Live from Alaska: A sphincter-factor moment.

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.

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  1. karla

    Be safe…give your bacon necklace to one of us as a Friday give-a-way! 🙂

  2. I generally stay locked indoors all summer avoiding the cursed daystar.

    Though the other day I almost hit a deer on my way to work and there’s been a bobcat spotted in the neighborhood… *sigh*

  3. CandiO

    Yikes! You had me at bacon necklace. . .

  4. Wow. That must have been scary. I guess that’s why so many people own guns in Alaska. They are needed! :)!

  5. Ooooh, scary. In the city limits is too close for me. The angry mother raccoon made me skittish. Bears? I would be petrified knowing they were as close as you say. Next time, throw the bacon necklace down as the bears are following you.

  6. jestjack

    MAN….I would have “ruined” a perfectly good pair of pants!

  7. Yikes that coulda been a scary situation.

    I walk daily out in a desert preserve. We know the rattlers and such are there but it wasn’t until yesterday when a coyote trotted across our path, seemingly out of nowhere, that we realized that, yes, wild animals are everywhere around and not necessarily in sight.

  8. Welp, I wouldn’t be leaving the house! Hmmmm, I think you need to find the guy with the machete.

  9. Reta Davis

    Cool, Donna, you have a bacon necklace? I can’t think of anything more wonderful than that! Continue to let the good times roll!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Reta: Actually, the bacon necklace was just a joke. If it were real I’d have eaten it by now.

  10. Wow! That must have been scary. I get freaked out when I encounter a stray dog while I’m out walking. I can’t imagine how I would react to a couple bears.

    If you want to wear a bacon necklace while hiking in Alaska, may I suggest you pair it up with some pepper spray earrings. 😉

    • Donna Freedman

      @Karen: Pepper spray doesn’t work. It just makes the bears think they’re eating Cajun.

  11. Harry Martin

    If it were me, I would put the kids in front of me, give them rocks, and then run like hell.


    • Donna Freedman

      @Harry Martin: There’s another joke about that.
      Two guys walking in a wilderness area see a grizzly bear about a quarter of a mile away. The bear starts running toward them. First guy yanks running shoes out of his backpack and starts putting them on. Second guy says, “Don’t be stupid! You can’t outrun a bear!” First guy replies, “I only have to outrun you.”
      On the way back down Malachi quoted that joke to me. He also kept looking back over his shoulder.
      P.S. I’m pretty sure he can outrun me.

  12. Agatha

    “Pepper spray doesn’t work. It just makes the bears think they’re eating Cajun.”
    ROFLMAO! Donna, you’re too much! I’ll have to remember that when I finally make it to Alaska.

  13. “eating cajun”, haha, nice! So I guess all the expensive cans of bear mace in the outdoor catalogs aren’t worth the money, huh?

    • Donna Freedman

      @Todd: Actually pepper spray often does work. I was just funnin’ everybody.

  14. jestjack

    So the “pepper spray” is just “seasoning” to the bears??? Too funny…Have a good holiday….bears and all…

  15. Donna, you reminded me of the old west coast riddle – How do you if you’re being hased by a black bear or a grizzly?
    Answer – Climb a tree. If it climbs up to get you, it’s a black bear; if it knocks the tree down to get you, it’s a grizzly.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Kate: And this one:
      Q. What’s the difference between brown-bear scat and black-bear scat?
      A. Brown-bear scat has bells in it and black-bear scat smells like pepper.

  16. Donna
    It’s pretty common knowledge up here that the greatest number of bear attacks causing death are male black bears attacking women who are menstruating (this is common though out Alaska, Yukon, and British Columbia). I have run into many bears while fishing, hunting, and just going to the dump. The sphincter factor is usually pretty low 2-3. It is very important to respect all wildlife (I have been put on the run by a moose while jogging in Anchorage). Enjoy your time up North.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Paul: This is one of the things that “everybody knows” but that probably isn’t true.
      A study from the bear management office at Yellowstone National Park notes that neither grizzly nor black bear attacks correlated to menstruation. (You can find out more at http://www.yellowstone-natl-park.com/bearsmen.pdf)
      The study author does say that it never hurts to take precautions, but I won’t be specific about them. I think this is a little TMI for some people already.
      Incidentally: I lived in Anchorage for 17 years and have a healthy respect for moose and other wild things. If I were fishing I wouldn’t worry too much about bears, unless they thought they could take my catch. (And I know better than to give it to them; instead, I’d throw it back in the water.) If I were at the dump, I wouldn’t worry about bears unless I’d surprised/cornered one; ditto if I were hunting, although I’d be on the alert if I were gutting and cutting.
      But on a narrow trail, with children along, and having the bears follow us….yeah, I was concerned. I don’t think that makes me a wimp. I think it makes me prudent.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  17. I’d like to enter the bacon necklace contest please. 🙂 Ha ha.

    I wonder how many people will find your blog by googling “bacon necklace”?

  18. jestjack

    Donna, I was talking to one of my cousins about your Alaska adventure and they reminded me that their Dad….my Uncle…was more fearful of the moose than the bear when he was in Alaska. He and a friend about had a pickup totaled when they hit a moose at night. The moose got up….shook his head…and trotted off. The truck had to be towed…..

    • Donna Freedman

      @Jestjack: I’m much more likely to encounter a moose than a bear. I’ve seen about 10 since I got here. And as with any other wild animal, it’s best to keep your distance, whether in a car or on foot.

  19. I live in Harrisburg, the capital of PA. Our Neighborhood Watch met at the local police department last week and our officer told us he had seen a black bear crossing the highway across from our condo development. Now I won’t be taking trash to the dumpster after dark, but I can’t imagine that I would have believed my eyes if I had encountered the bear in our neighborhood. I live in a highly populated and heavily travelled area. Just shows that the black bears live wherever they please and not necessarily in the wilds. I know my “sphincter factor”…Off the Richter Scale!!!

  20. Gasp! You know, a grizzly is just a large variant of the brown bear. Lordie, those critters give me the willies. And yeah, I know…mostly harmless, but when they’re not harmless, they’re fully NOT.

    Up in the mountains outside of Banff, I got a little closer to a grizzly than anyone in her right mind would like to be. Still haven’t recovered. 😯

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