Alaskans can practice bear safety while enjoying the summer

Break up season’ in Alaska in April is not only when the ice starts to melt, but it is also when bears come out of hibernation. There are still a lot of bears roaming about the municipality of Anchorage and beyond. It is important to know how to prevent encounters with them and what to do if one happens upon our furry friends.

COVID-19 has made outside activities even more popular than they already were in Alaska. Taking a hike outside can be the perfect activity to get out of the house while also social distancing. Unfortunately, bears do not care about social distancing, and there are bear sightings on the trails, the woods, and frequently the metropolitan areas of Anchorage. The Alaska Department of Natural resources Division of Parks and Recreation has recommendations on ways to be bear safe.

For hikers on trails, keep an eye out for signs posted about bear activity and always be aware of your surroundings, and be ‘bear aware.’ Do not wear earbuds as they can completely block out sound and seconds for reactionary time can be important when encountering a bear.  It is also a good idea to make noise while on the trails because bears do not like to be surprised by anything they did not hear coming. Some people wear bells to make constant noise, carry a portable speaker with some music or just yelp and holler occasionally.

Several bear safety signs can be found at various parks and trails in Anchorage. Photo by Michaeline Collins.

When going into bear country, leash dogs or leave them at home. Dog curiosity can lead to bears and the bear will follow the dog back to the owner.

It can also be helpful to know the differences between different kinds of bears, as black bears, while still dangerous, are less aggressive than brown bears or grizzly bears. Black bears, brown bears and or grizzly bears are all present in state and national parks. Brown and black bears are regularly spotted in metropolitan Anchorage. Some black bears look brownish like cinnamon bears, which are a subspecies of black bears.

There are key differences between brown bears and black bears, according to The National Park Services though, like shoulder hump, face profile and size. A good rule of thumb is to assume a bear is a brown bear if it looks like one and that any bear can be aggressive.

Before going on any hike, let someone know where you are going and when. If you do not return, whoever you notify will know that something may be wrong. Hiking with a buddy is always a good idea as well. Turning on phone GPS, smartwatch GPS or carrying a GPS device can also help people find hikers and help if one gets lost.

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Camping during the COVID-19 pandemic can also be a great way to get out and enjoy nature while maintaining social distancing. Bear safety is also very important in these situations. There are guidelines for camping at campsites.

It is important to never leave food out. Bears have super sniffers and can smell food miles away. Keep food in a bear-proof locker or vehicle when not in use. Keeping the campsite clean and odor-free can also keep bears away from curious smells and use bear-proof garbage or dumpsters to dispose of trash.

A bear went through trash in an Anchorage residential area and left a cleanup session for the owner. Photo by Christina Swayney.

These guidelines are also good for camping in the backcountry, with additional ones as well. Backcountry, such as camping in Denali National Park is beautiful but there are also more bears, especially grizzly bears that campers should keep in mind.

Choose a backcountry campsite carefully, with bears in mind. Do not set up camp near a salmon stream, trail, dumpster or garbage container or nearby animal carcass, and fire pit or cooking pit, as all of these can have more bear activity. Choose an area that is in an open area where wildlife can be heard, and they can hear the camper as well.

As tempting as it is to camp under the wide-open skies and see the stars, a tent is also a good idea, as the camper is a little less vulnerable and looks less like prey. They can also be protected from the notorious Alaskan mosquito, which can attack in swarms, especially in the backcountry.

When cooking in the backcountry, always cook at least 100 yards away from camp and cook so that the smoke or food odors move downwind and not toward your campsite. Do not go to sleep in clothes that may have food odors as well and keep food, pots and pans, clothes with food odors, trash and any scented body products such as deodorant, as all of these can all pique the attention of bears to a campsite and should be kept away from the campsite.

If there are trees, then these items can be kept in a cache. REI has a handy guide to using bear canisters. If no trees are present, these items can be hung from a rock face or bridge. All garbage needs to be packed out as well when campers leave. Never bury trash, as bears have keen noses and can detect even buried trash.

There are also different ways to react if one sees a bear. When seeing a bear from afar, and the bear does not notice the viewer, they should turn around or circle back, away from the bear. It is best to not disturb the bear and taking a photo of the bear is not worth an attack.

If a bear is charging, do not run. This can activate a reaction in bears that makes them think that they are chasing prey. Bears can also run very fast and have been known to run 30 miles per hour. Usain Bolt, who is an Olympic running gold medalist has set a world record running speed of 27.8 miles per hour. The average runner probably cannot keep up with Bolt.

If a black bear attacks, make as much noise as possible and try to appear bigger. Waving arms around and shouting or yelling as loud as one can also help. It is helpful to carry an air horn or something else that will make a lot of noise. This will hopefully scare the black bear and make it less interested. Back away slowly to get away but do not run.

Brown and grizzly bears are a different story. Backing away slowly can be done but do not run. Do not make eye contact either. If one is attacking, drop down to the ground and play dead only if contact has already been made.  According to The National Park Service or NPS, these bears will not be scared away by loud noises and any aggression from the human can prompt an attack. Fighting back initially can make a brown bear or grizzly bear attack more severely because the bear will be agitated. If an attack does occur and persists, it is also advised by the NPS to fight with whatever object is available vigorously, hitting the bear in the face, as death may be inevitable at some point without intervention.

Bear spray can also be helpful when bears get too close. This is different from pepper spray and is meant for bears. Bear spray is highly concentrated and should be handled carefully, with the owner having full knowledge of how to use it.

For more information about bear safety in Alaska, visit The Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Parks and Recreation page. Alaska Fish and Game also has a guide to camping in the backcountry and bear safety. National Parks Service has a helpful page on identifying different types of bears and a page on basic bear safety. The Bear Smart Society also has a page that dispels common bear myths.