise a bear. If you are riding with friends, be vocal. You’re riding your bike- isn’t a really enthusiastic “Yippee!” appropriate?
- Ride in groups. This goes along with making noise. You’ll make yourself more noticeable and more often than not, your bear encounter will be over before you even knew it was happening, with the bear running in the opposite direction. Not always an option, but a good idea.
- Protect yourself. Bear Spray has proven to be effective in over 90% of encounters. Make sure you know how to operate the canister, that it is easily accessible and when it’s time to use it- you get it in the bear’s eyes and mouth. Though likely out of your control- if you spray upwind, you very well could spray yourself. It’s been proven to be useful even then, with both predator and victim feeling the burn.
Carrying bear spray:
A spray can of bear deterrent is one of the best things you can have in the woods to protect yourself. It’s cheap. It is also light enough that it should be carried on your rides, at a quick draw location and ready to use. Though I shouldn’t have to say it to anyone except maybe the guy with his helmet on backwards: DO NOT APPLY LIKE BUG SPRAY. Here’s a primer on bear spray from the Canadians.
I want to stress the importance of having quick and easy access to your bear spray. It won’t do you any good in your pack. Bears can sprint extremely fast and on top of that have a lot of momentum while going. You should have it at your fingertips and make sure it’s ready to fire. Read the manufacturer’s information about the range (about 5m) and burst length (usually the can only has 6-8 seconds of spray in it.) If you don’t want to carry it on your hip, a handy carry option would be the Mountain Feedbag by Revelate Designs, or the Bartender Bag by Randi Jo Fab. I have mounted mine on my stem. You should also ensure it can’t accidentally be sprayed. I know of a pilot here in Alaska that won’t allow bear spray on her plane after a passengers safety got knocked off and let loose the contents in the cockpit. She crashed the plane, thankfully surviving.
Say it, then spray it.
Most bear spray is effective at around 5 meters. Announce your presence. “HEY BEAR!” loudly though not aggressively, while raising your arms is a good way to do it. If you are downwind from the bear and it can’t smell you, it may be a little curious as to what two wheeled animal you might be. Just keep talking at a loud volume- and I’d suggest dismounting your bike. Don’t approach or run from the bear. If the bear keeps approaching, and especially if it breaks into a run- make sure your safety is off of the bear spray and spray low, at the mouth and eyes. Hopefully you’re upwind- but don’t let it affect your decision to use it- it may be your only chance.
Lethal vs. non-lethal bear protection.
Though pepper spray has been proven effective (over 90%) in multiple studies, many still prefer a side arm, shotgun or rifle to carry when going into bear country. Some want both. I will say that whatever your chosen method may be, you must have it readily accessible and know how to use it. I have carried both into the woods, thankfully having to use neither. If a firearm is your preference- size does matter. My caliber of choice is .44mag in a pistol on my hip- though a shotgun with slugs or buckshot is better. My pistol weighs in around 7lbs with 6 rounds in it. That’s quite a bit more than the sub 2lbs that my bear spray weighs. Personally I wouldn’t carry anything less than a .44mag if you are in brown bear country. I do want to stress that a carrying a gun without being familiar, comfortable and most important- accurate is just dangerous. If you don’t shoot regularly- please just carry spray. Hell, you can even carry both. Compare it to avalanche rescue equipment while snowboarding in the backcountry- it seems like it’s excessive, until you need it.
My encounters with bears have been benign, though they definitely keep me on my toes. Bears are curious, and when we have crossed paths, there has been only a stare down, me announcing my presence and the bear going on it’s way- usually running. I’ve even blazed down a trail and separated a sow and cubs- but thankfully was gone before they knew what was going on. In sizing each other up I have never been charged, even with the false, or bluff charges which are commonly done by bears to say “Hey asshole! Get off my lawn!” Though I’ve had my hand on my pistol a number of times, I’ve never felt the need to take aim because I’m not about just going around shooting bears all willy-nilly like. (This has actually become something fairly common in Anchorage, AK as runners and skiers come across moose on the winter trails, shooting them “in self-defense.)
From my experience and reading, a fast assessment of the situation is critical in a bear encounter. Is it a black bear or brown bear? Sow with cubs? What is the body language of the bear (is it turned away from you and already on the move away from you?) If the shit hits the fan and you are going to get mauled- the information that I’ve read is different depending on the situation. To sound cliche, be “Bear Aware”
Hand to paw combat.
Is there a black bear clawing at you and your spray wasn’t effective? Fight like hell. They are smaller bears, and generally not going to attack because of a turf war. They might actually like the taste of your shampoo and decide that gnawing on your cranium tastes pretty good. Punch, kick, poke eyes and fight for your life.
Channel your inner Mobley and do something like this:
Brown bear sow with cubs? This is one of the more dangerous scenarios. A sow will protect her cubs with the voracity of a much larger boar (male bear.) The best is to ensure that your actions do not imply that you are in fact going to mess with the cubs. You DON’T want to be caught between them. Don’t face the cubs. Face the sow, make your presence known and don’t be aggressive. If attacked- this is likely the only scenario that the “play dead” action may be effective. Her sole purpose is to protect her cubs- once you aren’t seen as a threat- chances are they’ll be on their way. At least that’s the hope.
A Brown bear that is territorial? Many bears give false charges and like most wildlife are not out looking to pick fights. If they can intimidate the danger (you) away, they’ve won. You aren’t out to win a turf war with a bear- so it’s really a win-win situation.
*Disclaimer: I’m not a biologist, bear whisperer or an expert on anything other than drinking beer. Don’t read this stupid on the internet and head off into the woods expecting you know everything. Read more. Prepare. And then go out outside and try not to die.
More info at:
UDAP Bear Spray website
As I post this, an acquaintance lies in the hospital, medevac’d to Anchorage after being attacked while hiking with her dogs on a local trail. The dogs ran off and came back with a brown bear in tow. She’ll make it- but it reiterates that hiking or riding with your dog can be a liability. Get well Thea, and we’ll see you on the trails soon.