Saturday, September 13, 2008

Backpacking in Bear Country

The fear of hiking in bear country is good. Fear is healthy for those who travel in bear country. It is also good for population control in bear country. For example, if not for bears, Glacier National Park would be overrun with backpackers. It's hard enough already to get a backcountry permit, when and where you want one.

Those who do find the urge to hike, stronger than the fear to not hike, still need to tread cautiously. Using bear canisters or stringing food up properly is one smart move. Food can be a bear magnet. Store it a good distance from where you sleep. I have heard a hundred yards. I have never put my food a hundred yards from my tent. That's a hike in itself. You could be eaten by a bear just looking for your food.

I never eat where I sleep. I always have a meal late afternoon and hike a few more hours. They say not to sleep with the clothes you cook in. I only carry a limited amount of clothing. After a couple days it smells so bad a bear would not find it appetizing.

Just so I don't masked my body odor with anything rosy that might attract a bear looking for a new fragrance, I also stash my toothpaste, wipes and deodorant in my food bag.

Bears have noses that are many times more sensitive than a bloodhound's. That is a sense that is in your favor or flavor. If they can hear, see or smell you coming, in most cases they will make themselves scarce.

Leave the bear bells at home. Canadian biologist have completed studies that show bears recognize the sound but equate it with a birdcall. You don't want to attract a birdwatching bruin.
I whistle, recite Robert Service poetry (Bessies Boil is my favorite), clang my hiking poles together and on trail rock outcropping, and did I mention I smell real bad.

I ran into two black bear in Glacier last year that would not get off the trail. I tried all my bag of tricks and every time I moved forward they were still sitting in the trail eating berries and looking at me curiously. Finally I back down the trail one last time and yelled, "Come on Joe, Charlie, Carl, Phil, Mike, Susan, Bobby, lets get going." That did it, when those two furballs heard I was with a bunch of people they moved just far enough off the trail that I could scamper past.

Don't laugh at my word games. Bears are smart. Another time I had a large male griz outside my tent, walking back and forth in front of the door snorting and grunting, shaking his head. I was camped at Dutch Creek on the Canadian Great Divide Trail. The hair was up on the back of the bears neck, which was contagious because mine went up to. I don't think it had anything to do with barometric pressure.
First, I coughed so he would know I was in the tent. That changed nothing. Then I cleared my throat. Still no change. I took a whole roll of film in the low morning light through my bug screen and he was still pacing. Finally, I had enough. I started singing, "I'm in the Mood for Love" as loud as I could and that bear took off up the trail faster than a rocket leaving the Cape. He thought, "This guy not only smells bad, he's horny!"

There is no guarantee what a bear will do. They are no different than a dog. They all come with different personalities. I have had many close encounters and all with good outcome. You never know when you are going to surprise a female with cubs (not a good thing) or a bear on a food cache (even worse).

The majority of those who have been charged by a bear have little time, if any to react. Bears are quick as a bunny, but bigger. They may be just bluff charging. If that is the case you walk away unharmed except for a major urine stain on your pants.

If it's the real deal, are you ready? I did my own little survey a couple years ago in Glacier. I asked many of the day hikers and backpackers I encountered if they had ever had the safety off their bear spray. So far, no one has said, "yes" to that question.

When you have 400-800 pounds of muscle, blood and bone charging you like a freight train of fright, it is not the time to read the instruction booklet or figure out how the little, hunter orange, do-hickey comes off your pepper spray. If you can draw and fire quicker than Doc Holliday, it might not be soon enough.

You would be better off just dropping into the fatal position, I mean fetal.

I am not trying to scare you into staying in the front country at the lodge. I am just making some observations and suggestions that are important if you plan to use a site that I want, when and where I want it. Good luck to you. Life is an adventure and sleeping with grizzly bears is all part of the fun.
--Keep Smilin', Dick E. Bird

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