Alaska road trip: Random thoughts about bears

We started the second leg of our road trip on August 20.

Destination: Denali National Park in Alaska, where we plan to camp for ten days.  Along the way, we’ll make stops in Montana’s Glacier National Park as well as three Canadian national parks, Waterton Lakes, Banff, and Jasper.  Then we’ll hop on the Alaska-Canada Highway (also known as the Alcan), which is about 1400 miles and runs from Dawson Creek, Canada, to Delta Junction, Alaska.  We have about two weeks to cover this ground and reach Denali to claim our campsite.

An education about things that can eat you

Our first few days were pretty unremarkable.  We left Seattle at about 5:30 AM and headed east with the plan of camping somewhere in Montana just short of Glacier National Park.  The drive took us across Washington as well as a small portion of Idaho before hitting northern Montana and the Kootenai National Forest.  In Kootenai, we stopped at one of the main ranger stations.  It was closed, but they had a gazebo filled with a slew of pamphlets, most of them (so it seemed to me) about bears.  Sure, other information was provided as well, about hikes and scenic routes and what-not, but the information about bears is what I honed in on, tunnel-like, grabbing every single pamphlet they had on the subject.  We had officially entered into grizzly country, and I figured I’d better educate myself as much as possible.  Most of the pamphlet titles included a smarmy play on the word bear (“know the bear essentials!”), but it was gripping reading nonetheless.

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The pamphlets included information such as how one should react when encountering a potentially aggressive bear.  Just the idea is terrifying, but when you consider that how you respond differs depending upon whether it’s a black bear or a grizzly, it gets almost paralyzing.  And when you discover (after reading Cougars: Tips for Living and Recreating in Cougar Country) that an aggressive mountain lion should be handled differently than a bear encounter, it gets completely discombobulating.

 

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The focus of the above brochure was to teach the valuable skill of distinguishing between grizzlies and black bears.  It first pointed out, not very reassuringly, that the two species have a lot of features in common: both types of bears have colors ranging from light brown to black, and both may vary in size depending upon age and time of year, so the similarities make them hard to distinguish.  The brochure then illustrated the distinctive characteristics of each: a grizzly has a pronounced shoulder hump, rounded ears, and a concave facial profile, whereas a black bear has tall, pointed ears, no hump, and smaller claws.  It even had a quiz (“Can you tell which is a grizzly bear and which is a black bear?”), which I failed spectacularly; Dale didn’t do much better.

Then there was this brochure.  It especially caught my eye.

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I’m a woman. I’m in grizzly country.  What’s so special about a woman in grizzly country that an entire pamphlet had to been created around the subject?  These women look especially capable, despite the fact that there’s an enormous bear looming behind them.  The subject of the pamphlet, it turns out, is rather a delicate one; basically, it’s commonly thought that women are at higher risk for bear attacks during their period, but in reality, there’s no evidence for this at all. It’s grand news that the risk factors for being mauled are equal for men and women; apparently bears don’t discriminate.

Facing our fear

“The less you know about bears, the more likely you are to be afraid of them.” —Linda Masterson.

The previous section may make you think that I’ve never seen a bear in the wild, but that’s not true.  We’ve lived in bear country before, first, in Ketchikan, Alaska, for a year, where black bears were so common that they hung out at the town dump.  When we lived in Seattle, black bears inhabited almost every location in which we camped, throughout the state of Washington.  We were cautious of course; we never brought food into our tent and we made lots of noise when hiking in isolated places, but on the rare occasion we saw a bear, the only emotion we felt was excitement.

So why the fear now?  I guess it’s different when the bear in question is a grizzly.  They’re just so big.  And their claws can be up to 4 inches long.  And of course stories surface here and there about campers dying horrible deaths at the hands—or should I say paws, and claws—of marauding bears.

But the fact is, my fear was stemming from a lack of education, and that fear was therefore irrational.  Once we reviewed the information about grizzlies, we realized that there’s little reason to lose sleep over whether that noise we just heard outside our tent is a bear about to eat us.  If we use common sense and follow standard safety precautions, our chances of being attacked are minimal.  Bear attacks—both by blacks and grizzlies, are very rare.

So Dale and I both read the brochures and have been verbally rehearsing what we’re supposed to do in the case of a close-up encounter.

We also bought bear spray.   We had been on the bubble about this purchase, but our reading materials recommended it, so we stopped at a hardware store in Libby and asked the store clerk, a 60-ish, friendly, active-looking woman, if she, personally, carried bear spray.  She clearly thought the answer was a no-brainer: “Well, I carry the bear spray, and my husband carries the gun.”  Alrighty then.  We don’t have any guns on us, so bear spray it is.

Our intention was to buy only one canister, but she brought up another enlightening point: “What will you do if you get separated?  Or—“ and she clucked her tongue at this, “—the one holding the bear spray is the one being attacked?”  We bought two.

Conclusion: If you’re worried about us as we undertake this trip through grizzly country, bear in mind that we’re bear aware and bear-y smart, and we’ve got the bear essentials down!


Notes:

Many excellent materials about bears exist on the Internet, including bearaware.com, where you can take that quiz that we both failed.  Give it a try and let us know if you do any better!

For our first stop, we stayed in Logan State Park for two nights.

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Our campsite, next to Lake Logan

The park was in northern Montana a few hours away from our next destination, Glacier National Park.  There wasn’t much to Logan, but it was quiet and sat on a pretty little lake.  We asked the park host if they had bears, and she said, “We haven’t seen any this year, but there’s a three-legged bear hanging out across the lake.”