“Can’t I take my rifle?”, said someone at a desk to my left. I could see others glancing over, nodding, then looking back hopefully towards the supervisor. “No, it’s company policy, no firearms”.
Yeah, so this has nothing to do with channelling your inner bear, and connecting with your wild side. This is about being aware of bears.
Before carrying out biodiversity studies deep in the boreal forests of Northern Canada, I was put through a “Bear Awareness” training course. It is the oddest, most attention seeking thing I have on my CV. It may be useless for any other job I’ve had, but in that particular role this training could have saved my life. If we’d had any difficulties with a bear, we would have radioed in for help. However, the helicopter could easily have taken hours to arrive and until then my work partner and I would have had to deal with the situation on our own.
In a bear encounter situation, between , “ah wow, look there’s a bear” and “Oh f@ck I’m about to die” there’s a raft of practical advice that could prevent you experiencing your final demise at the hands (paws) of a giant teddy bear.
Here are the highlights.
So, the technique when coming across a bear. Firstly, if it hasn’t spotted you, stop, back away slowly and quietly, find a different route. If it doesn’t follow you, excellent, continue on your merry way. This is the most likely scenario.
If it sees you backing off, takes an interest and starts approaching, as if it wants to make friends…… don’t! It’s a trick! It’s not going to give you a massive cuddly bear hug and ask you to come and live with it in the forest. That is a myth. Stop! Retreating may encourage it to follow you, so hold your ground! Hopefully it will stop when you stop…. lose interest, get distracted and trundle off.
If it’s still coming your way, you don’t want it to think you’re a bear and a potential threat to its territory or family. So, get off all fours and stand up, stand tall, wave your matchstick like appendages in the air and in a calm voice say something human sounding. Don’t growl like an angry territorial bear. Hopefully the bear will see you and think to itself, “ah, a human, completely uninteresting” and get back to munching wild blueberries and dandelions.
“Shit, it’s still coming… what the hell…!!! I need to get out of this situation!”
So what are your other options?
Run away? no it can run way faster and will catch you.
Swim across that lake? no they can swim well and will catch you.
climb that tree? ….. guess what….
“How about I throw my bag of food in one direction and leg it in the other??” Nope, it will go to the bag of food, sniff it, confirming there is food, immediately learning that you dispense food when chased…. and so chase you.
If nothing so far has had the desired effect of the bear leaving you alone, things may be about to get much, much worse. You may be about to take part in a very traumatic set of events.
Firstly it might just come over and swipe at you for trying to cuddle it’s cub (of course it saw you, they’re not blind!).
If not that, and if it’s a grizzly, it might make its anger clear by standing 20m or so away and creating a Clint Eastwood style shootout scenario with you. Instead of steely eyes and cigar chewing… the bear will be growling and drawling with its lowered head waving from side to side. You’ll be playing the part of the vastly out skilled, terrified, drunk and foolish Mexican bandit. This bear version of Clint doesn’t care that you are unarmed and haven’t really done anything wrong. Just as you come to realise the full connotations of the role you’ve been cast, it’ll be time for the grand finale, the grizzly bear charge.
This is pretty standard. That 350kg beast is going to sprint at you full pelt at up to 40mph, screaming……… (ok, growling).
And what you are supposed to do if that happens, if you have what it takes, is just stand there. Don’t move. Watch it run straight at you. Stand tall, no flinching, no running away, no climbing a tree and no swimming away. Stiff upper lip and all that.
I’d like to see someone manage that!! At this point, if you haven’t already shit yourself, you might as well do it now, as one of your final pleasures in life.
To spice it up even more, they are known to do dummy charges. Moments before it appears your head is to be swiped off, the grizzly will side step or abruptly stop its run and retreat. They are known to repeat this torturous routine, sometimes several times.
But on this 3rd charge, you can tell, you know it’s going to happen, it’s serious this time….. but you have hope! You’ve just managed to find that bear strength pepper spray you’d packed right at the bottom of your pack (which isn’t on your belt because it gets in the way and you’ll never need it). And so it’s all going to be fine! It’s alright… because if the wind is blowing in the right direction and in your terror you somehow manage to aim accurately and blast the spray right in to the charging grizzly bears eyeballs… just before it pounces on your fragile little frame… from this fortunate position… you then have a 90% chance that it will stop its attack and lumber away kind of upset…
Otherwise you’ll be getting the 10% result… you’ll majorly piss it off and receive severe and savage retribution for your actions. These are the odds if you manage to actually hit the target.
If the wind is strongly not in your favour, your bear savaging will take place under the blinding, breathless haze of a self induced macing. The bitter cherry on your final cake.
In those final moments… after the first slash of a giant paw slaps you to the ground, the advice is to fall front down to the floor and brace hands behind your neck and head, protecting your soft belly with the ground and your brain with your twig like arms. Try to stay on your front. If you’re incredibly lucky it’ll only swipe a couple of times then move on, only leaving one or two horrific flesh wounds. After all they don’t want to eat you (usually). They like fruit salads and peanut butter.
If the attack continues regardless of you lying motionless on the ground, or the bear has been stalking you during a time of food scarcity, this may be predatorial behaviour. This is rare, but if the case, fight back! Fight back with everything you have!
If it did decide to bite you, it would all be over pretty quickly. It’s estimated that a grizzly bear could crush a bowling ball with its potential 8 megapascal biting force.
“But”, we were told “Don’t worry, it’s all very unlikely”. You’re lucky enough to even see a black bear or a grizzly. The chances that it’s going to pay attention to you are quite low, unless you get between it and its cubs, or it’s just after hibernation, or it can smell your peanut butter sandwich in your bag, or that toothpaste in your tent, or that deodorant you’re wearing, or the sun cream… or you haven’t hung everything with any scent 100m away and 5m up a tree…. unless any of all of those things happen.. you’ll be alright…
On a side point, even if they had let us have a gun, the stats show that 50% of attacks on people carrying a firearm result in hand to claw combat.
…… now, please sign here to acknowledge that @@@@ have warned and prepared you for potential bear encounters while carrying out remote field surveys. You know the risks and are happy to take them.
Here is your certificate, here is you bear spray, now get on that helicopter.
Please note – Bears are unpredictable. They have individual character traits and will respond according to the situation they find themselves in. I have not covered all eventualities. It should go without saying that my words here are a summary of some key things that stood out to me in my training and are not hard line cover all rules for bear encounters. Please read national park resources for official guidance.