We may not have bears in every Hike it Baby city, but for those who do, here are some tips to think about from one Alaskan Mama.
Here in Alaska, black and brown (also known in the interior regions as Grizzly) bears are emerging from winter dens. Shaking off a few months of mostly idle slumber, our bears are looking for nourishment and a safe place to raise their cubs while preparing almost immediately for the next season of cold and snow.
Hike it Baby’s Anchorage Chapter is working hard to provide bear safety education to empower those who enjoy outings with this growing group. Fortunately, Anchorage is a very bear-conscious community, given that the city borders wilderness stretching for hundreds of miles in any given direction. As such, the chapter is also creating a few “real-time” bear safety sessions on local trails so hikers can visualize what the concept of “bear-aware” truly means. And what it means may be surprising.
Alaska is home to both brown and black bears, and in general, awareness tactics are the same although each species of bear does have particular characteristics that distinguish it from the other. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game offers much in the way of explanation about these differences, and anyone recreating in bear country should first take time to familiarize him or herself to the bears that frequent a particular area of the country. http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=blackbear.main
Bear safety means awareness. It is, after all, our presence in their home that instigates most bear-human encounters, and thus we, as humans, owe it to our bruin brothers and sisters to behave appropriately. The best defense against a bear encounter is an appropriate and respectful offense, taught through knowledge and repetition.
Here are the basics:
Know bear habitat.This seems impossible to avoid while hiking, but actually, it’s rather simple. Bears eat all day and all night to pack on an extra 20-30% of their body weight for the upcoming winter. They hang out along waterways for fish, grassy meadows for grazing, and berry patches for a bit of fruit and fiber. But they also sleep during the warmest parts of the day, hidden from sight by brushy shrubs and small trees. Pay attention to your surroundings. Watch for tracks, scat (poop), or trampled grass and foliage. Bears are nothing if not burly, and they leave a mess wherever they go. It’s a signal for you to go a different way. Better yet, plan a hike so as to avoid known bear habitat; check in with local land managers (state parks, Forest Service, Park Service, etc.) before you meet up.
Make noise. Bears know we’re around a lot easier when we tell them we’re coming, allowing for a faster getaway in the other direction. Our family sings songs, talks loudly, claps our hands, and yells “Hey bear, ho bear, don’t you eat my toes, bear!” (We made that up; not bad, eh?). The jingle of a large “bear bell” can indeed help make noise when your voice becomes tired, but it should always be coupled with clapping or other obnoxious sounds in bear country.
Travel in groups. Studies have shown that groups of five or more have never been threatened or injured by an aggressive bear. Why? Groups who know bear safety know that when they bunch up and hold their arms over their heads, they look like the most ridiculous, multi-limbed creature in the world, not to mention smell decidedly odd, so bears generally won’t stick around. Encourage groups to stay together, even if it means traveling slower, and keep toddlers and bigger kids within an arm’s reach at all times. If one member of the party needs to stop, everyone stops.
Carry bear spray. Those of us who live, work, and play in bear country don’t leave home without our trusty can of pressurized pepper spray. Proven to be effective as a bear deterrent when used correctly, bear spray (we like CounterAssault http://counterassault.com/faq.htm best), shoots a curtain of red-hot pepper vapor into the entire field of vision, smell, and taste senses of a bear up to 30 feet away, for a duration of seven seconds. If you’ve never had the chance to discharge bear spray (and most people haven’t), review the CounterAssault website or check a reputable backcountry store with knowledge of the safe use of bear spray.
Responses to bears who decide to show up for a HIB event, regardless of our purposeful actions to the contrary, must be consistent. There is never an occasion to run from a bear, nor is there room for screaming (crying is always allowed). For step-by-step instructions, visit the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website, a reliable resource for kids and grownups to become educated and informed about bears. http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=livingwithbears.main
Bears are part of the wonderful landscape in which Hike it Baby members have chosen to explore. Like us, they seek only to protect and nurture their own families, and our respect for them should come through education and awareness.
Erin Kirkland is publisher of AKontheGO.com, Alaska’s family travel and outdoor recreation resource, and author of Alaska on the Go: Exploring the 49th state with children. She lives in Anchorage.