The Bear Facts: Co-Habitation with Bears in Alaska

The Popular New Trend in Wilderness Recreation

Blame it on the bear man who spent years photographing and living with bears until a bear finally killed him.  Blame it on the Katmai Reserve, a destination so popular for International tourists intent on photographing bears, the bruins have begun behaving more like very large dogs than wild animals.  Blame it on Sarah Palin’s expertise as a wilderness hunter, but bear country has become more and more the vogue place to visit.  This would be fine if bears were putting out the welcome mat, but they’re not.  Bears are notoriously territorial.  Nor are they impressed with six weeks of wilderness training, a college education, a bright future or lessons from the animal whisperer.  You enter their territory, you play by their rules.  End of discussion.

Bear attacks were prevalent this year all the way around the northern rim; Russia, Eastern Europe, Alaska, with the victims usually  fly-in vacationers to remote wilderness areas.  These vacationers have read all the books, practiced all the survival methods, but have not graduated from the law of humans to the law of bears.  Primary bear law; stay out of their feeding grounds during the summer months; mainly bear populated salmon streams and berry patches.  As far as they are concerned, you’re raiding their kitchen.  While in Alaska, fish and game merely scratched their heads and concluded the victims must have come between a mother bear and her cubs when a team of young wilderness survival trainees were attacked and hospitalized (thankfully, there were no deaths) by an enraged bear, Russia decided to hunt down a mother bear and her three cubs and destroy them, when the bear killed a young woman and her step-father in a far eastern province of Siberia.  The Russian story had a particular emotional appeal.  Three times the young woman called her mother on a cell phone, crying, “mum, a bear is eating me,” while the mother frantically tried to dial her husband, who was already dead.

While the story was unfortunate and tragic, the message was clear.  Human inhabitants have encroached more and more into wilderness areas and the bears don’t like it very well.  It makes one wonder how rural settlers were able to survive in the wilderness at all.  Did they barricade their doors and send their children out to play only with rifles in their arms?  Did they send in death squads to remove all bears from the settlement?  Did they talk to the bears and explain that capital punishment was in order if they destroyed humans?  The answer is no to all of the above.

Living with Bears

Bear stories have been part of my itinerary for as long as I can remember.  When I was five, my grandmother reluctantly visited our wilderness home by flying in from San Bernardino, California.  She accepted that our water came from a spring above the house, that the ice had to be cracked in winter and the water hauled in jerry cans.  She accepted that our electricity came from a cranky, oil-run generator that had to be fired back up every few hours, but she was just a little indignant at having to use an outhouse.  She was even more indignant that we had bears.

It wasn’t like we had bears romping around in our yard all hours of the day and night or that they were canvassing the area for the most tasty human delicacies.  Mainly, we were just in the pathway from their caves high up in the mountains to their fishing spots on the rivers, but occasionally one would nose around awhile before ambling on its way.  Nosing around meant getting into anything it could; the garbage, the tool shed, rampaging the garden and even toppling the outhouse.  What my grandmother couldn’t stand was a particularly obnoxious bear that had decided one corner of the cabin made a great scratching post.  This bear always came in the evening, just as we were settling down for bed.  As it scratched, it made great rumbling yawns of satisfaction.  My grandmother swore it caused the entire cabin to tremble.  Dutifully, my father would take down his rifle and go out to stalk the bear, but apparently the bear was on to him.  It always disappeared before he could get a clear shot at it.  When my grandmother left, she swore she would “never enter that barbaric land again”, and she never did.  Every other memory I have of her were our own visits to California, in which she would sit us down and tell us how pitiful our lives were for having no experience with civilization.

It actually didn’t take very long for the community of bears and the community of humans to understand each other.  Since we weren’t really in their territory, just in their transportation routes, they were more curious about their new neighbors than aggressive.  We had an effective alarm system; barking dogs.  The bears didn’t really like the loud yapping and when it was combined with pots and pans being banged together, along with shouts and guns going off in the air, the bears usually decided it was time to get the hell out of there.  Occasionally, a bear would decide to stick around despite all the racket.  “Bear sighting” would go through the grapevine like wild fire.  Children were instructed to stay inside.  Mothers limited their visits to auto transported ones, the young men prowled the country side with rifles in their arms.  Once the bear was shot, we all breathed a sigh of relief and went out to play as usual.

I was instructed as a child to hold absolutely still if I ever encountered a bear in the woods.  Bears rely more on their keen sense of smell and their hearing than they do on their vision.  With this in mind, I walked quietly in the woods, keeping my eyes open for any brush movement.  Usually, the movement was nothing more than a moose or a porcupine, but one day, when I was around twelve, I encountered a young black bear while prowling  just outside the boundaries of a Denali campground.  The bear didn’t see me, but it did smell something that distracted its interest in pulling out the bugs in a dead log.  It sniffed the air.  I stood perfectly still, barely breathing.  It swung its head from left to right, uncertain.

We remained in this suspended state for several minutes, the bear trying to analyze this foreign smell while I stood fascinated with the animal.  A park ranger happened upon this scene, and from a hundred yards away, he slowly began lifting the firearm from his hip.  I don’t know if it was the naivete of childhood, completely unafraid, bubbling over with curiosity, but instead of showing signs of relief, I slowly and carefully put my finger to my lips, then pointed to the bear.  The ranger halted, his hand still close to the gun, but waited to see what the bear would do.  After sniffing the air a few more times, the bear decided that whatever the close encounter, it wasn’t threatening.  It dropped back down on all fours and ambled away into the woods.  The ranger had a talk with my father, telling him it might be wise to keep his daughter confined to the campground.  My father agreed but added it might not be all that easy.  At twelve, I had already decided to bust into more wild country than Daniel Boone and the only real way of holding me back was to keep me tied to the picnic table.

The Garbage Bear
As the community firmly established itself as human territory, we received fewer and fewer problems with bears.  An odd thing about wild animals is they generally respect boundaries.  The area we lived in we shared with the moose.  Although a bear can take down a moose easily, the moose were left alone as long as they stayed in their territory.  We all lived more or less harmoniously together and rarely worried about wild animal attacks.

In the nineteen eighties, things started changing.  The new influx of people did not want to live crowded closely together in the established communities.  They wanted more space.  They found it on the mountain ridges above the Cook Inlet.  They found it in bear territory.

By the time people got around to building on the mountain ridge, the bears were already accustomed to humans, and knew a bit about what to expect from them; loud noises, barking dogs, machinery and wonderful, delicious garbage.  A new sub-species of bears was born; the garbage bear.  By the time garbage bears became a major problem, many of them had been practicing the fine arts of garbage raiding for several generations.  Most early attempts to keep them out were in vain.  If you placed rocks on your full garbage cans, the bears removed the rocks.  If you placed your garbage in a shed, the bears tore down the shed.  They were bold.  They went up on your porch to clean up your picnic leavings.  If your kitchen door was unlocked, they opened it and helped themselves to your pantry.

The garbage bears were completely unafraid of people.  They were witnessed in trailer parks, raiding the dumpsters.  They’d amble down the bicycle trails to discover whatever morsels you tossed in the litter cans.  They would even wait for the fishermen to go out on the water and steal their beer from the coolers.  It was difficult to know what to do about them.  They were no more aggressive than extremely large dogs, but they were holding banquets in people’s yards.  The solution has been to tranquilize and remove the bears to a game reserve, but the removal of these bears posed one major difficulty.  These bears had adapted to human fiestas for so long, they didn’t know how to forage like a wild bear.  While a few adjusted and many starved, some eventually found their way to a settlement where they could continue raiding for garbage.

I encountered my first garbage bear while my children were young.  I had set up on my property for only a couple of years.  So as to teach my children proper subsistence skills, we owned a few goats, some chickens, and a fat, female Shepard mix to guard them.  On a warm summer day, the children were outside playing on the swings.  A neighbor had come over to visit, bringing along his four year old son, who also rushed off to play in the yard.  We were talking amiably when we heard a sudden loud sound outside the dining room windows.  We looked out.  The goats had escaped their pen and were trying to get under the house.  We found this a little odd and decided to go out and see what had alarmed them.

We didn’t notice anything at first, so scratching our heads, we tried to coax the goats out from under the house.  They were having nothing to do with it.  When we tugged on their collars, they rolled their eyes and bleated pitifully, but they were not coming out.

As we walked around the yard, we happened to look up to where the kids were still playing on the swings.  That’s when we finally noticed it.  Lurking in the bushes, about seventy yards from the swing set was a fully mature black bear.  This fellow was huge.  His head was about the size of a powder keg.  He was sitting on his rump, his paws folded over his chest, watching the children swing.  Keeping my voice as level and firm as possible, I called to my daughter.  “I want you to come inside now and I want you to bring Casper with you.”

“Why?”  She asked.  “We’re having fun.

“Because I’m telling you to.  Take his hand and walk slowly toward me.  Do exactly as I say.”

I had mustered up every last bit of my don’t argue with me voice.  My friend was beside me nodding agreement, beckoning for the two kids to come into his arms.  Sighing, she did as she was told, leaving the swings reluctantly and bringing the younger child with her.  With each step she took, I felt my heart pound harder.  The bear continued to sit and watch.

About half way to me, my daughter stopped and looked behind her.  She gasped and trembled.  “Don’t run,” I cautioned.  “Walk”.  The bear snuffed, and she broke into a run.  In the next second, before she had stumbled into my arms, the Shepard came bolting out of the house.

I did not know a fat dog could run so fast.  She headed straight for the bear, her lips folded back and snarling for vengeance.  Nobody messed with her kids.  That bear took one look at that one hundred pounds of fury going after his six hundred pounds of flesh, and turned around as rapidly as a ballet dancer doing a spin.  Long after he disappeared, we could still hear him crashing through the bushes, the fat dog right behind him.  Worrying that at some point the bear would figure out that the demon on its tail was only one sixth its size, I finally called the dog home.

“Wow, “ I said, when the excitement had settled down.  “I wouldn’t have thought the dog could intimidate the bear so much.”

My friend chuckled.  “It’s her size.  That bear probably took one look at how fat she was and decided that must be one helluva successful hunter.”

Eating People for Pleasure
Along with the increase in garbage bears that have become so emboldened they’ve even broken into Anchorage homes, completely undisturbed with their urban setting, there have been more incident reports of bear mauling; even of bears eating people.  Bear mauling didn’t surprise us.  Bears are easily offended and there probably couldn’t be anything much more offensive to the bears than someone moving in on their property and telling them they’re going to start behaving just because that person has a one hundred thousand a year income and the city planners on his side.  What seemed peculiar was, bears eating people.

Several years ago, the local newspapers rocked with the story of a man who lost his wife to a human eating bear.  According to the man’s account, they were camped out at their summer cabin near a lake to do a little fishing.  Surprised by a bear, they ran to their cabin and barricaded it.  They heard the bear tearing away at the barricade, so went through the window in their loft and climbed up on the roof.  The man left his wife there, telling her he was going to make a run for the boat and bring back help.  When he returned several hours later with the troopers, the wife was still on the roof, half eaten, and the bear was gone.

While it was an open and shut case of bear ate wife with a consequent guilty verdict for the bear, there were still a lot of holes in the story.  To begin with, nobody could understand why the wife would consent to remain on the roof, essentially as bear bait, while the husband ran across the yard and took off in a boat.  Most people agreed if there was a clear shot at making it to the boat, they’d be running like hell to get ahead of the husband.

Another strange aspect was the bear’s determination to get up on the roof.  Like most animals, bears prefer the easiest pickings.  If there was a full pantry in the cabin, that would be the bear’s main interest, giving both the husband and the wife time to dash across the yard and jump into the boat.

Most puzzling of all was that the wife had in fact been half eaten.  Except for the Polar Bear, who thinks salty human flesh is a good substitute for seal, bears don’t actually like the taste of human flesh that well.  Bears that maul their victims do so in the same manner a cat plays with a mouse it has no real interest in eating.  Most mauling victims who were able to survive a bear attack said they did so by playing dead.  The bear cuffed them around awhile, but when it received no response, it walked away.  There was a lot of tongue wagging and speculation among the locals.  They began to wonder if perhaps the husband had seen a good opportunity to get rid of the wife, hit her with a shovel, covered her with fish oil, than dragged her up on the roof.  There’s not much of anything a bear likes better than a good fish.

Campaigning for a Safe Wilderness
The human population keeps pushing back the boundaries of the wilderness, until the creatures of the wild don’t really have very much room at all.  Intentionally or intentionally, we domesticate the wild creatures we move next door to, creating in them a dependency for our food products.  Moose freely walk through our streets.  Bears caper in the back yards.  Porcupines raid the gardens.  Many of the people who move into the wilderness learn to accommodate their back yard neighbors.  Others do not.  They bring human law with them and a human perspective of looking at things.  They want the animals that cross the boundaries prosecuted for trespassing, or try to treat them like obedient pets.  They are outraged when an animal, following its naturally wild instincts, does them harm, yet we are the trespassers.

There is a current mood that the wilderness should be preserved so everyone can enjoy it.  However, this wilderness doesn’t consist of just miles of forest climbing over undisturbed mountain ranges, of song birds, ducks on the water and fish.  It contains moose and caribou, porcupine and beaver, foxes and wolves, and bears.  If we go into the wilderness, we should be prepared to go acknowledging we are visiting their homes and they play by their own rules.  We should go aware that the wilderness can be dangerous and full of unexpected surprises.  We should go realizing that if everyone goes into the wilderness, it’s no longer quite wild.  We represent food supply to a wild life no longer fearful of humans.  There are precautions that can be taken for safety; the buddy system, a firearm, staying away from areas where bears are feasting on fish or berries.  If you’re observant, you can see the signs; trampled bushes, excrement, splintered logs where the bears have been digging for insects.

If we are to preserve the wilderness, it must remain wild.  It must remain deadly.  It must remain free, for these are the balances of nature.  We must accept responsibility for the animals we’ve domesticated by making them dependent on us, and understand that though they are domesticated, they are not tame, nor should we consider taming them.  We should realize that going into the wilderness means exposing ourselves to all that nature has to offer; the wind and rain as well as the sun, the hulking beasts as well as the birds, because like driving down the freeway, there may be accidents.  There may be fatalities, but to try and make it otherwise; to try and make the wilderness safe; you no longer have bear country, only a Disneyland for those who fantasize themselves Daniel Boone.