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 Lake, 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 this topic that an entire pamphlet was created about it?  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 a rather delicate one–it’s a common belief that women are at higher risk for bear attacks during their period, but in reality, there’s no evidence for this at all. It was  grand news to me that the risk factors for being mauled are equal for both 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.

You may 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, where black bears were so common that they hung out at the town dump, and then in Washington, where we commonly camped in bear country.  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 worrying about bears.  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.

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 were 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.

 


Random notes about our first day on the road trip:
  • Many excellent bear education materials 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!
  • Our first stop on the road trip was Logan State Park.
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Our campsite, next to Lake Logan

Logan, in northern Montana, was a few hours away from our next destination, Glacier National Park.  There wasn’t much to it, 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.”