Did you Say Beer or Bear?

Encountering a beer on a trail could be delightful, but a bear encounter would be a totally different story. Here in New England, we have black bears, Ursus americanusabout 30,000 of them. We also probably have about that many IPA's, but I digress (as I often do). 

Getting back to the bears, the population is growing (estimated to be an increase of about 8% per year just in MA) and as such, crossing paths with them is getting more likely, especially as they are heading into the suburbs looking for food pic-a-nic baskets). I know that in many parts of northern New England, bears can just be a part of life, but in the metro-Boston area, or even in states with a history of living with bears, this is something new to consider. 

What this all means is that the chances of running across a bear on the trails here are increasing. So what do you do?

First, let's acknowledge, and be thankful for, the fact that black bears are typically not aggressive, and attacks are "rare." Adult black bears can get up to 600lbs, and they can run up to 30mph, so I would not like my odds against one of them. Grizzly bears would be even more dangerous, and I remember my trepidation while riding in places like Montana with all of the grizzly bear warnings. It doesn't help with places like Yellowstone Bear World say things like: "Grizzly bears are among the most lethal creatures seen in the wild. They not only have superhuman physical strength, but they also have a powerful biting force (1,000 psi) that can split your body in half in a matter of seconds."

Another thing to be thankful for is that black bears are shy and will usually avoid contact with humans. Meaning a bear will normally hear hikers and move away, but faster moving runners or mountain bikers could startle a bear. Making noise can give bears warning of your presence, so if you're like me, and your bike makes some weird creaking sound that can't be eliminated, you're in luck. It's not some obscure thread that needs lube, it's an early warning system. 

Jokes aside, having a bell on your pack or bike is a good idea if you're going to be in bear country. And, with their population going up, and their range being up to 75 miles (up to 126 miles), bear country is expanding--including dirt jumps.

Bears also have an excellent sense of smell (the best on the planet?), but your human scent could be mixed with that last ham sandwich you ate, and it's conservatively estimated that black bears can smell food up to two miles away.

In general, if you do have a chance meeting with a bear, you can diffuse any potential conflict by being calm (don't run away) and creating a situation where both you and the bear go about your day with only a good story to tell. 

Just about all of the specific recommendations on what to do when you happen across a black bear are the same (including nearly ALL resources recommending that you use the term "Hey bear," when talking to the bear... I mean, was that term studying against other phrases?), and are summarized here thanks to Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department:

What if You Encounter a Bear While in a Natural Setting

When the bear is unaware of your presence you should:

  • Quietly back away from the bear and leave the area.
  • DO NOT approach the bear.

When the bear is aware of your presence and is uninterested you should:

  • Quietly back away from the bear and leave the area.
  • DO NOT approach the bear.

When the bear is curious and continues to look in your direction, smells the air, or slowly approaches you should:

  • Talk in a calm voice while slowly backing away from the bear.
  • DO NOT approach the bear. If the bear is defensive it may:
    • Make vocalizations which can include huffing and jaw popping.
    • Retreat up a tree.
    • Swat at the ground or tree.
    • Lower its head with ears flattened, and sways back and forth.

When the bear is defensive you should:

  • Begin repeating "Hey bear" in a calm voice.
  • Back away and leave the area.

If the bear continues to be defensive or becomes aggressive it may:

  • Approach you.
  • Begin to follow you.
  • Charge you.

When the bear is aggressive you should:

  • Make yourself look bigger by putting your arms above your head. Continue to repeat "Hey bear" in a calm voice. Back away and leave the area.
  • If it continues to follow you, stand your ground, make yourself look bigger, shout at the bear, threaten the bear with whatever is at hand (bang a stick on the ground, clap your hands), and prepare to use bear pepper spray if it is available.  Back away and leave the area.
  • If charged, stand your ground, talk to the bear in a calm voice and use bear pepper spray when available.  If the bear makes contact with you, fight back using anything you have (e.g. stick, binoculars, etc.).

Of course, I have no way of know if these tactics work on a bear strung out on cocaine or any other intoxicants. 

And of course, there's always the old adage that you don't need to outrun an angry bear, you just need to be faster than whomever you are with. If you're out with a group and they ask you to carry the barbecue sauce in YOUR pack, that could mean that you're the slow one, so learn those tips above.

Definitely protect your pic-a-nic baskets if you see these bears.

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