You're backpacking through Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, trekking over the slope tundra on a cool autumn day, picking delicious blueberries, and taking photos of the brilliant fall colors. You've been hiking all day, and you're looking for a good place to camp overnight. There's a great spot just past this line of willows along a drainage coming down from the mountains. In you go, but as you come to the middle at the stream crossing, you look up to find you're not even 50 feet from a huge grizzly bear foraging upstream. Yikes!
How could you have avoided this encounter, and what can you do now? Let's find out!
Grizzly bear scat
NPS Photo - Andrea Willingham
Know the signs. Fortunately, bear signs are some of the easiest to identify. Keep an eye out for:
- Large piles of scat, often with berries or plant matter
- Bear tracks
- Claw marks in the ground or trees
- Tufts of fur
- Large, dug-up piles of dirt or vegetation
- Animal trails of cleared brush
In autumn, foraging grizzlies can blend in well with the landscape
NPS Photo - Andrea Willingham
Be aware. Whether or not you see signs of bears, be aware of your location. Ask yourself: If I were a bear, where would I be around here?
- If you're in open tundra, scan the landscape all around you periodically. Check the horizons and look for any signs of large wildlife moving around in the distance over hilltops or ridges.
- Streams, lakes, and other water sources attract all forms of wildlife - be especially vigilant in these areas.
- Autumn is a time when bears will be fattening up for the winter, eating berries and vegetation, scavenging, and hunting live prey; they also camouflage better with the brown tundra this time year, so be extra-cautious and watchful.
- Areas of dense vegetation and low-visibility are conducive to close, surprise encounters with bears, or may inhibit your ability to get away in dangerous situations; it is advisable to spend as little time as possible in places that could put you in impassable situations with wildlife.
Bear spray demonstration
Be prepared. If you're camping overnight, be ready for bears to come check out your set up!
- Keep ALL food, toiletries, and cosmetics in bear-resistant food containers (BRFC)
- Prepare and consume food, clean your cookware, and store your BRFCs at least 100 yards away from your tent and equipment (such as kayaks, bikes, etc).
- Know how to use bear spray, and keep it handy at all times when hiking or camping.
- Be visible and make noise. Whether or not you think bears are around, be a noisy hiker - sing loudly, clap, make whatever sounds you can, or call out "hey bears!" frequently.
- Travel in groups of at least 2 people, if not more. In the backcountry, there is safety in numbers so stay together whenever possible.
Grizzly displaying non-defensive behavior
Know what to do, in the event of an encounter:
- If you encounter a bear and it remains non-defensive, change your path of travel to give it as much space as possible and increase the distance between you and the bear, staying conscious of its whereabouts.
- If a bear approaches you, speak calmly but loudly to it, make yourself appear larger by waving your arms or holding your pack over your head, and stand your ground.
- Defensive behavior occurs when bears are defending food or offspring, and signs can include huffing, snorting, jaw-popping, or charging. In the event that you're in this situation, stand your ground! Talk calmly and loudly, move slowly away, make yourself appear larger, and be ready to use your bear spray.
- If you are charged by a bear, now is the time to use your bear spray (only if you are upwind - otherwise, you risk pepper-spraying yourself!), and continue to stand your ground! Most charges do not end in contact.
- In the unlikely event that contact is made by a grizzly bear, play dead. Lie face down on the ground with your hands covering your neck and legs spread apart so the bear cannot turn you over. Do not move until the bear is gone, or unless it begins attacking vigorously. If it does begin to feed on you, fight back for your life.
In general, grizzlies will not attack, but the key is to avoid surprising the bear, approaching, or appearing as a threat. To get to see a grizzly on the tundra is an incredible opportunity, so enjoy, value, and respect the animal from a distance and your experience in the backcountry will be truly rewarding!