Dedicated to Mara's travel and hiking adventure journals as well as her words of wisdom and suggested resources for hikers and travelers.
Afraid of bears?
This was correct as of January 2005. I have now updated it to reflect my experiences as of October, 2008. See below.
When questioned about black bears, I respond:
I consider myself lucky to see one...
I've been hiking, backpacking, and occasionally car camping since 1988. I've seen countless moose, deer, squirrels, raccoons, birds, chipmunks, snakes, frogs, turtles, fox, etc. I consider my most dangerous animal encounters to be the ones with mice that just laugh at my attempts to hang food away from them. Either that, or the moose that literally stepped over my tent - WHILE I WAS IN IT!
I have seen three bears in the wild. The first was a really cute yearling with puffball ears - WAAAAYYYYY over there - in a beautiful field of ferns - in New Jersey on the AT. As soon as it caught sight (or smell?) of us, it skedaddled. For what it's worth, I probably wouldn't have seen the bear at all if I hadn't been hiking with a group of people at the time.
The second bear I saw was a full grown cinnamon colored black bear in the San Bernardino Mountains, not far from Los Angeles. It was a good bear. As soon as it realized there were hikers in the area, it ran away. I was so happy to have the opportunity to see it though as it was beautiful. Its coat was almost shiny and I could see its muscles or fat rippling as it ran.
The third bear I saw was also in the San Bernardino Mountains - just a few miles (and a couple of hours walk) from where we had seen the other bear. It was a bad bear. Well, it wasn't trying to be bad, but due to the irresponsible people who had left garbage where it could get to it, it had become habituated. We saw it in a picnic area where it had gotten into a garbage can and had strewn the garbage all over the place. We only noticed it when I was headed for the latrine. It was near the outhouse so we started yelling and making loud noise to try to scare the bear away. It just looked up and stopped chewing for a moment. Then it went back to its garbage.
I had to walk within 10 feet or so of the bear to get to the outhouse but it didn't care. As we left the area, I looked back for a final look at the bear. It was very skinny and it's coat was dull and ragged. It was chewing on a plastic bag hanging from its mouth.
I warned some passing day hikers about the bear and asked them to report the situation to the nearest ranger station on their way out.
You don't hear most stories about bear encounters because they are more like this than anything else. As with most stories, they only make the news if something BAD happens.
That being said, I suspect you are more likely to encounter human habituated bears where you car camp than in the backcountry (though I'm sure there are exceptions in some areas). Bears that are not habituated will do their best to leave you alone if you do your best to leave them alone.
A little education can help... If you see a black bear, keep your backpack ON. Do not try to outrun it or climb a tree. They are faster at both than you. Make yourself big and loud. Wave your arms and yell. If you are with other people, you can group together and look even bigger. Back away slowly. They might approach you if they are curious. A few rocks aimed in their direction might chase them off - remember, you're not trying to hurt them. They may bluff charge if they feel threatened. If, on the very rare chance one actually attacks, fight back. If a bear somehow gets its paws on your food, it is no longer your food. Don't try to get it back.
As for sleeping, you might want to try earplugs (little foam ones you get at the drug store work OK). They're great when you're sleeping with snorers or through rainstorms in a metal roofed shelter. And they pretty much keep the "natural" noises to a minimum.
I don't know if other people have had the same observation, but I find that the larger the animal, the quieter it seems to move through the forest. I've seen moose come out of thick forest without a sound and yet chipmunks, squirrels, and rustling mice have to be some of the noisiest creatures out there.
As for using bear canisters to protect your food:
If you're hiking in the eastern US where appropriate trees are plentiful enough, you do not need the bear canister. Just be sure you hang your food at least 10' off the ground, 6' down from the branch, and 6' away from the trunk of the tree. Even trickier but a good idea if possible, is to find a branch that will support the weight of your food but not the additional weight of the bear. :-)
If you're in an area with known bear problems, you might want to counterbalance your food rather than more conveniently tying off the bear bag line to a nearby tree. Just be sure you can get it down afterwards... :-)
If you are going to be in an area with types of bear other than black bears (which can be brown, blond, etc.), do a bit of research on them. Other behavior will likely apply.
Update (Fall 2008):
I spent the summer of 2007 in the Adirondacks. There, the bears in the High Peaks area of the Adirondacks are now somewhat habituated and backpacking in this area requires the use of approved bear canisters. Do your research as you plan your trips to this area.
During a 400 miles stint on the A.T. in 2008, I spent six days hiking through the Shenandoah when the bears were exremely active. In a six day period, I saw eleven bears. Once, I saw a sow with three cubs; twice, a sow with one cub; and three times, individual bears. Sometimes I was alone. Sometimes I was with other hikers. At no point, even with the sows, was I ever challenged by a bear. Mostly, they either ignored us or ran away.
Even the one bear I inadvertantly trapped didn't react badly. I had been walking along and saw one of those ubiquitous stumps pretending to be a bear when all of a sudden, the stump moved its ears. Oops! It WAS a bear. And I was less than 10 feet from it. I stopped and immediately started to slowly back away, talking to it softly. It just waited and watched me until it saw me start to back away, realized I wasn't a threat, and bolted across the trail. It was only when I continued to walk past where the bear had been that I realized that there was a fenced corner behind the bear and the only place the bear could go was across the trail. I'm glad both the bear and I had the wherewithal to stay calm.
All of these experiences were wonderful and it made this hike one of my most memorable.
Last updated, October 30, 2008.
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