Smithsonian Journeys Travel Quarterly Alaska Issue

Where and How to (Safely) Bear Watch in Alaska

Attacks à la Revenant are a statistical blip. An Alaska expert outlines the dos and don’ts of sharing wilderness with the state’s 133,000 bears

A brown bear hunts for salmon in Silver Salmon Creek. (Daniel D'Auria, Smithsonian.com Photo Contest Archives)
Smithsonian Journeys Quarterly

“Do you think there are any bears around?” asked my wife, Sherrie, gazing from the kitchen window into the frost-tinged autumn woods. We’d just spent the first night at our new homestead, in the mountain-rimmed wilds outside of Haines, in the northern part of the Alaskan Panhandle. I shrugged. “Sure, this time of year, you could run into one anywhere.”

Right on cue, a glossy-coated male grizzly strolled into view and sniffed the grass a dozen feet from our back steps. He’d followed the same brush-lined trail I’d walked from the outhouse less than five minutes earlier. After a brief, wide-eyed stare, I opened the door and sent our neighbor on his way with the time- honored salute, “Hey, bear!” And we went on with our day.

Alaska and bears: The two words are almost synonymous. Most of the nearly two million visitors who stream into the Great Land each year hope to glimpse these iconic creatures, and they’ve come to the right place. The state’s subcontinental sprawl is home to an estimated 100,000 or more black bears (Ursus americanus); 30,000 browns, or grizzlies (interchangeable names for the same species, Ursus arctos); and on the northern coasts and sea ice, perhaps 3,000 polar bears (Ursus maritimus). That’s roughly one bear for every six of the state’s 740,000 residents. Naturally, bears often prowl around us, seen and unseen—not only in the wilderness but also through the spaces we call ours.

I came to Alaska 37 years ago, hoping to live around bears, and I got my wish. I’ve watched bears—three grizzlies and a double handful of black bears—as I stood inside four of the five Alaska homes Sherrie and I have owned. I once surprised a black bear on the narrow deck of our second house, in the shadow of the Mendenhall Glacier; he brushed against my leg as he bolted past. Only a few days before we saw the male grizzly at our new place north of Haines, I drove down our Juneau suburban cul-de-sac in a soon-to-be-loaded rental van, right past a big black bear sauntering down the road—one Sherrie had met just minutes earlier at the edge of our driveway. It was as if one bear had bid us farewell and another had welcomed us to our new home.

As for the bears I saw or met in my travels as a writer, photographer, and general wilderness bum, I lost count long ago. I saw my first Alaska bear in 1979 and can recall times in especially bear-dense areas where the daily count was higher than ten, and once 40 in just a few hours. I’ve inadvertently found myself within touching range of wild bears of all three species, been charged four times, and been subjected to all manner of ursine threats and displays, including woofing, jaw clacking, brush thrashing, roaring, and purposeful, head-low advances. So how many times have I had the ever-loving dookie scared out of me? I’ve lost count of that too.

If this sounds like an arm-waving alert to remain on constant edge during your Great Land sojourn, it’s not—not at all. Here’s my takeaway, even after that drama-riddled summation of encounters: Bears are generally shy, peaceful, intelligent creatures that, despite their potentially lethal power, almost always go to great lengths to avoid trouble with us. Unless you’re lucky or make a trip to a prime viewing area, you might not even glimpse one. And if you do, it’ll be quietly munching on grasses, berries, or salmon, not slavering after humans.

Black Bear
A black bear observes its surroundings. (David Shaffer, Smithsonian.com Photo Contest Archives)

Most of my up-close brushes with bears have been directly related to my outdoor habits—lots of quiet solo walking along salmon streams, fishing rod in hand, and sitting in places crisscrossed by bear trails as I watched and photographed bears going about their business. Even so, I’ve never been so much as scratched, and not once did I feel the need to either shoot or use bear spray in self- defense. And never, in hundreds of nights of sleeping in wild Alaska, did I have a marauding bear enter my camp. Most of my woods-wise friends have had similar experiences—though we all know people who were swatted around or chewed on, and one or two who were killed. The truth is, no matter how guilty you are of carelessness or bad judgment, you have to be cosmically unlucky to be attacked by a bear. Your probability of being mauled ranks as a statistical blip, somewhat higher than the odds of being hit by a piece of space junk. Sure, it happens. Just not very often.

Fewer than a half dozen bear-caused injuries occur annually in Alaska, and we have an average of one fatality every other year—this despite tens of thousands of close human-bear interactions, many of them involving clueless people breaking multiple rules of common-sense bear etiquette. In most attacks, the bear is reacting to a perceived threat to its cubs, a food source, or its own personal space. Predatory events are as rare as they are memorable. If you really need something to worry about while you’re visiting, consider that in an ordinary year we have around 50 traffic fatalities—just a handful fewer than all the recorded bear-caused deaths in Alaska stretching back more than a century.

Odd, this deep-abiding fear of bears we carry—one that’s reinforced by folktales and bedtime stories and Hollywood creations such as The Revenant, in which Leonardo DiCaprio gets mauled almost to death; the Anthony Hopkins survival thriller, The Edge; and Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. “Bear chew” books, with their lurid descriptions of ursine mayhem, are practically a literary genre. We cling to and amplify the sensationalized exceptions until they become a defining rule.

The truth is, bears are generally far more scared of us than we are of them—with good reason. According to state statistics, about 5,000 bears are killed annually in Alaska by sport hunters alone. However, most bears avoid us not out of conditioning but out of natural caution. I wish I had a hundred bucks for every furry butt I’ve seen headed for the horizon in response to my presence. Understanding this dynamic and making it work to your advantage is the key to staying safe and enjoying your time in bear country.

Keep in mind that all bears are individuals, that situations can vary, and that the three Alaska species are behaviorally similar in some respects but quite different in others. Black bears tend to be the least aggressive, usually fleeing when startled and, much to the shock of even experienced outdoorsmen, seldom, if ever, attacking in defense of their cubs. Polar bears, besides being rare, are generally unaggressive toward humans; researchers have likened them to grizzlies on Valium.

Polar Bear Cub
A polar bear cub rests on its hind legs in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Ken Conger, Smithsonian.com Photo Contest Archives)

Watch: Why Polar Bears Like to Wrestle in the Winter

Grizzlies, or browns, are another story. They’re responsible not only for roughly 80 percent of all Alaska attacks but also for the majority of serious injuries and deaths—even though they’re outnumbered by black bears at least three to one statewide. About a third of grizzly attacks are by females engaging in cub defense, a genetically hardwired response. The trick is to not surprise them, or any other bears, at close range. Alert them to your presence, giving them a chance to retreat with dignity.

The single most powerful thing you can do to be safe is to keep your eyes and ears wide open and make plenty of commotion as you’re traveling through bear country. Talk loudly, sing, whistle, or shout; wear bells on your backpack. Thick brush, frequent bear sign (scat, tracks), and ambient noise such as rushing water are all cues to turn up the volume. You don’t have to go overboard; a low, forceful shout of “Hey bear!” every few dozen yards works just fine. If you encounter a bear that’s apparently not paying attention to your presence or refusing to cede ground, give it a wide berth. Keep in mind too that a bear’s most powerful sense, by far, is scent. Avoid walking into the wind whenever possible; a breeze directly at your back adds a huge safety factor.

If you want an almost certain guarantee of safety, stick to tightly packed larger groups. Almost all bear attacks are on single hikers or pairs. Attacks on groups of four are all but unheard of; parties of five or more are statistically immune. You still should make noise and keep within a few steps of each other. The idea is to present an intimidating presence. Size definitely matters in the bear world.

OK, so you encounter the exceptional bear that’s giving aggressive signals: staring, snapping its jaw, growling, raising its hackles, lowering its head, making swaggering advances. The time-proven rule is to bunch up, be as large as possible, and stand your ground. If you’re by yourself, open up your jacket and spread it wide (I’ve done this twice to good effect), wave your arms, shout in a deep voice or clap. Don’t squeal, scream shrilly, or make sudden movements. Running may trigger a chase reflex, and there’s no way you’re going to outrun a bear. Meanwhile, pay attention to what the bear is telling you. A bear that’s standing up isn’t being aggressive; it’s just trying to see you better. One that’s turned sideways is showing you how big it is, sending a signal that it doesn’t want trouble. Being close to a bear doesn’t mean an attack is imminent. And there’s no danger in watching a tolerant, unstressed bear from a safe distance. A hundred yards is a good rule; let the bear decide if it wants to move closer.

If a bear charges—bears can move with appalling suddenness—fight your urge to run and continue to hold your ground. The vast majority of charges stop short of contact. They’re not necessarily bluffs; it’s up to you to change the bear’s mind.

Let’s say worse comes to worst, and the bear takes you down. Roll into a ball, lock your fingers behind your neck, and do your best not to move. The bear will likely retreat as soon as it figures the threat has been neutralized. Stay down and immobile as long as you can. The bear may stand nearby, watching; if you move, it might return. If you’re being severely mauled by either a black bear or grizzly, and the attack seems to be escalating, fight back with all you have. The attack may be predatory, and you have nothing to lose.

What about protective weapons? Aerosol-driven pepper spray is highly effective, but only at point-blank range—30 feet or less. Many Alaskans carry firearms: pistols, lever-action rifles, or short-barreled, pump-action shotguns. Others carry flare guns and air horns. Some seasoned wilderness guides swear by throwing rocks. All defensive measures require practice, quick reflexes, and a cool head. The best protection you have is right between your ears.

Most important, when traveling in bear country, remember why you’re here. Brush your hand across the imprints of great clawed feet, marvel at a place where such things still exist beyond our bidding, feel your pulse quicken, and fare forward.

Best Bear Viewing

If you want to watch bears, a visit to a designated viewing site with a high bear density is strongly recommended. The sites listed below are run by the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, or the state of Alaska. You also have many other choices statewide, from unsupervised roadside spots to high-end remote lodges. Search online to discover more options. Planning ahead and good timing greatly increase your chances of seeing bears.

Pack Creek: A small, well-supervised viewing area overlooking a tidal creek and grass flat frequented by brown/grizzly bears. Accessible via floatplane from Juneau. Limited daily permits.

Anan Wildlife Observatory: From a platform overlooking a rushing creek, watch black bears and a few grizzlies feed on abundant salmon in late July through August, often at close range. Guided fly-in or boat access from Wrangell or Ketchikan.

McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Refuge: Permits by lottery only, for supervised but primitive camping and grizzly viewing at this iconic site, where bears gather to fish at a waterfall.

Katmai National Park and Preserve: Not a single viewing area, but a massive, wild parkland with numerous grizzly hot spots. Fly-in guide services and a few lodges available, including the fabled (and seasonally crowded) Brooks Lodge. Accessible by air from Anchorage, Homer, Kodiak, and King Salmon.

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