Bear in Mind

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Bears in alaska

Tourists in Alaska tend to have an ambivalent relationship with bears. On one hand, Alaska is one of the only places in the world where you can still see bears in the wild with relative ease, and the bear-watching experience is almost always a highlight of the trip.

On the other hand, no one wants to have a (too) close encounter with a bear, for obvious reasons. Here are some facts about bears in Alaska, and tips on how to walk the line between watching from a distance and getting up close and personal.

Bear types in alaska

Alaska has three types of bears:

White bears (polar bears), brown bears (including grizzlies), and black bears. White bears spend most of the year in the Arctic Ocean, and visit North and West Alaska for a short while in summer and fall. Unless you’ve come specifically for white-bear watching, you probably won’t see them in Alaska (Side Note – If you are planning such a trip, you should know that the best place to see them is actually in North Canada).

Brown bears, unlike white bears, are found throughout most of Alaska. Those who live in coastal areas enjoy the abundance of salmon in the rivers, and are consequently larger than bears that live far from the coast. Grizzlies, who are biologically the same species, are bears that live inland and mostly feed off vegetation (roots and berries), while brown bears are bears that live along the coast. Black bears are also found in most parts of Alaska. They are mostly vegetarian and are especially widespread in forested areas.

Black bears are smaller than brown bears, and have different behavioral characteristics.

Humans and bears

Whenever you go hiking in Alaska it’s important to remember that there may be bears in your area, but it’s just as important to remember that bears are not man eaters. Attacks on travelers are very rare, and self-defense instincts are the cause in practically all cases. An average bear can run faster than a race horse, swim very well and even climb trees when necessary, which means your best strategy is to avoid an encounter to begin with.

An old joke says there’s no point climbing a tree to flee from a bear, because a black bear will climb right up after you and a grizzly will just take down the tree. Luckily for hikers in Alaska, almost every bear that hears or smells people approaching will quickly take off and disappear before anyone can see it.

Do and do not do

There are a number of methods to ensure that the local bear has noticed you. Generally speaking, anything that makes noise can work – clapping, shouting, singing your old camp songs and of course quoting your favorite Jack Nicholson movie (“You can’t handle the truth!”). Some travelers (mostly Germans, for some strange reasons) attach bells to their bags. This does work in keeping the bears away, but it also annoys and bothers anyone else hiking in the area.

Another important issue: if you’re going camping overnight, make sure you don’t have anything in the tent that could arouse the bear’s curiosity – food, toothpaste, deodorant or anything else with a strong smell (instead of keeping food in the tent, put it all in a bag and hang it on a tree about 350-650 feet from the tent).

If you still can’t sleep at night, many stores in Alaska (mainly sports stores) sell pepper spray that should drive the bear away in case of an emergency. Just remember not to spray against the wind.

All in all, bear watching will undoubtedly be a highlight of your trip to Alaska, just remember to behave appropriately around them. Don’t give up on a trip to Alaska because you’re afraid of bears, but don’t come here if you’re planning on chasing bears until they let you pet them. That’s not such good idea. At all.

Pop quiz

One final question: how do you tell the difference between black bear scat and brown bear scat?

You guessed it! The brown bear scat smells like pepper spray, and if you look closely you can see bells inside….

Further reading

Alaska Department of Fish & Game – rules of behavior around bears

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