Earlier this week I went hiking with my niece and her two boys. On the way to the trail another hiker told us to be alert: Bears had recently been seen in the area.
We can now attest that the bears are still in the area.
Alison and her younger boy, Britain, were ahead of me and the 9-year-old (whom you may remember from “Malachi and mud” and “Can’t anybody here play this game?”). He and I were talking about zombies when I heard my niece say, “Turn around! Let’s go back.”
Her tone was both upbeat and urgent, and it got my attention immediately. A short distance past her on the trail were two black bears, one slightly larger than the other. They looked to be a sow and a two-year-old cub. And they looked to be way too close. Maybe 15 feet away — and right on the trail, vs. off in the woods.
This was a very unpleasant situation for a minute or so, i.e., when they began to follow us.
Curious or hungry?
My best friend rates freakout situations in terms of their “sphincter factor.” I would give this one a 7, even though black bears are not likely to attack humans.
In fact, brown bears are not likely to attack humans. (Both types live in the Anchorage city limits.) Bears generally do their best to avoid people. But depending on the situation – injured bear? cornered bear? bear consuming a fresh kill? – you could be in a world of hurt.
Popular wisdom has it that a female with cubs is the most dangerous. But it ain’t necessarily so, at least where black bears are concerned. A new study called “Fatal attacks by American black bear on people: 1900-2009” notes that “lone male black bears hunting people as a potential source of food are a greater cause of deadly maulings and related predatory attempts.”
These bears were probably just curious, because they didn’t follow us for very long. If they’d been predatory, we’d have known it.
Still scary, though, because they were too close and a surprised animal can act out.
If we’d had to make a stand we would have put the kids behind us, shouted at the bears and thrown rocks. What worried me was that the trail had a fairly steep drop-off on one side and a fairly steep uphill on the other – in other words, not much room to maneuver. One misstep and it could have been over the side.
They’re everywhere you want to be
So why were we there in the first place?
Because it was a beautiful day and we wanted to take a walk.
Bears are seen all over Anchorage, from back yards to playgrounds to the main city library in midtown. The fact that someone tipped us off was pure happenstance: The heads-up was helpful, but if he hadn’t told us we still would have run into the animals.
Every time you step outside your house in this city there’s the potential to run into a moose, a bear or some other wild creature. And you certainly keep your eyes open when hiking, especially if you’re anyplace without a clear sight line.
That was the problem with the Turnagain Arm trail we were using: Its switchbacks kept us from seeing the animals until they were fairly close.
It’s not as though I want to put myself in harm’s way. But in the neighborhood where I’m staying I could technically run into a bear while going out to mail a letter. Should I stay indoors all the time?
Reasonable precautions will have to do. In the future I’m going to specify hikes in wide-open places. I’ll also do my best to avoid lone male black bears hunting people as a potential source of food. Especially when I’m wearing my bacon necklace.