Bears don't like being surprised. I don't blame them. I don't either - unless it's with a fun adventure or chocolate or a great new book.
While we were on our recent vacation, there were warnings everywhere about existing safely with the grizzlies and black bears that live in the parks we visited. In truth, we saw far more warnings than actual bears. And I really had to wonder what the people who wrote the warnings were thinking about the people they were writing for.
Two protection products were promoted widely: bear bells and bear spray. One is meant to keep a bear from being surprised by your presence. The other is meant to save you if you do surprise a bear.
All of the tourist shops had a rack just for bear bells. They're pretty, single jingle bells, held on some sort of outdoorsy looking fabric or connector with which to attach them to your pack or belt or walking stick. The idea is that a bear will hear the bell coming, abandon its tasty stand of huckleberries or buffalo berries, and politely skedaddle into the brush allowing humans to pass by peacefully.
According to my Lonely Planet book, bears will eat as many as 200,000 buffalo berries a day to get ready for hibernation. That's a lot of little red berries for a 700 pound creature to pick and consume during the waking hours of one summer day. I have to wonder, really, how many bears would be happy about having such an urgent meal interrupted, and be willing to take a break in the woods to get out of humans' way.
One site I read even suggested that bears might like the sound of the bells, be curious about them, and be more inclined to investigate the possibility of a whole different food source at the sound. On one of our hikes, we passed a family: mom, dad and middle school aged son. The son was the only one with a bell. First warning, or first meal?
Of course you didn't have to buy a bell. All the free tourist literature had information about hiking safely in bear country. Making noise to warn bears of your presence was highly recommended: singing, shouting, clapping. Some trails required that at least four people travel together "in tight formation" leaving no more than 3 meters between members of the party at any time. Noise and crowds. Pretty much what we go on vacation to get away from.
The literature also recommended carrying bear spray just in case all your precautions didn't work and you did surprise a bear. Bear spray is monster pepper spray. It bursts forth in a noisy fog of nasty hot irritation designed to distract a bear from her attention to you and annoy her into retreat.
One tutorial we saw on television advised starting with a short burst of spray aimed downwind at the charging bear. If that didn't work, a second, longer burst was recommended. If that or a third even longer burst didn't stop the by now really pissed off bear, you were told to hold down the sprayer until the can was empty. Which in the real world is probably what most of us would do first.
The directions for what to do if you were unable to avoid or deflect a bear were no more reassuring than those for prevention.
Apparently bears have two attack modes: defensive and predatory. Most will be defensive, in which case you are to roll yourself into a ball (no running - it makes you look like a food source), protecting the back of your neck with your hands and your tender middle with your curled up legs. After knocking you around for a bit, the idea is that she'll get bored with your unresponsiveness and wander back to her berries. You are not to make any noise because that could be construed as aggression in which case the bear could go from defensive to predatory.
If you feel, while rolled up in a little ball being batted around like a cat toy, that the bear has become too rough, she may have moved into predatory mode whether you screamed or not. In that case you are to fight back with anything at your disposal, as hard as you can. You are invited to climb a tree even, but only as long as you can get up the thing more than 15 feet.
While I appreciated being informed, it seemed to me the best thing was to let the bears have their space. I didn't see myself having the presence of mind to employ any of the suggested methods to save myself if faced with aggressive ursine ugliness. Praying, pants wetting and pleading with the bear, maybe. Thinking and acting rationally, not too likely.
Several trails were closed due to grizzly activity. Several trails allowed hiking only for group access in tight formation. Up-to-date information about bear activity was posted at every park and trailhead. More than fair warning.
Besides, I wonder who all the safety advice was really meant to protect.
photos from Flickr