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M Backpacking and the Bruin Mind

by R. Clinton Ohlers

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Article Summary:

There are, of course, common-sense exceptions. If you are near a cabin or a vehicle that you can quickly enter before the bear reaches you, running may be a reasonable option.

Here are two very simple reasons you otherwise don't want to run. First, running can trigger a "chase" reaction in the bear. Smith reports that in an analysis of "Alaska bear attacks dating back to 1900, there are 42 accounts of people running from a bear. In 38 cases, the bear gave chase and injured the person." Second, black bears can run at up to 30 mph and grizzlies up to 35, with at least one grizzly reportedly clocked at 41 mph.

On Jordan's recent expedition to the Western Arctic, they encountered several bears, including the one that ran towards them from a high ridge (noted earlier in this article) and another that they stumbled upon that was protecting a fresh moose kill. In both cases, the three expedition members held their ground, shouted, and waved their hands. In both cases, the grizzly bears exhibited confrontational behavior and stood their ground. And, in both cases, after several minutes, the bears retreated. "I could not have imagined running from either one of them," Jordan says, "or we might've been toast."

In Bear Basics, Smith illustrates what this kind of speed really means for anyone thinking of running to escape a bear:

"A fast high-school halfback runs a 40 yard dash in 4.5 seconds-that's 18.2 miles per hour ... At 30 miles per hour a bear covers 44 feet per second. If you're as fast as a high-school half back, you're covering 26.67 feet per second. Let's say that after startling a bear that's 100 feet away from you, you panic and run. The bear gives chase. It's gaining 17 feet per second on you. In about 6 seconds, it will have you."

You won't outmaneuver a bear, either. "Any mature adult grizzly bear can spin, cut, and make moves that would put any Ohio Buckeyes player to shame," Smith remarked. "I've seen a grizzly run straight uphill-unfortunately, probably because of my presence. It was galloping over logs 6 inches wide. It was the worst obstacle course you can imagine. The bear was like water flowing over rocks. An incredible feat of agility, and doing it at 25 to 30 mph, easy."

I believe these facts put the lie to the old joke about the two hikers who catch sight of a perturbed bear: one of them changes hiking boots for running shoes in a plan to outrun his companion. In real life, that strategy would likely have the opposite result. I asked Dave if he agreed.

"Anytime there is a group situation, it's the active person who is going to get nailed," he confirmed. "Tom Smith's research on grizzlies (no relation) shows that even being in a group as small as two works to deter a bear during a charge, but only provided you stick together and stand your ground. You're going to be okay, but as soon as you split up, that person that runs is probably going to get nailed."

Like running, Smith counsels, climbing trees is essentially out. Exceptions to this rule are even rarer. Think of tree climbing as vertical running-except it's a heck of a lot more difficult. It may work against a charging moose. But, it rarely works for bears. Black bears climb and are adept at pulling rivals out of trees by the heel. Bear cubs do this with each other in play. Dominant bears do this to vanquished subordinates. Mother black bears protecting cubs have been known to do this to humans, despite the person's having taken flight. For bears, it appears to be a display of dominance equating to a smack down. For people on the receiving end, it equates to a trip to the hospital.

It's been rumored that climbing can be a good move against grizzlies. That depends on the grizzly and the tree. Smith points out that grizzlies have been known to climb 30 feet into trees by "laddering." That is, they can ascend using horizontal branches like a homeowner rising to clean the gutters. In one case, researchers observed a large male grizzly confidently scale the face of a 40-foot rock wall with a 400-foot vertical drop at its back. (See Chuck Neal's Grizzlies in the Mist [2003] for a detailed account.)

In Bear Aware (3rd ed, 2004), Bill Schneider cautions that you would have to be very near the tree and be able "to get 15 feet up the tree before it gets there." In other words, the grizzly is likely not moving at full speed-that is, not covering a football field in 6 to 8 seconds. You are standing right beside a climbable tree. You have time to climb 15 feet. You can also continue to climb out of reach into the upper branches that can't support the grizzly's weight, out-climbing the bear perhaps another 15-plus feet. You have the presence of mind to gauge all of this accurately and then act.

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