Hiking Safety in Bear Country -
After a 15-mile ATV ride up an old forest service road, I dismount my carriage stretching my arms backward and pushing my chest forward in an attempt to realign the vertebrae jolted out of place. I pull the bottom of my balaclava down under my chin and remove my goggles. Gathering several of my items from my ATV I attempt to throw on my pack.
Being in my winter gear I struggle in circles, my arms flailing behind me searching for the straps on my backpack. Under my breath, I whisper to myself “Ralphie, wait for me.” If my wife were here, she would giggle with me. I finally grab the straps and slide the pack on my shoulders realizing that my base layers, my clothing, and my outer fluffy layers, not to mention the past four weeks of picnicking, have added extra padding between me and my waist belt. Luckily such things are adjustable and I tighten it up. Grabbing my muzzle-loader from the gun rack, I trek off into the predawn darkness.
November temperatures have crusted the snow and I think to myself “if it weren't for the crushing cracking and scraping off of the white crystals beneath my feet, I would be a stealthy ninja.” I know lying to oneself can be a danger, but this is my vacation, my week long getaway. This week it is my turn to be Daniel Day-Lewis running with his Hawkins rifle through the forests in search of big game. So excuse me if I take every opportunity to embellish my fiction and emphasize my purpose, happiness.
A soft glow of dark purple grows and burns into reds and yellows as I find a spot on the hillside with a couple of trees to stretch my camping hammock between. A finer lounging device you won’t find; it makes the long days of watching game trails comfy. It is lightweight and holds up to 450lbs, perfect for me and my lunch. I keep one in my pack as an essential piece of comfort and survival gear, but that is another story.
A few miles away from my ATV at an elevation where the air is thin and hillside inclines steep, I rest several yards from the crest of the mountain looking away from the rising Sun. I watch the game trails beneath me as a few deer pass, but these are not my quarry. My vision grows in the light and the soft white frost that covers splotches of protruding grass through the jigsaw puzzle of snow, sparkles and flashes as it warms in the morning sun.
After watching patiently and studiously for the better part of several hours, perhaps a bit of deep thinking, a good book, and a quick nap, another benefit of my hammock, I rise and decide to roll over the crest to the next saddle. As quietly as I can I make my way along the hillside and carefully begin to peer up over the top. I hear a brief rustling and pause as does the time. Sounds distort and the world is frozen. My eyes, hazel in color and with narrow black pupils meet with dark brown eyes looking upside down directly into mine.
The fuzzy cinnamon colored bear lying flat on his back waits motionless merely feet from me. He must've been playing a game or maybe just scratching his back, his position reminiscent of my yellow lab playing in the grass in the backyard. For what seems the longest pause between heartbeats I have ever experienced, we size one another up. The hunting gods in their infinite wisdom have paused the show, and now in a mischievous act similar to those perpetrated by Loki, they un-pause the bear while leaving me frozen.
Rolling from his comforted spread he leaps to an aggressive stance, pivots, and shoots down the far side of the hill, across the saddle, up the far side of the hill, and turns to look at me. I am still standing in the same position fumbling for I'm not sure what, and appearing far from Daniel-Day Lewisesque. The scene plays on and the bear turns and wanders into the woods. A fleeting thought in my mind, “that was fast.”
Long story short, and as with most of my adventures in the woods, I was alone and breaking nearly every rule of good sense when it comes to hiking in bear country. I won't get into my reasons; I will just say that it is a choice I make consciously. I will mention when I am with others I am far more careful.
Bear sense doesn't have to be complicated, most bears avoid people. Chances are if you do a lot of hiking you have past several bears and never known. I have hiked the mountains of Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, and Idaho for the last 20 years or so and have only seen a handful of bears. Frankly, your risk of being hurt by a bear is less than that of lightning. However, lightning doesn't chew on your bowels while you’re still alive, just sayin’.
So with that in mind, I would like to cover some basic bear safety and perhaps some for lightning as well. The most important thing to remember while camping and hiking in bear country is to never allow bears to get your food, garbage, or other attractants. Bears that learn to associate humans with treats are dangerous. They can damage tents, cabins, vehicles, and other property. Though these interactions are rare, they can result in injury and death.
So what are attractants? Well, all human food, all livestock food, all pet food, garbage from said food, and cooking pots and utensils covered in this food. I think we see a pattern, and don't believe for a second that cans or packaging are going to save you. The Bears sense of smell and our ability to clean and remove odors are at opposite ends of the spectrum. This is why we carry bear-proof containers and/or string our food up in trees.
It isn't all about food. Some items such as wet wipes, cosmetics lotions, and toothpaste are also attractants. Things like video games and phones with blinking lights and unusual sounds can also be an issue. Even fuel for stoves and lanterns can be attracting to a pesky fuzzy creature looking for a meal. When hiking and camping in bear country keep these things in mind.
So what do we do with these items? In many national parks bear resistant containers are provided at the campsite, use them. A hard-sided vehicle, not a tent or a pop-up trailer, can be used and is bear resistant, but not bear proof and may result in the owner obtaining a convertible unplanned. A special food cache can be used while hiking or packing in wilderness areas. For my crew and me, we usually string our food up.
Stringing food between trees is easy and inexpensive. It does not require heavy or specialized gear, and the items you need should be in your pack anyway. It's important to find sturdy trees that will support your line at least 10 to 15 feet off the ground. Each sack containing bear attractants should have vertical support at least 4 feet away from the tree. Secure the items at least 300 feet away from your campsite. The last thing you want is for a bear to get your sack.
Bear in mind, you should keep your cooking setup away from your sleeping area. Again the recommendation is 300 feet. It's called a bear safety triangle. 300 feet between your sleeping zone, your cooking area, and your food storage space. Never sleep in the same clothes you cooked in, store them with your food. Likewise, food should never be in your tent nor immediately outside your tent. For safety, store your garbage strung up in the tree as well.
It's a good idea to keep a flashlight and your bear spray in your tent with you. Do NOT discharge bear spray in your tent, ever. Keep your pets leashed they can also attract bears as well as aggravate them. Be sure to sleep away from game trails, berry patches, or any fresh bear sign. If a bear does happen to enter your camping area and behaves in an aggressive and bold manner, chances are the bear has been human habituated or food-conditioned and is potentially dangerous. Report such incidents to local authorities immediately.
If you happen to encounter a bear while hiking, keep cool. If the bear has not noticed you and is not aware of you, quietly and calmly leave the area. If the bear does happen to see you, talk in a calm voice, and make yourself as large as possible to identify yourself as human and not another bear or prey animal. Avoid direct eye contact with bears but keep them in your vision at all times. Never run away, always move calmly and slowly.
Yet one more reason I love my Grip-Tight locking shoelaces. Super fast, super easy, slip on function, to run away from bears. Okay, I probably made that up, but I do love my Grip-Tights. Speaking of shoelaces, I have heard over the years that it is important to not only carry bear spray but a good idea to wear small bells on your hiking boots to warn bears of approaching humans. I have never done this and have no opinion on the matter. I am more inclined to believe bear identification is far more important.
If you familiarize yourself with bear scat, you will have a better understanding of the environment you are in. Black bear scat is smaller than grizzly bear scat and will appear to have berries, seeds, and small amounts of rodent fur mixed with it. Grizzly bear scat is a bit different in that it smells of pepper spray and contains little bells. ;)
Okay, I hope you picked up the italicized paragraph was a joke. I am not a bear expert nor do I claim to be. I am merely passing on information I have learned over the years and found useful. It is a good idea to use professional resources to educate yourself. One of my favorite sites is the Grizzly Discovery Center. Check them out http://www.grizzlydiscoveryctr.org and happy hiking.