As we began our trek through the wilderness of Denali National Park we knew we were not alone. Fresh footprints marked our trail, and the chew marks on the wooden sign which noted our location at Sable Pass were quite obviously the jaw imprints of a grizzly.
Though far from being afraid, we had actually come for the bears, attempting to track them by their prints and scat which led from right outside our camp deep into the backcountry throughout the park.
One of the things that makes Alaska so special is the presence of all three species of North American bears. Grizzly/Brown Bears are found from Southeastern Alaska up to the arctic, Black bears frequent the forests, and Polar Bears live out their days on the pack ice and tundra of the extreme north and west.
Regardless of where you travel in the State, there is a chance that you may be lucky enough to see a bear. They often frequent popular campsites throughout Alaska’s national parks, use human trails as the path of least resistance, and tend to spend time on the beach in coastal parks.
But even if you don’t catch a glimpse you will never be far from one. Alaska is bear country after-all!
Bears are curious, intelligent and potentially dangerous animals, and every year millions of travelers have the opportunity to safely observe them without any confrontation. But undue fear of bears can endanger both bears and people.
Conflicts with wildlife are primarily caused due to inappropriate human behavior, and people are usually only injured if they get too close or in the animal’s way. Human injury is generally only the animal responding to a perceived threat, and attacks are commonly the direct result of people approaching animals for close-up photos, hiking off trail into dense brush, or attempting to feed the animals (which you absolutely should not do).
It is so important to be “bear aware” when camping and hiking through Alaska – staying calm and having knowledge of the proper behavior will increase the odds of a positive outcome for both you and the bear.
These are our top tips on being bear aware, and our favorite photos from our recent trip to Alaska. All photos are our own.
Tips for Being Bear Aware
Stay calm and don’t panic! Probably easier said than done! Buddy up, because you’re safer in a group, and carry bear spray. Have the bear spray accessible, and know how to use it.
DO NOT RUN from a bear. Like-wise, don’t make sudden movements. This might instinctively cause the bear to charge you, though most of the time a bear charging will be a bluff. Hardly any charges from a bear end in actual contact, though if you take flight the bear may take chase. And not even Olympic sprinters can outrun a bear.
If you spot a bear but realize it hasn’t spotted you, slowly and quietly leave the area. If the bear does spot you, STAND YOUR GROUND, slowly wave your arms and start talking to the bear.
The bear needs the chance to identify you as human and not a threat. If it stands up, it is trying to see, hear and smell you better. Talk firmly in a low-pitched voice while backing away. Avoid direct eye contact as bears may perceive this as a challenge or threat.
Bears HATE surprises. Do not sneak up on a bear. Make loud noises to alert any bears that you are in the area. You could carry an air horn to sporadically use as an early warning system, hike with a bear bell or whistle, or even sing as you go.
Be aware of your surroundings at all times and get rid of your headphones. While Justin Beiber may be your jam, nature rocks more. You need to be able to hear a bear if it is rustling in the brush and take steps to avoid an encounter. Remember, bears hate surprises, and you don’t want to deafly stumble upon one. Also, slow down. High speed = high risk in bear country.
If you do surprise a bear, it will often confront you by turning sideways to appear larger. If it makes woofing and teeth clacking sounds, or begins to slap the ground with its paws, these are warnings for you to leave the area. “They’re saying, ‘I’m not comfortable, you’re too close, give me some space”.
Always maintain a safe distance. Animals may look or act tame, though they are wild and may change quickly and unpredictably from passive or “friendly” to aggressive behavior.
Defensive attacks will generally come from a brown bear. You should drop to the ground and play dead. Lay on your stomach, clasp your hands behind your neck, and use your elbows and toes so the bear can’t turn you over. If you do roll you over, keep rolling until you land back on your stomach.
If wearing a backpack, leave it on – it could protect your vital organs. Remain still and try not to struggle or scream. Surprised bears will stop attacking once they think there is no longer a threat, i.e. that you’re dead. Do not move until you are absolutely sure the bear has left the area. If the bear begins to feed on you, start fighting back. This has changed from a defensive attack to a predatory one.
NEVER play dead with a black bear. These are generally predatory, and you should prepare to physically fight back. Make yourself big, get loud and prepare to fight with any weapon available — bear spray, firearm, knife, stick, whatever. Kick, poke, punch, and fight any bear that attempts to enter your tent.
Related Article: Surrounded by Black Bears: Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
DO NOT FEED BEARS, and know how to handle your food responsibly. When camping, keep your food away from the camp in bear-proof containers and stored in your vehicle. Never leave food out when not in use, and cook at least 100 feet away from camp, downwind. Pack away all trash and do not bury your garbage. Bears have an excellent sense of smell.
Do not sleep in the open if camping. Pitch a tent. Minimize the risk of having your gear destroyed by never leaving your belongings unattended.
NEVER travel into bear country without: adequate travel health/medical insurance. In the unlikely event that you find yourself requiring medical attention after an encounter with a bear, you will need adequate coverage for an emergency evacuation and medical treatment.
We recommend GeoBlue for Travel Medical and International Health Insurance globally. International Health Coverage with GeoBlue provides fantastic insurance for emergency medical evacuations, and this service is available 24/7 no matter where in the world you may be.
Related Article: Why You Need Medical Evacuation Insurance
For more information about coverage with GeoBlue, or to obtain a free quote, contact Timothy Jennings at IndividualHealth.com.
Always review the latest information on what to do in an encounter or attack by contacting the wildlife and land management agency where you are recreating. Bear behavior varies from species to species and as a result of their individual experiences.
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