Coexisting with Bears
Bears seem to bring out conflicting emotions in people. The first is an almost gut reaction of fear and trepidation: What if the bear attacks me? But then comes that other urge: What will my friends say when they see these incredible bear photos?
Both of these reactions can lead to problems in bear country. “Bearanoia” is a justifiable fear, but it can easily be taken to such an extreme that one avoids going outdoors at all for fear of running into a bear. The “I want to get close-up shots of that bear and her cubs” attitude can provoke a bear attack.
The middle ground incorporates a knowledge of and respect for bears with a sense of caution that keeps you alert for danger without letting fear rule your wilderness travels. Nothing is ever completely safe in this world, but with care you can avoid most of the common pitfalls that lead to bear encounters.
Brown (grizzly) bears occur throughout Alaska, except on islands in southern Southeast Alaska, in the Bering Sea, and out on most of the Aleutian Chain. Black bears are found in forested areas across most of the state, but not on several islands in northern Southeast Alaska.
Old-timers joke that bears are easy to differentiate: A black bear climbs up the tree after you, while a grizzly snaps the tree off at the base.
Both grizzlies and black bears pose potential threats to backcountry travelers; polar bears are potentially the most dangerous of the three species, but they are almost never encountered by summertime visitors, since they only occur in remote northern and western parts of the state.
Enter bear country with respect but not fear. Bears rarely attack humans; you’re a thousand times more likely to be injured in a highway accident than by a bear. In fact, more people in Alaska are hurt each year by moose or dogs than by bears. Contrary to the stories you often hear, bears have good eyesight, but they depend more upon their excellent senses of smell and hearing. A bear can tell who has walked through an area, and how recently, with just a quick sniff of the air. Most bears hear or smell you long before you realize their presence, and they hightail it away.
Bears are beautiful, eminently fascinating, and surprisingly intelligent animals. They can be funny, playful and inquisitive, vicious or protective, and unpredictable. The more you watch bears in the wild, the more complex their lives seem, and the more they become individual animals, not simply big and bad.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition