Thursday, June 01, 2017

Bear Facts of the Trail

Black Bear photo by
I photographed this bear in a tree in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Bears can be a hot topic in the hiker forums. I have witnessed, unfortunately, a hiker's tent at a hut in Shenandoah National Park torn up by a bear because he kept minor things like toothpaste inside. It makes good sense to learn the facts when encountering these
Bear damage to a tent
animals in the woods.

Most bears are skiddish when encountered on the trail, but a mother with her cubs can and will attack to defend her young if she detects a threat. It's prudent, therefore, to know the basics of bear safety when out hiking. And it's wise also to be aware of their scent to let you know they are nearby. I was taught the scent of a bear from a hiker/former ranger, and she said it smells like a wet dog. Once you recognize a bear's scent, it will alert you to their presence and avoid surprise encounters.   

Below are some general bear safety tips taken from the Shenandoah National Park website. If you are out west in grizzly country, that's a more dangerous area, and bear spray, bear bells, and other protection are needed, as well as bear canisters in many places (such as Yosemite National park which requires it). Check your local areas for updates on aggressive bear activity.

Avoiding Bears While Hiking
  • Stay alert to your surroundings and the presence of wildlife while hiking.
  • Make your presence known by keeping the wind to your back (your scent will alert bears), if possible hike in groups, and make noise.
  • When you spot a bear, stay 300 feet or more away and never linger or take photographs for long periods.
  • Slowly back away and leave the area or take a detour. Making noise during your retreat is appropriate. Keep children close to the group. Do not turn your back on a bear. Do not make eye contact.
  • Do not pursue and NEVER surround a bear. Give it room to escape.
  • DO NOT run from a bear. Bears will pursue prey and flight is a signal to them to start pursuit.
Encountering a Black Bear
Heed warning signs

If an encounter occurs …
Remain calm and don’t run. Like dogs, bears will often chase fleeing animals. You can't outrun a bear. They have been clocked at speeds up to 35 mph! Climbing a tree is futile since black bears excel at climbing trees. Jaw popping by the bear is a signal to you that it is uncomfortable.
Let the bear know you are human. Talk to it in a normal voice and wave your arms. If a bear cannot tell what you are, it may come closer or stand on its hind legs to get a better look or smell. A standing bear is usually curious – not threatening.
Move away slowly, but don’t turn your back.
Avoid eye contact with the animal.  If the bear follows, stop and hold your ground. Black bears may approach at a measured pace and attack the human as prey. The calm appearance of the black bear may have lure some of their victims into a false sense of security.  If leaving the area is not an option or if the bear gets too close you should make yourself appear as large as possible. Lifting your arms and a pack over head, moving to higher ground or, if in a group, huddling together will help discourage the bear. Make louder noise by banging pots and pans or using other noisemakers, but never imitate bear sounds or make a high-pitched squeal. If need be, throw rocks. A black bear calmly and steadily approaching who is not bothered by yelling or thrown objects should be considered extremely dangerous.

If a bear charges…
Don’t run! Bears often make bluff charges, sometimes to within 10 feet of their adversary, without making contact. Usually if you hold your ground they will back off.

If a bear actually makes contact…
Fight back! In rare instances black bears perceive humans as prey – if you are attacked by a black bear fight back. Try to focus your attack on the bear’s eyes and nose.
Carry bear spray and know how to use it.
In camp...

Eat away from your sleeping area. Never store food or any kind of smellables including sunscreen, chapstick or toothpaste in a tent or vestibule. If available, use the bear boxes, poles or cables provided. Use bear poles or bear cables or hoist your food in a tree ten feet off the ground and four feet out in a bear bag. Better yet, learn the PCT method of hanging food.  Cookware and trash should be similarly secured as well as anything scented such as toothpaste, toothbrush, medications, bug repellent, soap, etc.

In some places where bears are known to be aggressive on the Appalachian Trail such as in Georgia our southwestern Virginia, carry a bear canister to store your food. Canisters are also required in the Adirondack region of New York State and in several places along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). A Ursack may be used but also use an odorproof barrier with it.

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