Gerald Almy: How to avoid dangerous bear encounters
Picture yourself hiking along a trail toward a distant gobbler or sneaking along a trout stream and suddenly coming face-to-face with a large black bear. He rears up on his hind legs, opens his huge mouth showing a sharp set of teeth, and lets out a loud roar.
That’s a scary scene that many of us have probably pictured in our minds. And a few of us have actually had such encounters. In most cases they end up benignly with the angler or hunter backing away and the bear either scurrying away or staying where it was if it had a kill it was consuming.
But there are definite dangers for outdoorsmen and women from both black bears and, if you take a trip out West, grizzlies. Certainly the latter are more aggressive and dangerous, but dozens of people have been killed by black bears over recent decades, and many more seriously injured.
As bear numbers continue to rise, anglers, campers and hunters need to be aware of safe practices when entering bear country. And people who simply live among black bears, as we residents of the Shenandoah Valley do, also need to exercise caution when bears are in the area or might be.
Bears involved in attacks on humans typically fit in two categories. 1) They live in the wilderness and have no contact with humans and thus little or no fear of them. 2) They have been fed by or found food around humans and thus associate man with food. The latter bears often live in or around parks, where the lack of hunting also emboldens the animals.
If a bear obtains food from homeowners or campers, it may approach the next people it encounters, thinking it will get more food. Avoiding this scenario thus begins with the choices of where you travel and how you handle food and set up camp.
For starters, stay away from bear feeding areas such as berry patches, fresh burns, lake shores, alpine meadows, or streams full of spawning fish, when possible. If you see bear droppings, tracks or claw marks on trees, move elsewhere. Also leave if you encounter a fresh kill or places where leaves and branches have been piled up, possibly over a carcass. A bear could be lurking nearby.
Try to avoid walking after dark in bear country and do not travel alone. Studies show that groups of people are seldom attacked. Make noise by talking, singing or playing music, anything to alert bears to your presence. Most will move away if they hear you and are not taken by surprise.
Always sleep inside a tent, but keep your cooking and food storage area at least 50-75 yards away when possible. Wear a hat while cooking so food odors don’t concentrate in your hair. Leave the hat at the cooking area. Avoid greasy or smelly foods such as bacon, sausage or fish. Store leftovers in airtight containers far away and wash dishes carefully to avoid leaving scent or grease on them.
Be sure to burn trash thoroughly and bury or pack it out, but avoid burning just before dark. The smell of burning garbage may actually attract bears. Never bury trash without burning it first.
Field dress animals and clean fish far from your campsite and be cautious approaching a game animal you left overnight. Hang quarters of game high in trees, away from the sleeping area.
I once left a large field-dressed doe only a few hundred yards from my house to cool down overnight, thinking it would be easier to retrieve in the morning. At daybreak the next day the doe was nowhere to be found. But fresh large bear tracks indicated what happened. The bear had picked up the doe in its jaws and walked away with it. There were no drag marks. Just tracks.
If you’re walking toward a hunting or fishing spot and encounter a bear, back off and take a different route. Give it a wide berth. Most bear attacks can be avoided with a bit of caution and respect for these marvelous wild animals that really don’t want an encounter any more than we do.
As a safety precaution, carry a can of pepper spray for that rare instance when a bear actually does want to attack you, or where legal, a firearm. Use both only as a very last resort when a bear is in full charge, not a “bluff” charge where it runs a few feet, then stops. You might face legal repercussions if you kill a bear out of season and can’t prove it was absolutely in self-defense.
As a final precaution, while young boars are exploring new territory this spring, try not to tempt them with accessible trash cans, pet food, or bird feeders left out at night. Just last evening I saw a bear traveling through the woods behind our house, so they are definitely on the move right now.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.