Bear Safety for Beginners — 3 really good tips from my recent encounter with an Alaskan black bear

I usually don’t see bears whilst on my daily river walk — it’s pretty rare — however, having just found myself in the throes of a close encounter with a bear whilst embarking on my daily constitutional, and having had another close encounter with a bear only the very night before, I thought I’d take a few moments to share these 3 tride-and-true techniques that I myself recently employed (more or less) to safely navigate an encounter with an Alaskan black bear in the middle of the vast wilderness of the Wrangell St-Elias National Park.

The river was McCarthy Creek, though the term “creek” is in my opinion a bit of a fail, because this is a river, a true river, a river by any normal standard, but by Alaskan standards, where there are many really big, hard running rivers that are like totally epic and huge, this river warrants only the name “McCarthy Creek.”


A kind of weird panoramic of McCarthy Creek


He was just down the hill from me, in the middle of McCarthy Creek, on a sand bar in the middle of the river/creek. He was alone and hence I infer that the bear was a “he,” since males usually prefer to go solo (except when mating).

I was at a safe distance and hence whipped out my camera to take a few short videos. I was smiling as I videod the little black bear, trotting along so contentedly. He was clearly of a mind to do something, clearly of a single-minded purpose, which amused me, but my amusement and serene smile faded when the little bear made a sharp and intentional move left, toward my side of the river/creek, and then disappeared from view.

You can sort of see his sense of purpose in this eleven second vid:


For some strange reason, it didn’t register. It didn’t occur to me that the little bear was moving in my area until I started out again on the trail, because it was only in beginning to walk that I realized that the bear would intercept me, or at least it was very possible, especially should the little bear decide to take the same trail that I was on. And the more I pondered this, the more it seemed like a reasonable assumption since my trail was the only trail in the area, and since there really isn’t all that much over on this side of the river/creek except the trail, and as mentioned before, the bear seemed to be of a set purpose — so, what better way to cover some serious ground, I think to myself, than for the bear to get himself on this lovely, very clear and very runnable trail.

#1 – If at all possible, avoid any encounters with bears

The safe bet at this juncture is to wait it out, maybe retreat to a straight, open patch of the trail, where I could see the bear well in advance, so as not to catch him by surprise. Wait it out, give the little bear a chance to do his thing, whatever that thing may be.

The thing is, though, that it’s dinner time at the Lodge, and in conferring with my stomach, I’m getting definite and unmistakable feedback confirming that I’m for sure hungry, no doubt. (In retrospect, going back for dinner proved totally the correct decision because it was Taco Tuesday, which is my favorite — and it was Taco Tuesday even though it was, in fact, a Wednesday, which is a double good thing.)

#2 – When encountering any possible aggression from a black bear, stand your ground and/or scare them away

But, so I continued on the path and like David facing Goliath, I quickly gather a few smooth stones. You should know that little black bears are generally pretty skittish little creatures and shouldn’t require a stoning of any kind, but in the rare event that they get aggressive, you generally get a bit aggressive, right back at them, and a few stones thrown at their nose will do the trick.

#3 – Always announce your presence so as to not, like, surprise the bear

I also begin to sing, or rather I try to sing, but for the life of me I can’t remember a song just now, which is odd, I think, because I’ve been listening to music all day, in the background as I perform my accounting duties for the Lodge. Then it clicks because I realize that I’ve been listening to Modest Mouse all day, one of those bands where, you know, you find yourself wanting to sing along but the only thing that comes out of your mouth are mumbles because you don’t really know any of the words. Modest Mouse has a good deal of sound from the snare drum as well as distorted guitars, which makes for great background music, but at the moment when I need a song to sing, I’m at a loss.

So, instead I try to think of something to say, something to announce myself (in the meantime banging out a beat from a Modest Mouse song using the stones I’ve gathered, which becomes a bit of a fail due to the fact that the stones are ridiculously fragile and begin to chip and crack and break).

But really any kind of sound will do, I think, because after all, the reason for singing or making any noise of any kind is simply so as not to surprise the bear and make the bear feel defensive.

“I’m just a friendly homo sapien!”

That’s the best I can think of, and honestly it’s the only thing that comes to mind, which means that I need I repeat it many many times at which point I get a little board and try to mix things up by saying I am VERY friendly, and then it occurs to me to emphasize each word in the same way, which I do in my head really quick, VERY friendly, VERY homo, VERY sapien. I scrap this plan, though, at the idea of saying VERY homo, which then makes me wonder if I’m being a bit homophobic, maybe not full on homophobic but maybe a little homophobic-ish, which then makes me wonder think that maybe this is a twist on the old philosophical koan: if a tree falls to the ground and no one is around, does it make a sound? If a homophobic-ish thought crosses my mind but no one hears it, is it still homophobic-ish?

After a few more minutes of random mind meanderings, I realize that I’m pretty much failing to properly announce my presence, should the little black bear be in the vicinity, but I also realize that I am almost out of range of the black bear and decide to declare this a success.

In fact, let’s call it a resounding success. After all, I saw neither hide nor hair of the little black bear and returned to town with plenty of time to enjoy Taco Tuesday (even though it was really Wednesday). The most important, undisputed and really relevant thing about any bear encounter is that you live to tell about it, as I did, and so I relay these 3 tips to you during this time of year wherein there is a notable increase in bear activity.

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Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

One thought on “Bear Safety for Beginners — 3 really good tips from my recent encounter with an Alaskan black bear”

  1. If he was a male and you were in his territory, then that was a close one. You kept saying little bear, but even a little one is too big in my estimation!!! Glad you’re ok!


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