By Alison Myers
Have you ever encountered a bear, or evidence of a bear while out on the North Country Trail? Did you know that black bears reside in every state the NCT traverses?
As humans it is our responsibility to respect wildlife and the places they roam and live. Because they are able to adapt easily to changing environments, black bears can still thrive in areas of human development. When we are in their “home,” we need to understand how we should conduct ourselves.
Some of our trail states have healthy, large, bear populations while other states have very few. Most of our trail states have large enough bear populations to allow seasonal bear hunting (Ohio and North Dakota do not).
Bears have been an important animal in American culture since prehistoric times. There are many Native American legends dedicated to the bear such as the “Sleeping Bear” as well as many important spirits, gods, and totem. There are also the modern stories such as “Smokey Bear” and “Teddy’s Bear.”
Follow these steps to stay safe if you encounter a bear on the trail:
Fact: During late summer and all throughout autumn bears are trying to fatten up for their winter “hibernation period” called torpor. Bears do not stay asleep all winter as we commonly think! It is a period of slowed metabolism and lower body temperature, but they do still come out of their dens for a little snack. While in torpor, an animal can wake up quickly and easily, unlike other animals that truly hibernate.
Be Bear Aware
Bears are opportunistic eaters and foragers. Just like us, they are omnivores and love the taste of all food. They have their favorites, just like we do, too. Staying far enough away from free food sources such as fruit bearing plants (apple trees), garbage bins, and compost piles, are not always easy to do when hiking or camping.
Most bears will avoid humans if they hear or smell them coming. They don’t usually want to be bothered and are scared of us – unless they have become used to humans. Unfortunately, with more people entering their domain, bears are less afraid of us and may approach if there is food.
Although, bear attacks are very rare, it could be a good idea to carry bear pepper spray for defense against other large animals as well. It may also help ward off a cougar attack or a charging moose.
Keeping Bears Away
The best thing you can do is to keep food and food smells far enough away from you and your campsite. Check out this article from Wide Open Spaces about choosing a campsite and making it bear proof.
Bear Encounter: What to Do
If you see a bear, keep in mind that you are the visitor. Respect the bear’s space. It is your responsibility to move away from them and keep a safe distance. Bears have an incredible sense of smell and can detect you before you even see them.
Follow these steps as suggested by the National Park Service:
Once a bear has noticed you and is paying attention to you, additional strategies can help prevent the situation from escalating.
Talk calmly so the bear knows you are a human and not a prey animal. Remain still; stand your ground but slowly wave your arms. Help the bear recognize you as a human. It may come closer or stand on its hind legs to get a better look or smell. A standing bear is usually curious, not threatening.
Remember that most bears do not want to attack you; they usually just want to be left alone. Bears may bluff their way out of an encounter by charging and then turning away at the last second. Bears may also react defensively by wooﬁng, yawning, salivating, growling, snapping their jaws, and laying their ears back. Continue to talk to the bear in low tones; this will help you stay calmer, and it won’t be threatening to the bear. A scream or sudden movement may trigger an attack. Never imitate bear sounds or make a high-pitched squeal.
Pick up small children immediately
Hike and travel in groups
Groups of people are usually noisier and smellier than a single person. Therefore, bears often become aware of groups of people at greater distances, and because of their cumulative size, groups are also intimidating to bears.
Make yourselves look as large as possible
(For example, move to higher ground.)
Do NOT allow the bear access to your food.
Getting your food will only encourage the bear and make the problem worse for others.
Do NOT drop your pack
It can provide protection for your back and prevent a bear from accessing your food.
If the bear is stationary, move away slowly and sideways.
This allows you to keep an eye on the bear and avoid tripping. Moving sideways is also non-threatening to bears. Do NOT run, but if the bear follows, stop and hold your ground. Bears can run as fast as a racehorse both uphill and down. Like dogs, they will chase ﬂeeing animals. Do NOT climb a tree. Both grizzlies and black bears can climb trees.
Leave the area or take a detour.
If this is impossible, wait until the bear moves away. Always leave the bear an escape route.
Be especially cautious if you see a female with cubs.
Never place yourself between a mother and her cub, and never attempt to approach them. The chances of an attack escalate greatly if she perceives you as a danger to her cubs.
For more information on how to use bear pepper spray and what to do during a bear attack, read the rest of the NPS article on bear safety: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/bears/safety.htm#Spray