You don’t need to spend the better part of a summer in Alaska, as I did while writing my new book, "Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000-Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, the Last Great American Frontier," to learn that bears are everywhere in the 49th State.
You only need to watch and read the Alaska news for a few weeks in the spring and summer to understand that unpleasant human-ursine interactions were common enough to deserve their own news category: SPORTS – WEATHER – ENTERTAINMENT – MAULINGS. In Alaska, dealing with bears is like walking alone at night in New York City—it helps to understand beforehand what you’re getting yourself into and know when to pull out the pepper spray.
Most sources of information, including the National Park Service, will tell you the best strategy is to avoid bears altogether. This is excellent advice, and applies to both black bears and brown bears. Bears do not like to be surprised, so hikers are advised to make noise by clapping or attaching to their clothing the sorts of bells usually associated with sleigh rides and court jesters. Mother bears with cubs are especially ill-disposed toward unexpected visitors. When camping, keep any food in bear-resistant canisters at least a hundred yards from your tent.
Beyond avoidance, things can get a little complicated. Bears will usually steer clear of you as well, but they are curious and may want to check you out. Should you encounter one that is stationary, back away slowly. If the bear follows you, however, stand your ground and absolutely, positively do not run. Bears can move at 35 miles per hour and will happily chase you down as prey. One NPS brochure advises bear-country visitors to keep in mind that “bears often make bluff charges, sometimes coming within 10 feet of their adversary, without making contact. Continue waving your arms and talking to the bear.” Backcountry hikers in Alaska are strongly urged to carry bear spray, a weaponized chili pepper extract. The approach of a bear to within ten feet is a good moment to use it.
And if the bear isn’t dissuaded by your flailing and oratory and aerosol Tabasco sauce and decides to attack you? A brown bear will typically stop attacking once it no longer feels threatened. Black bear attacks, on the other hand, should be assumed to be “predatory.” (Fun fact: black bears often have blonde, brown or cinnamon-colored fur. The easiest way to tell a black bear from a brown bear is that the latter has a distinctive shoulder hump.) You are also supposed to fight back (“vigorously!”) against a brown bear “if the attack is prolonged and the brown bear begins to feed on you.”
In short: Avoid getting close when possible, make noise always, stand your ground when sensible, and have bear spray on hand for emergencies. You can also follow the advice an older hunter in Sitka gave me. “I always say, when in bear country, bring a gun and someone slower than you.”
Mark Adams is the bestselling author of Turn Right at Machu Picchu. His latest book, Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000-Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, the Last Great American Frontier is available now.