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Alone in a vast Alaskan wilderness, seven teens fend off a grizzly bear—then try to stay alive
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Buck Nelson
(Colter) - MLife

Locale: Alaska
re: If the risk is low, why carry? on 01/06/2012 16:16:58 MST Print View

Well for me it would be that although the overall risk is low it might be high enough to warrant carrying in certain situations. The Russian River is too crowded for my tastes, but the one time I fished it there were brown bears patrolling around, and they had a real attitude. With fish on the bank if I were to go back I'd prefer having bear spray or a gun.

I have been called irresponsible for suggesting it is a reasonable risk in many circumstances to carry a down sleeping bag. "What if somebody's bag got wet?" I'm asked. "Hypothermia kills people!" Well, I think NOLS should teach that it's wise to make a rational evaluation of the pros and cons of any type of gear that someone considers carrying. If it's a rain forest and someone has little experience they should probably carry a synthetic bag. If they are experienced and/or there is little rain expected down probably makes sense. The same with bear spray. Just because it could rain doesn't mean it's irresponsible to carry a down bag, just because I could encounter a bear doesn't necessarily mean it's irresponsible to leave the spray at home.

I'll bet carrying of bear spray in bear country is situational for NOLS. As it should be in my opinion.

Mike W
(skopeo) - F

Locale: British Columbia
Bear encounters... on 01/06/2012 16:26:27 MST Print View


Edited by skopeo on 06/17/2015 16:58:28 MDT.

Paul Wagner
(balzaccom) - F

Locale: Wine Country
Bear Stories on 01/06/2012 18:22:42 MST Print View

All three are Black Bear stories...lifted directly from our website, so forgive the odd references to M & P. M is my wife. And I am P~!

The Easy Opening Volvo--ca. 1998

There was a time when we spent a week at Lassen Volcanic National Park every summer. We love the place, and compared to some of the other parks in California, Lassen really is undiscovered.

This was in the days when we car-camped with the kids, and we usually stayed at Manzanita Lake Campgound. This was before bear boxes.

The first day we arrived, we set up our camp and had a lovely visit to the lake. At dinner, we grilled some sausages on the BBQ, opened a bottle of wine, and had a delicious dinner on the picnic table.

Manzanita Lake is over 5,000 feet in elevation, and we always feel quite sleepy that first night. We tidied up our campsite, put all the food carefully into our Volvo stationg wagon, and tumbled into bed by about 9:20, and were fast asleep in minutes.

As we slept, we kept hearing odd noises outside. Our older daughter actually expressed some concern about them, but to P they just sounded like someone trying to break up firewood by leveraging it between two trees. Creaking and breaking noises.

After a while, the noises stopped, and we all fell into a deeper slumber.

That's when our neighbors from Sweden woke us up.

"Excuse me," they said. "I think you have a problem with your car."

Hmmm. That didn't sound good.

It turns out that a large mother bear had climbed onto the top of our car, and had pulled open the sunroof. With one paw on the roof, she had used the other paw to peel back the sunroof like a tin of sardines.

She was too big to climb into the car through the opening, and so had finally given up. But the car was now wide open to raccoons or any other animal who wanted to visit, and so we knew we had to come up with a plan.

With our youngest daughter still asleep in the tent, we threw everything else into the car. At the last moment, we woke her up and tossed her sleeping bag in, and the tent on top. And we drove down to Redding to find a motel for the night.

The next morning we visited a rental car company, where we rented a nice Ford Explorer and headed back up into the park. After all, we only had one week of vacation, and we weren't about to kiss it goodbye.

As we entered the park, the ranger at the entrance station warned us about bear activity. "You know," she said, "last night a bear peeled open a Volvo station wagon to get at the food inside!"

"We know," we replied. "That was our Volvo!"


At the end of the week, we returned our rental car and picked up our Volvo to drive it home. P got on top of the sunroof and jumped up and down with all his might and weight. He couldn't budge it a millimeter. We drove home with the roof peeled back--by a bear using only one paw.

The next year, Lassen installed bear boxes in its campgrounds. We'd like to think we are responsible for that.

Packs and People

In the good old days (ca. 1971), before they had installed bear boxes in the backcountry, P and his sister once did a pack trip into the Little Yosemite Valley, then camping at Merced Lake. This was an active bear area, but they were prepared, and not worried.

In the evening, they were cooking dinner, sharing a capmsite with a group of three other people and a dog. They began to hear the traditional sounds of a bear in the campground---people yelling, banging on pots, etc.

But they were not worried. There were five people in their group around the campfire, and a dog! Surely the bear would not dare to attack them.

Imagine their surprise when a bear arrived and walked calmly up to the campfire and helped himself to all of the food. The bear walked right through the group, and we scattered as he did so. The bear calmly ate the dinner, including some of the food in the pack on the ground. And then ambled off to the next campsite.

And at that campsite, the bear coolly surveyed the backpacks hanging in the tree, and followed the rope down to where it was tied off. The bear took one swipe with its paw, and cut the rope in two.

The packs fell to the ground, and the bear ate the second course of his dinner.

There are now bear boxes in the popular backcountry campsites of Yosemite, and bear canisters are required for all backcountry trips in the park.

Bear Raid at Glacier Point ca. 1973

In the early 1970's P was working at a camp near Yosemite, leading kids on pack trips and exploring this wonderful park. At the end of the summer, he and a colleague decided that they were going on a grand adventure---hiking from Yosemite to Sequoia without the convenience of the John Muir Trail. They were young, they were strong, and they had no idea what they were getting into.

Their route started at Glacier Point, and from there they were going to ascend the Illilouette Canyon, cross over Red Peak Pass, and then keep moving south, sometimes on lesser known trails, sometimes cross country.

So they started in Yosemite Valley, and managed to hitch-hike up to Glacier Point by the end of the day. Not wanting to start out on the trail late in the day, they decided to camp (perhaps illegally?) around Glacier Point so that they could get an early start the next day.

And the weather was perfect. They simply put down a sheet of plastic, and laid their sleeping bags on top, sleeping under the stars. With a long night ahead, they were asleep soon after dark.

And were soon awake again, hearing loud noises in the area. As they looked around, they realized that they were in the middle of a bear attack. The bears, six or more of them, were racing each other to the garbage cans, knocking over the cans, and then wrestling and fighting each other over what they found inside.

In the moonlight it looked for all the world like a huge bear football game...and the players were not from Chicago. They were huge, they were feisty, and they were racing from one spot to the next. A scene from a horror movie, to be sure.

The boys didn't think twice. They leapt to their feet, grabbed their bags and packs, and raced for the only safe haven in the area--the restrooms. It was a hard sprint, but P was faster and made it first. He is a nice person, and did not slam the door in his friend's face. Once inside, they were both relieved to see that it was possible to lock the door from the inside.

What luck that the rangers had not locked the door the night before!

They spent the night in the restroom, resting. And got a very early start the next day.

(In the end, they never made it outside of Yosemite National Park. P's friend really, really didn't feel good on their second night, at about 10,000 feet at Lower Ottaway Lake. And the next morning, he announced that he really thought he needed to turn back. They hiked out that day, then spent a night in Yosemite Valley before hitch-hiking home to the Bay Area, where his friend found out that he was suffering from bronchitis. No mean thing at 10,000 feet, with sixteen miles to hike home.)

Strangers in the Night--about 1965

Now we are going even further back in time--when P travelled with his parents and younger sister on an epic road journey through the Canadian Rockies. We camped our way through Banff and Jasper, and then down the Frazier River, all the time reading endless Tolkein books as entertainment. That's him in the photo below left...

But P was about thirteen years old, and not about to give up his mountain man image. While the rest of the family slept in a small 15-foot travel trailer, P slept like a real man, nestled in his mummy bag, lying out under the stars.


It was a great feeling, until one night in Jasper National Park, when he awoke to find a bear standing on top of him, sniffing his face.

You might wonder what he did.

Did we mention that he was in a mummy bag, and the bear was on top of it?

He couldn't move, even if he wanted to. And somehow, in his sleepy mind, he knew that. So he closed his eyes and pretended to sleep. He smelled the bear's breath, which reminded him very strongly of garbage.

(Not surprising, considering what the bear had been eating!)

About twenty seconds later, he judged that the bear was no longer near him. He opened his eyes and looked around, to see the bear rumbling off to another campsite.

P leapt to his feet and carried his bag into the trailer, explaining to his family that there was a bear outside.

Not knowing the full story, they were not excited.

Then P stuck his head out of the trailer to check on the bear. And that's when he saw a small black animal scampering along the campground road, wailing for its mother.

"maaaaa!" said the animal.

P reported to his family that there was also a little black lamb out there.

His family was mightily amused.

But the next day, the story was verified by bear and cub tracks in the dirt.

That evening, P and his sister were BOTH out under the stars, surrounded by folding aluminum chairs and rope--hoping to catch a photo of the bear when it got near.

(This is a true story. really. )

The bear never arrived. Although it did find another campsite further along, where a mother and her daughter had gone to sleep with some food inside the tent. The bear opened up the tent and ate the food, sending both women to the hospital as a result.

Mike M
(mtwarden) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Re: Bear encounters... on 01/06/2012 18:44:17 MST Print View

the majority of my grizzly encounters were in the Middle Fork of the Flathead (Bob Marshall and Great Bear Wilderness) when I was working as a wilderness ranger for the forest service. I worked ten days hitches (w/ four off) and I don't think I ever went a full hitch w/o at least one grizzly encounter, usually several- encounters mostly being them seeing me and running like crazy

a couple of were very close proximity, close enough to put some real fear into you :), most weren't

my only "bad" experience with a bear was with a big male black bear, I was setting up camp near a high alpine lake when I noticed a black bear on the other side of the lake, no biggie I kept about my chores, he started slowly working his way around the lake, occasionally standing and sniffing the air, again no biggie and continued about my business- when he got within a couple of hundred yards I gave loud yell just knowing he would turn tail and run, not so, must not have heard of me- gave a few more louder yells, still kept coming my way- not aggressively, just slowly and measured, when he was about 100 yards I started to get a little concerned, but not overly, I grabbed my aluminum pot and banged it loudly- nothing, it was at this point I started to get nervous I hurriedly started packing up my gear while he slowly closed the distance, he got close enough I started pitching rocks- this slowed him, but didn't stop him

I finally got me gear packed and started hiking at a good clip, he was following- again very calm and measured- sizing me up, I would frequently stop and pitch a rock or two and yell- not to much avail, finally after about 2 miles of this cat/mouse game I didn't see him anymore- I hiked another 4-5 miles and camped, but didn't get much sleep

bear spray was relatively new at the time and I didn't have any w/ me, nor a sidearm- after that hitch was up I started carrying bear spray (and a 3" 629!)

much later (10 years or so) I saw a show on one of the nature channels that documented predatory black bear behavior and low and behold the stories told were very much like my own- a rare, but real phenomenon, almost exclusively male black bears, almost always large ones

anywho I still get to work pretty regularly with bears and often in grizzly country (now mostly in the Beartooth Plateau) and even though I'm carrying a sidearm when working, I always tote bear spray when in grizzly country

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Re: Bear encounters... on 01/06/2012 19:47:57 MST Print View

Nice story Mike. That would put fear into anyone. You made a good decision to move on.

Carl Zimmerman
(CarlZ993) - MLife
Bear Spray on 01/06/2012 21:04:15 MST Print View

Given the educational setting w/ young and probably inexperienced backpackers (from whatever posh suburban neighborhood they're from) in active grizzly country, it is not an unreasonable expectation that all members be issued bear pepper spray. I would expect their instructors to show them where to wear it and the proper way to use it using a 'practice' canister (inert).

I've hiked in black bear country a lot. I choose not to carry pepper spray. I've hike a few times in grizzly country. I bought pepper spray in Yellowstone and carried it (on my hip) there and in Glacier & other locales w/ known grizzly population. Nothing is full proof. Just trying to nudge the odds better in my favor.

Buck Nelson
(Colter) - MLife

Locale: Alaska
Bear spray, bears and statistics on 01/07/2012 10:46:34 MST Print View

"My favorite thing about statistics is that they can say anything you want."

Show me some convincing statistics that grizzly bears are the greatest danger in grizzly bear country. Or one of the top two, or three, or five, or ten.

Virtually all of Alaska is bear country. Check out what's really killing people in the Alaska backcountry: Then consider what danger people worry about the most. According to a quick scan of that site, in the 90's bears killed 5 people in Alaska (I think there were actually about 8) and fear of bears killed 4, with people drowning or shooting each other in panic (possibly similarly understated.)

When backpacking we can only carry a finite amount of gear and focusing too much on one danger usually means we aren't focusing enough on others. We all have some overblown fears, but a disproportionate level of fear makes us less safe, not more safe.

To repeat, there are times when I think it makes sense to carry bear spray. And there are times I purposely make noise to alert bears (thick brush along a salmon stream.)

David Thomas
(DavidinKenai) - MLife

Locale: North Woods. Far North.
Tourists and Locals dying outdoors on 01/07/2012 11:22:19 MST Print View


Nice summary site. Interesting to read and remember the news stories as they came out.

Tongue-in-cheek snarky comment: It's amazing how no Natives died in the outdoors for the first 97 years of the 20th century until:

Harvey Levi 07/97 Kuskokwim River Fishing Drown

Based on my cursory reading of the list and (reasonable, I think) assumption of ethnity based on location and activity. And in later years, there are a few others reported such as:

Wilbur "Arch" Willson 12-27-09 Naknek River Snowmachining Drown

But mostly, it's a list of how Tourists, White Alaskans and military personnel on leave kill themselves in the outdoors. Which reflects what we posters are at risk of, I suppose. It would be interesting to split it between Alaskans and tourists. I suspect we're dying more in plane crashes and tourists are at more risk of exposure and drowning - certainly per day spent in Alaska.

The 80 deaths in 2010 for example which just goes on and on with crash, crash, drown, crash, crash, crash, drown, drown with the occasional fall, fall, hypothremia, shot, exposure, that one wolf attack, and NO BEARS that year.

Edited by DavidinKenai on 01/07/2012 11:24:11 MST.

Dave -
(FamilyGuy) - F

Locale: Up there
Re: Bear spray, bears and statistics on 01/07/2012 11:35:17 MST Print View

How many of those locals that venture into the Alaska backcountry carry guns for protection and have had to use them to scare off bears? In other words, the stats don't tell you of 'close calls' or what alternative means of preventing a bear attack are used.

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
rockfall on 01/07/2012 12:10:50 MST Print View

rockfall kills relatively few people every year in climbing ... and head tauma

yet responsible climbers still wear helmets on multipitch ...


Buck Nelson
(Colter) - MLife

Locale: Alaska
Speculation on 01/07/2012 12:14:49 MST Print View

"How many of those locals that venture into the Alaska backcountry carry guns for protection and have had to use them to scare off bears? In other words, the stats don't tell you of 'close calls' or what alternative means of preventing a bear attack are used."

Stats on close-calls, or speculation on what would have happened in a certain situation would be virtually useless. One person's close call is another person's non-event. I've had many bears run at me through the years. Most would probably have been shot (at) by overly excitable people convinced that they were about to be killed.

As far as I know no one has been killed by a grizzly in Denali National Park. Soon after guns were allowed in the park somebody shot a grizzly convinced they were going to die.

The foremost authority on bear attacks, Dr. Stephen Herrero, believes that, while firearms may prove useful in some encounters, many people are safer without a gun. In "Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance," Herrero compiled details on hundreds of incidents in North America that resulted in human death or injury. He believes firearms can embolden users, increasing the likelihood of provoking a bear attack. Firearms often wound bears, which may trigger or increase aggressive behavior. Ironically, many more people are injured or killed annually by accidentally shooting themselves or companions than are mauled by bears. (

In 1994 there were 8 fatal gun accidents and 102 non-fatal firearms accidents in Alaska. There's little doubt that many of those firearms were being carried for bear protection. There were no fatal bear attacks in Alaska that year and I couldn't find any maulings. Another example where excessive bear fear can be more dangerous than bears.

I do think that when a weapon is called for bear spray is usually a better choice than firearms.

Buck Nelson
(Colter) - MLife

Locale: Alaska
Re: rockfall on 01/07/2012 12:38:10 MST Print View

rockfall kills relatively few people every year in climbing ... and head tauma

yet responsible climbers still wear helmets on multipitch ...


Because the odds of a climber being hurt or killed by falling objects is dramatically higher than that of backpackers hiking in grizzly country being hurt or killed by bears?

The 50-year statistics from 1951 to 2001 indicate that 680 accidents occurred as a result of “Falling rock, ice, or object” in the United States and Canada.

Thousands of people a year die from or suffer serious head injuries very year in auto accidents, yet people don't wear helmets driving in their cars. Why?

Sensible risk analysis is not our forte as a species.

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
Re: Re: rockfall on 01/07/2012 13:26:47 MST Print View

thats "only" 14 people a year ...

many more people die from eating cheezy poofs ...

between 1959 and 1994 there were 3239 deaths attributed to lightning ... thats 95 per year ... yet we dont walk around in lightning suits ...

put it this way i consider it quite laughable that some BPLers can conduct "sensible" risk analysis from their chairs better than the professionals who deal with bears every day up here in BC/AB ... ask any park rangers or wildlife official what they do up here themselves ...

perhaps its different in the areas other people are from ... but it is utterly irresponsible IMO to suggest to newer less experienced people that they shouldnt carry bear spray in certain areas of the BC and alberta backcountry ... especially in the areas where its recommended or required by parks canada or bc/alberta parks

as to deaths by rock fall ... the number of rock climbers is fairly low, and those that venture onto multipitch even lower ... so raw numbers do not themselves indicate "risk" ... the same i suspect with bears

as to bear stories ...

i ran into bear once a few years ago .. literally ... THUMP ... it ran away fortunately ... this was at a running trail 10min away from my house

i see bear paws prints occasionally on the hoods of some cars ... we get warnings about garbage bears ...

i see bears wandering around in squamish when i climb?

there are bears on the local trails here all the time .... some even block the trails with their cubs as long as they want

do i carry bear spray all the time? ... that DEPENDS on the situation ... if im the rockies you bet ... but i would not tell anyone who did that they shouldnt and for newer people, id recommend it

heres a picture of a bear in one of my friends yard who live fairly close to me ... theres entire families of bears that come and go ...

for what parks canada thinks about it in the rockies ... go to the link below ...

as an example ... can you see the difference?

Edited by bearbreeder on 01/07/2012 13:48:42 MST.

Buck Nelson
(Colter) - MLife

Locale: Alaska
Re: Re: Re: rockfall on 01/07/2012 15:59:22 MST Print View

"it is utterly irresponsible IMO to suggest to newer less experienced people that they shouldnt carry bear spray in certain areas of the BC and alberta backcountry ... especially in the areas where its recommended or required by parks canada or bc/alberta parks"

I have said that I think it pays to carry bear spray at times, so trying to insinuate that I flatly recommend not carrying bear spray is a straw man argument.

Undoubtedly park officials are often right about the wisdom of carrying bear spray in certain areas, but there is also an element of governmental CYA in many of their regulations.

I prefer to do my own thinking, even when it comes to bear experts. In the following thread here's what I said:

The Yellowstone bear expert in the article says: "The chances of this happening were 1 in 3 million," he said. "The odds of it happening again are 1 in 3 million." I disagree with the latter comment...An example of a situation where I WOULD carry bear spray is in the area where that sow grizzly killed the hiker recently and where that bear is still roaming... In my opinion, this is the rare unusually dangerous bear, and I would have this bear killed.

And a little while later this news report:A grizzly bear that fatally mauled a hiker in Yellowstone National Park has been put down after DNA evidence linked the animal to the scene of a second hiker's death a month later.

I'll let you draw your own conclusions.