MOUNTAIN ECHOES: Making noise the key to avoiding bear encounters

Wednesday, August 10, 2016 - 12:36
  • One of three bears seen from our car along Denali National Park Road this spring. Photo by Frank E. Baker for the Star

There has been plenty of good material written about how to respond to bear attacks. But after having my own share of close encounters with the ursine kind, I prefer total avoidance. And what has worked well for my fellow hikers and me over the years has been to make a lot of racket.

I’ve hiked with people who didn’t want to make noise so they could “see a bear.” That immediately signals to me that they’ve never been charged and felt their heart pounding so hard it felt like it was going to burst out of their chest.

As a fisheries technician with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in the 1960s, we conducted salmon-counting surveys that put us right in the middle of bear territory. We were on the Alaska Peninsula where the brown bear population was high because of abundant salmon runs.

On some surveys we would come upon about 10 bears a day, sometimes at rather close range of 50 to 75 yards. During our first surveys bears always ran away from us like we were monsters.

Only 19 years old and a neophyte in bear country, this early introduction might not have been good. Without being consciously aware of it, I quickly became bravado and somewhat cavalier toward these large creatures.

On a July survey in the upper Chignik drainage area, I split off from the group to count fish on a side channel. I soon spotted a large grizzly in the middle of the stream, about 100 yards away. Instead of backtracking to the group, I waved my arms and yelled. Predictably, she fled into the woods.

Almost immediately, I heard the cracking of bushes and trees. It sounded like a tractor coming through the woods.

I then saw the large brown, bobbing head coming through the bushes on the other side of the stream, about 60 yards away — headed straight for me. What I hadn’t seen earlier were the two cubs, now bounding along behind her.

Heart pounding, I backed up in the stream toward a high cut bank, and quickly took the .338 magnum rifle off safety. The stream channel was divided by a small gravel bar. I backed off the gravel bar into a deeper part of the slow-moving channel that at this point was up to my waist.

By this time, the bears were starting to cross the first branch of the channel and onto the gravel bar — now about 30 yards away.

In panic I tried to take the safety off again and again, even though it was already off. The cut bank was too high to get up on. I didn’t want to turn my back on her to try. I would have to make my stand in waist-high water, against the bank.

The sow and the cubs were now on the gravel bar and about to enter the second branch of the channel, where I was, about 10 yards away. Trembling uncontrollably, I looked into her eyes as I raised the rifle and prepared to shoot.

She stopped on the gravel bar. In a couple of seconds (it felt much longer) she turned and retreated with the cubs back across the stream into the woods. Just then I heard the yells of my buddies, downstream, who had decided to follow me on that side channel.

When they finally caught up to me, I was sitting on the gravel bar, shaking and generally not in very good shape.

“Why didn’t you shoot?” one asked.

Apparently, they had witnessed the last part of the charge.

“I was afraid I would wound her and make things worse,” came my strained and feeble reply.

Healthy respect

That incident made me a lot more careful and respectful of bears. We would encounter many more on subsequent Alaska Peninsula surveys over three summers. On at least two occasions we experienced bluff charges by young boars — spunky two-year-olds testing their mettle.

About nine years ago I was charged in upper Thunderbird Valley by a sow and two cubs. Even though they were far away (500 yards) I yelled and was surprised when they immediately started running in my direction.

With a substantial detour downhill and around a hill, I didn’t see the bears again. In retrospect I don’t think she really saw me and wasn’t charging —just reacting nervously to my yell, which was probably a mistake in the first place.

I know of an ADF&G game biologist who spent 25 years on Kodiak Island and the Alaska Peninsula roaming the backcountry and never carried a weapon. He had no problems with bears, despite the fact the island had a healthy brown bear population, as it does today.

His key strategies, I learned, were alertness and making a lot of noise.

Today my hiking buddies and I carry pepper spray, but what we mainly do is make noise, and I mean constant, loud yelling. We sometimes return from hikes quite hoarse. I also bang my hiking stick against trees and rocks whenever I can.

And near loud, rushing streams, we proceed slowly and watchfully. People who are in a hurry to get from Point A to Point B often run into trouble.

On a few occasions in Southcentral Alaska, I’ve spotted bears before they spotted me and easily avoided them.

Knowing their habitat is very helpful. Basically, if you’re up high in late summer in “berryland,” there’s a good chance they’ll be around.

Or if you’re down low in late summer/fall near a salmon stream, they’ll be there. Or if you come upon an animal carcass, they might be there.

Like us, bears take the path of least resistance. So sometimes they’ll be on human trails simply to get from one point to another.

I like seeing bears, but from a distance — 400 yards and greater.

And for the rest of my life I’ll probably never see much other wildlife up close because I make too much noise.

That’s a fair tradeoff as far as I’m concerned.

It’s a berry good year!

The bears must be happy, because our sunny summer and ample rainfall have produced a bumper crop of blueberries that came out nearly two weeks earlier than normal. I’ve seen people in the Eagle River area carrying out five-gallon buckets of berries!

We have our favorite private spots, and sorry, I won’t divulge mine. But for those unfamiliar with berry territory, (it’s hard to imagine an Alaskan who isn’t) go to south-facing mountain slopes between 1,500 and 3,000 feet, and you’ll find them.

Blueberries prefer a lot of sun. There is also a very healthy crowberry crop this year, and you’ll often find these smaller black berries in the same area as the blueberries. Important tip: If you’re ever out of water, you can get quite a good drink with a handful of crowberries, sometimes called “bear berries.”

And if you’re off the beaten track gathering berries, remain vigilant. You might be in a bear’s kitchen.

Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River


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