September 14th, 2011
With hindsight, perhaps watching the incredible documentary about Timothy Treadwell, Grizzly Man, wasn’t the best introduction to bear country. Treadwell thought he could talk to the bears – and he did for a bit. Then the bears ate him.
The motorcyclist set down his coffee cup and leant back in his chair, a slow smile spreading across his face. “Well, maybe I shouldn’t be tellin you this, but there was a Japanese guy ridin’ through here on a bicycle just like you two. A Grizzly got him – just knocked him off his bike and ate him all up. Good luck to y’all, that’s all I can say.”
It seemed every Alaskan we met had a bear tale to tell. I could never tell if there was a nudge and a wink behind our backs as they watched the naive tourists wriggle in their seats, but it became clear that however much the stories may have been exaggerated, there was a healthy respect for bears in the North. Everyone had their own nugget of advice for us, from the plausible to the hilarious (“Carry a tin of sardines in your pocket to distract a charging bear” was my favourite).
I certainly found it hard not to give in to a little creeping bearanoia. I spent one night frozen rigid in my sleeping bag, as a snorting grizzly prowled outside our tent just centimetres away. It was only the next morning when the ‘grizzly’ was still snorting that I realised it was in fact the toilet pump from a nearby campervan, and I had actually been listening to an elderly American making their 3am trip to the bathroom.
Here’s a selection of some of the bear advice we received, along with our own experiences.
1. Attach bear bells to your bike.
The theory: on a bike you are much stealthier than you would be in a car. By carrying a bear bell, bears will hear you coming and get out of your way.
In reality: We merrily jangled along for weeks sounding like Santa’s sleigh, confident every bear in the vicinity would be hear us coming (maybe that’s why it took us five weeks to see one). Then someone pointed out that bears are actually very curious, and in fact our jaunty bells did a great job of announcing that a very slow moving, nicely wrapped food parcel was on its way. A kind of slow moving ice cream van for bears if you like.
2. Hang all food and anything else with a strong smell up in a tree.
The theory: by hoisting all your food and toiletries high into a tree, no bear will have any reason to come knocking in the night.
In reality: I was by far the most odorous item in our tent, and there was no way I was climbing up a tree for the night. Even hoisting our food proved a serious challenge, as evolution clearly hasn’t selected Alaskan trees based on their food hanging potential. Most spindly Alaskan spruce looked like a bag of crisps might send them keeling over, let alone 10 days of food for two calorie starved cyclists. When we stayed on campsites, we found that stashing our food in the bear-proof rubbish bins was a far easier option.
3. If a bear charges you, don’t run.
The theory: If you are unlucky enough to be charged by a bear, stand your ground – otherwise the bear will get excited and think that it really has stumbled on something worth chasing.
In reality: We read pages of detailed advice on what to do in this situation; so much that we would probably need to ask the bear to stop mid-charge while we checked the manual. While your life flashes before your eyes, you also have to identify what type of bear is heading towards you, and work out what mood it is in. If it’s a ‘defensive charge’, then in theory the bear will either veer off or stop short at the last moment (and I imagine probably stick its tongue out and roll about laughing at the tourist having a coronary). If it’s an aggressive charge, then you’ll know about it. Your options then are to ‘play dead’ if it’s a grizzly, or ‘fight back’ if it’s a black bear. Good luck with that.
4. Carry bear spray.
The theory: Bear spray is the universally acknowledged weapon of choice when it comes to repelling a bear attack (other than a gun that is – and even then a grizzly’s forehead is meant to be so thick that bullets often just bounce off.)
In reality: It certainly makes you feel safer to have some kind of weapon at your disposal, but after reading the small print I’m not so sure. Firstly, if you fire off your bear spray into the wind, then chances are it’s going to disable you far more than the bear. Given that we spent most of our time in Alaska cycling into a headwind, this seems like quite a fundamental flaw. Secondly, I can’t help thinking that if you are lucky enough to hit your target, then a half-blinded bear is probably not going to be in a mood to slope off into the bushes. Chances are that if it was just a ‘defensive’ attack, by now you’ve definitely managed to turn it into an aggressive one.
Despite all the above, so far we’ve camped for more than 50 nights in bear country with no problems. In the end we have seen both grizzly and black bears, both magical experiences – but it took us over five weeks to do so. The reality is that, unless you’re really unlucky, bears don’t actively hunt people. Unsurprisingly, they’re far more interested in the feast of salmon and berries on offer than chasing scrawny tourists on bikes.
Coming from England, where animals tend to be cute and cuddly, it’s been at once disconcerting and exhilarating to suddenly find that you’re no longer at the top of the food chain. It re-ignites a primal survival instinct, long suppressed by the ease and comforts of modern life. Back home, you have to actively seek out wilderness, where humans haven’t imposed order over nature in some way. Here in Alaska, surrounded by wilderness, it is the other way round. You are entering the bears’ world, and you play by their rules. It seems it’s only really when humans interfere and break those rules (mentioning no names, Mr Treadwell), that things really go wrong.