Each summer I lead four or five wilderness trips into Alaska’s Brooks Range, or other wild parts of the state. The trips last anywhere from five days to over two weeks and can involve, backpacking, canoe or raft trips, or packrafting. The clients vary a fair amount in age and experience, but I’ve noticed one commonality: everyone worries about bears.
I’m not sure if the fear is cultural or if it comes from some deeper place, but it is almost universal. In reality, the biggest dangers in the backcountry are the things we do to ourselves. I figure the riskiest thing I do in the wilderness is operate the fussy two-burner Coleman Stoves we use on river trips (not kidding). But of course, getting a burn from a stove, or breaking a leg while on a hike, are not the fears that people bring with them on a trip. No, they are afraid of bears.
It isn’t a pointless fear (though we do nickname the phenomenon “Bearanoia”.) We feel like we have no control over a bear attack. Of course we can do a lot to avoid an encounter with a bear. We make noise when we hike in brush or other low-visibility areas, we keep a clean camp, store food in bear-resistant food containers, and we adjust our behavior when we do encounter a bear. We also carry bear spray, and often other deterrents like flares, noise-makers, and yes, guns.
No, to anticipate your question, I’ve never used the gun, and I’ve never had to spray a bear. But I have come really, really close.
On my recent trip on the Noatak, I woke up one morning, climbed from my tent, stood and stretched. As I was reaching for the sky, I looked around and saw a grizzly bear standing on its hind legs, just 30 feet away. I could see it was a juvenile, probably three years old and likely freshly booted out of the house by its mother. (We nickname these youngsters “teenagers” and their almost fearless, trouble-making attitude makes it an apt moniker.)
I made a “shove off” gesture and told the bugger to “Shoo!” The bear dropped onto all fours and took a few running steps away toward the river, where, I saw, its sibling was digging for roots. The two of them paid me little notice after that, but they were still way too close to camp for comfort. I walked over and woke up my co-guide, Kevin.
When Kevin emerged from his tent, doubling our numbers, the bears took notice, backed off a bit, and eventually wandered down onto a small gravel bar downriver from our camp. I then woke up one of the clients, an avid photographer because I knew he’d want to see them, and I knew one more big guy on the shore would deter the bears from coming back up toward camp.
And it would have, had these bears not been stupid teenagers with no common sense.
As we watched from the cut bank up river, the bears wandered out to the river’s edge where I expected them to swim across to the far side. Instead, one of them them looked over and saw us standing on the cut bank, and decided he was just going to amble on over. He (I’m just assuming it’s a he, little shit that he was), waded through the shallows directly toward us. He was doing what I refer to as the “big bear walk”. It’s a posture bears use when they are trying to look big and tough. They splay their front legs and raise their heads, making themselves look as large as possible. It’s intimidating in a big adult bear, but on this gangly teenager, it looked rather comical. I knew he was trying to push my buttons, and test what he could get away with. It was 6:30am and I was in no mood to be tested.
All three of us walked right up the edge where the bear was headed and stood shoulder to shoulder. Kevin had the shotgun, I had bear-spray in hand, and our client was armed with a huge camera lens. The bear John Wayne walked right up the bottom of the bank and started to clammer up. He was ten feet away. Tops.
“Back Up!” I said in a stern voice. “Right now. Back up.” The bear stopped strutting and looked at me, a bit of doubt visible somewhere in those small brown eyes. I took a step forward, bringing the distance between us to eight feet and raised the bear spray. “Now. Back up. One more step, and you are getting it in the face.” Taking a cue from my parent friends, I gave the bear a count down, “Five. Four. Three…” At two, he turned and stepped back into the water.
He looked over his shoulder and, I kid you not, growled. It wasn’t a scary growl, more like a shy dog still trying to pretend it’s tough. I laughed. The punk’s sibling was still back on the gravel bar, and together the two swam across the river, shook off and eventually wandered off upstream.
It was as close to a Brooks Range grizzly as I’d ever been, and as close to using the pepper-spray I always carry, but I wasn’t ever scared. In this case, I knew exactly what was going on. He wasn’t being aggressive, merely trying to prove that he was tougher than the humans. He wasn’t, and hopefully that will be a lesson he’ll take with him into the future. And the next morning when the two (now dubbed Trouble and Mischief) reappeared as we were packing up camp, it seemed he had indeed learned his lesson. His sibling however, had not.
Imitating the behavior of it’s brother, Mischief ambled right over toward camp. At that point, I’d had enough and was not looking for another show-down. When it was still thirty yards away I fired a bear-banger (a very loud, firework-like noise-maker that fires out of a pen-sized launcher I keep in my pocket). The cracker shell flew out and went off ten feet over the bear’s head. Mischief jumped and retreated to the shore. I fired another that went off just feet away and both Trouble and Mischief, their ears undoubtedly ringing, didn’t just walk, nor run, but tore away into the river, swam across, and didn’t stop running until they were out of sight.
I think, next time, they will be a bit more reluctant to approach a camp.
I share this anecdote because there is a lot of debate in Alaska about deterring bears. Ask most people, (or god forbid, the internet) you will probably hear that a firearm, a large firearm, is superior. Science has something to say about this, and it isn’t that guns are better.
A 2006 paper in the Journal of Wildlife Management summarized 72 incidents in which bear spray was used in Alaska to deter menacing bears. The reports come from encounters with black, grizzly/brown, and polar bears. 50 of these 72 encounters involved grizzlies, 20 black bears, and only 2 from polar bears. The long and short of it is that bear spray stopped the undesirable behavior in 92% of grizzly encounters, 90% of the time in black bears, and both of the polar bear encounters.
Only three encounters resulted in any injury, all minor, to the humans involved.
Which brings us around to firearms. In 2012, another paper was published in the Journal of Wildlife Management authored by many of the same researchers as in the previous paper. This one was entitled: “Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska”. Using records of 269 incidents of firearm use to deter bears, they found that handguns were effective at deterring attacks 84% of the time, and long guns (ie. shotguns and rifles) were effective 76% of the time. Notably, the guns did not have to be used (fired) to be included in the above analyses.
Interestingly, the authors found no difference in human injury rate between encounters where the firearm was used (ie. fired), and where the firearm was present but not used. Meaning that you were just as likely to get killed or injured whether you fired your weapon or not. The bears, however, did not walk away clean, and when firearms were used, bears died. More than 170 of them.
Bear spray worked more than 90% of the time, while firearms worked only about 80% and resulted in a lot of dead bears, and had questionable overall effectiveness.
Firearms require skill, practice, and knowledge. Bear spray? Just point and push the button. If you are visiting Alaska’s backcountry, and you aren’t a firearms expert, then please, just take the bear spray and leave the gun at home.