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Hiking and Venturing Into Bear Country

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When hiking in bear country, there are a few things to keep in mind. First of all do not let the fear of bears ruin your outing. Going by my experiences and my opinion only, I'm convinced bears want nothing to do with humans. Bear attacks are extremely rare. Statistics show hundreds of thousands of visitors venture into bear country every year without incident. If these animals we're aggressive towards humans, certainly there would be more bear attacks. Over the years I have experienced several bear encounters. Thankfully the bears all minded their own business and left us alone. However I'm always doing the following to reduce my risk of a negative encounter. Stay alert, make lots of noise and always be looking as far away as possible for any wildlife especially when entering meadows, power/cut lines or valleys covered in low lying bushes. These areas offer prime vegetation for bears to feed on.

I was told by a long time trapper who had experienced numerous bear encounters, that a small air canister signaling horn is your best chance to prevent things going bad. Maybe better than bear spray. Once again another ones opinion however I follow his advice and experience. Noise has been my best defense. I would have been very uneasy about pepper spraying any of the Grizzlies I've encountered. Doing so would have certainly escalated the situation. However I should point out that carrying bear spray is recommended by the national parks and most outdoor experts. It's probably wise to carry both a horn and spray when hiking alone.

 "What if it's a predatory bear?" This is a question I don't think anyone can answer but the following may help. Keep your pack on and cover your neck. Maybe throw what ever you can pick up, climb a tree, fight back. Statistics show climbing a tree may be a last option. Bears are good climbers and falling out of trees has killed more people than bears. Statistics also show that a predatory bear encounter is an extremely rare situation and the odds of dying in a car accident while driving to the trailhead are much higher.

During my encounters I sounded a horn once towards a Black Bear located on a trail bend in Waterton National park. It was our fault for day dreaming and not making enough noise before the bend. The bear showed no aggression and seemed as surprised as we did however the bear was just to close for comfort, approximately 20ms away so I used my air horn. The bear ran off after one loud burst.

While hiking I make a point of yelling out every fifty meters or so. If you're near a loud stream or thick bush make more noise more often. If you hear the call of a Raven or a group of Ravens, beware as they often call out when over top of other animals, near an animal kill or food source. The Raven's call does not necessarily indicate a bear but take notice and make lots of noise.

If you do stumble upon an animal kill consider this situation the worst. Turn around and leave the area immediately. If you encounter a bear, group your party together, avoid eye contact, slowly turn around keeping half an eye on your trouble, stay calm speak softly, ready your signaling horn or spray, DON'T RUN, keep your initial normal pace and leave the area to hike another day. Running will induce a bears predatory instinct or at the least create the idea of one. Should you encounter a bear behind you while on route don't try to turn around and pass it to get out of the area. Obviously try to return a different way.

If this is not possible which is usually the case, finish your hike and let several hours go by before returning on your way out. Stay tightly grouped and make lots of noise. The main concern here is passing a kill that the bear is defending so stay alert and don't linger about when near the initial encounter spot.

In general, hike in pairs or better yet in groups and make lots of noise. Keep your eyes out for fresh droppings that are usually dark brown to black, twice the size of a large dog or maybe very loose with whole and mashed berries. If it's buffalo berry season you may find a large pile of wet berries that looks as if someone had just dropped them. The berries are still whole and appear fresh or slightly digested. Large over turned rocks, torn up deadwood or fresh overturned earth is another indicator of a bear that may be feeding nearby. If you see any of the above it may be wise to turn back. Also if you do see a bear at a distance, expect there to be more than one. Bears aren't evenly or randomly located. They follow seasonal food sources which can lead to several bears foraging in the same area.

To mention the more obvious, you should not hike at night, never feed or approach a bear and always practice proper food storage. Store food in air tight containers and don't leave any trace of food or garbage anywhere. The next group of hikers could stumble upon a bear that has been attracted to food bits and trash left by others. Interesting to note that while driving by Bow Summit in Banff National Park, I witnessed a Mother and Father who let their two children run up to a black bear and take it's picture. The parents found this amusing and we're completely unaware of just how close they came to loosing a child. Maybe for some people the term "Park" in "National Park" is mistaken for amusement and safety.

M.T. Albertawow



Canada