Staying Safe in Bear Country

Bears and campers often frequent the same areas. In a coastal park, like Lake Clark, both tend to spend time on the beaches and narrow bands of land found between the sea -- or lakes -- and the brush, forest and steep cliffs nearby. It is likely that bears and campers will encounter one another, but by remaining calm and following the basic advice of experienced bear behaviorists, you increase the odds of a positive outcome for both you and the bear.

 
a brown bear and cub

Sows with cubs can be particularly defensive if surprised or threatened.

NPS Photo / Kevyn Jalone

 
black plastic cylinder on its side with packaged food spilling out of it

A bear resistant food container must hold all scented items, including toothpaste and sunscreen - not just food.

Proper Food Storage is Required

It is extremely important that bears and other wildlife be prevented from obtaining and habituating to human food and garbage. The park offers bear resistant containers for temporary use by visitors free of charge at the park visitor center in Port Alsworth. Various outfitters also have them available for rent in Anchorage for those not traveling through Port Alsworth. See the food storage requirements. Please ask before you go if you have any questions.

 

Basic Bear Safety Tips

  • Stay Alert -- Use your eyes, ears and even your nose to detect the presence of a bear. The sooner you are aware of a bear, the more time you have to react appropriately.
  • Be Visible, Make Noise -- Bears don't like to be surprised. A surprise encounter with a bear is dangerous. Avoid surprises by traveling in open areas with good visibility. Make noise as you walk, particularly in if visibility is poor -- talk, clap or even sing. Be extra alert in windy conditions or near noisy streams that mask your sound.
  • Safety in Numbers -- The larger your group is, the less risk of a bear attacking. Group members should stay within a few feet of each other, particularly if visibility is poor. Scattered groups do not provide the protection of cohesive groups.
  • Avoid Bears -- If possible, change your course to avoid bears that you've detected, or move slowly away from it. Never approach a bear, even from a boat or kayak; approaching a bear can cause undue stress and provoke an attack.
  • Store Food Properly -- Keep all food and scented items under your immediate control, at all times. While camping, keep a clean camp and store food appropriately. Do not allow a bear to get your food. It will only encourage the bear and make the problem worse for the next person.
  • Report Bear Encounters -- If you have an encounter with a bear, report it to a park ranger as soon as possible. This will alert others and enable park staff to respond appropriately to the situation, if necessary.
 
A brown bear stands in green sedges and looks at the photographer.

When a bear stands on its hind legs, it is not threatening you. This is an information gathering pose.

NPS / Jim Pfeiffenberger

What Should You Do in a Bear Encounter?

If you encounter a bear, immediately ask yourself: does the bear see you?
  • If it seems like it does not notice you, or is moving steadily along a route away from you, simply move quietly away from the bear and the encounter is over. Shouting at a bear that is not aware of you will startle it and may incite it to charge.
  • If it seems to have noticed you, analyze whether it appears defensive or not. Bear encounters often happen very quickly, but the bear will likely be showing cues that communicate its intentions.
During Any Bear Encounter
  • Remain calm and do not run.
  • If you are traveling or camping in a group, use your group size to your advantage by staying close to one another.
  • Keep your food under your direct control. Allowing a bear to get your food only encourages it and makes the problem worse for the next people.
  • If you are wearing a pack, keep it on. It can protect your back and prevents the bear from destroying your items or eating your food.
  • If you are fishing, prevent the bear from taking your catch.
 
Encountering a Non-Defensive Bear
If the bear is aware of you but seems untroubled (e.g., not changing its prior behavior at all and not showing signs of stress), this can be considered non-defensive behavior. It may appear curious by standing on its hind legs or observing you with ears perked forwards. A non-defensive bear may approach you for a variety of reasons - it may be conditioned to human food, curious, or want to test its dominance. You should act assertively to try to dissuade the bear from approaching you.
  • Talk to the bear to let it know you are a human.
  • If hiking or kayaking, slowly change your course to avoid the bear. Increase your distance from it and stay alert to its whereabouts.
  • If the bear approaches, stop, shout, make yourself look large and threatening, throw a rock towards the bear, use noisemakers like air horns or by banging pots and pans together. Unholster your bear spray and be prepared to use it if necessary.
Encountering a Defensive Bear
Defensive encounters arise when a bear is surprised or feels like you are a threat to itself, its cubs, or its food. The closer you are to the bear before it becomes aware of you, the more likely it is to react defensively. The encounter usually happens very quickly. A stressed or frightened bear may snort, woof, huff, make a jaw popping sound, salivate profusely, lay its ears back, or charge. If you notice any of these behaviors you should assume the bear feels defensive or startled and you should try to act non-threatening.
  • Your safety lies in calming the startled bear, so speak in a calm voice at it. Shouting or making other loud noises may only frighten the bear more.
  • Do not throw anything at a defensive bear.
  • If the bear is stationary, move slowly away in a diagonal direction from it.
  • If the bear approaches you, stop and stand your ground again. Continue talking calmly.
  • If the bear charges, remain non-threatening and stand your ground. Most charges do not end in contact. Use pepper spray if the bear comes within range if you have it.
  • One the bear stops its charge, try to move slowly away again.
  • If a defensive or frightened bear makes contact with you, your reaction depends on the species of bear.
    • If it is a brown bear, play dead. Brown bears may attack what they are afraid of instead of running away from the threat. If you are attacked by a brown bear, lie face-down with your hands clasped behind your neck and legs spread apart so the bear cannot flip you over. If you do get rolled over, keep rolling until you are face down again. Try not to shout or cry.Once a defensive bear no longer perceives you as a threat, it will stop attacking. Do not move until the bear leaves the area to avoid frightening it again. If the attack is prolonged or the bear is attempting to eat you, the bear may have changed its behavior from defensive to predatory -- in this case, fight back vigorously!
    • If it is a black bear, fight back vigorously! Black bears run away from perceived threats, so you should never pretend to be dead if a black bear attacks - their attacks are almost always predatory, rather than defensive.
Finally, if a bear attempts to enter your tent, fight back! This may be a predatory behavior.
 

For More Information

 
Two fishermen stand with backs to the photographer watching a brown bear on the opposite side of the river.

Fishing in Bear Country
While fishing can be exciting in Lake Clark, it offers a unique set of safety challenges. Become familiar with the responsibilities that come with fishing in bear country prior to your trip to Lake Clark.

 
Illustration comparing the physical characteristics of brown and black bears.

Bear Identification
Both brown bears and American black bears flourish in Lake Clark. There are a combination of characteristics to look for that can help you identify the two species. Knowing the difference can help you make safe choices in bear country.

 
A man stand with his back towards photographer watching a brown bear sow and her two cubs in a meadow

Brown Bear Viewing
Lake Clark National Park offers world class bear viewing opportunities on the coast where brown bears congregate in high numbers to feed. Learn where to go to see bears, and become familiar with bear viewing best practices prior to your trip.

 
Profile view of a brown bear walking.
Brown Bears
Why are the best bear viewing locations on the park's coast? Learn the differences between brown bears that live on the coast and the interior of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve.
 
American black bear faces photographer

American Black Bears
While American black bears are the most common bear species in North America, seeing one in Lake Clark is a rare treat.

Did You Know?