As a child raised in the wilderness and now a guide working in that same bear-rich environment, Tia Shoemaker has learned, first hand, a lot about Alaska’s big brown bears. In this installment of her ongoing blog, she shares her extensive knowledge and a few hair raising experiences.
Growing up on a homestead in a million acre National Wildlife Refuge, I fully understood it wasn’t that bears lived in our backyard, but rather we lived in theirs! It was some time before I realized not every family had a rifle casually leaning on the wall of their outhouse. Not everyone’s mother slung a carbine over her shoulder to go out and pace the airstrip while waiting for the bread to rise. And not every kid had a bear voice. The one their dad intuitively knows when he hears the warbled “daaAAAD come quick” from behind the meat shed and realizes his daughter has, once again, bumped into a bear while running out to wake the guides or empty the compost or collect greens from the garden.
Big Brown Bears on Alaska Peninsula Are World’s Largest
As verified by their body and skull measurements, Alaskan Peninsula coastal brown bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) are the largest bears in the world. Most record books (and any guide worth their salt) score bears by skull size since you can’t stretch a skull. The subspecies (Ursus arctos middendorffi ), found on the nearby Kodiak Archipelago is the only other place bears reach similar dimensions. Kodiak bears tend towards a wider zygomatic arch making their skull measurements wider while peninsula bears have a propensity towards longer skulls. But in terms of body size, these two subspecies are very similar–both are enormous!
Living in some of the richest salmon habitat in the world, these bears attain downright leviathan sizes, in some cases weighing over sixteen-hundred pounds. Truly big brown bears. A protein-rich diet is the source of their size. The landscape provides a plethora of lush vegetation ranging from berries, grasses, roots, and lupine as well as ground squirrels, small carrion and moose and caribou calves in which to subsidize their salmon diet. Food is not scarce. Moreover, because of the abundant food available and the vast uninhabited space, the bears here are less aggressive (than say grizzlies of Glacier National Park) and relatively tolerant of human interaction.
Big Brown Bears Part of Fishing Guide’s Life
All summer long my family and I encounter bears. It is part of living in remote Alaska. During fishing season, in particular, we find ourselves interacting daily with numerous bears. And, our mutual sharing of land and salmon streams is usually quite harmonious.Co-existing with bears certainly generates an attitude of respectful awareness. But it also creates a casual manner in regards to bear encounters brought about by countless interactions and an understanding of bear behavior. For instance, when I see a bear, it is a moment of awe and appreciation. If it approaches or draws near, it has 100% of my attention. But I only get excited when I have bumped one in thick brush, or one is being aggressive and has turned to charge.
The Alaskan Peninsula brown bears have little interest in humans though. They don’t consider us as a food option and wish to avoid confrontations with us. If a bear advances, more often than not it is merely curious as they tend to be by nature.
Simply a Nuisance
At times bears can simply be a nuisance. Like the time I was crouched on a riverbank, filleting a salmon and looked up to see my father shouting, running towards me and furiously pointing. When I spun around to see what was causing him such excitement, I found a small (250lb) bear crouched five ft away and about to snatch up a discarded salmon head. Upon being caught, the young bear jumped back and somersaulted attempting to get away from me. Another time I went running down to help a fishermen release his fish and heard the unmistakable sound of what I can only describe as a sound like velvet swiftly rubbed together. It was a bear chasing after me. I stopped running immediately and began shouting. That particular sub-adult came to a screeching halt and dropped his head like a chastised child that had only wanted to play.
Most problems occur with bears who are young, subadults (typically male…who would guess) looking to prove themselves. Occasionally they approach while we are fishing and try to take a fish that is already allotted to our dinner bag. This is intolerable behavior for once a bear has learned humans equate food they never forget. This can lead to many things among them being the bear’s untimely demise.
Old, Big Brown Bears Usually No Problem — Thank Goodness
We seldom have issues with the large, older boars as they are hunted in this area. They are exceedingly intelligent creatures that grow to be old by avoiding humans. When they do encounter humans, they tend to treat us just as they would another large bear. They avoid eye contact but carrying on with exactly what they were doing. A surprise encounter with a large boar is always exciting. Older bears are used to being the top predator and typically in foul moods due to the many grievances they suffer in old age: battle wounds, rotten teeth, numerous infections, and parasites. Generally speaking, the only cause for issue with a large boar is when one has been surprised, he is protecting food or the highly infrequent occasion when one is behaving in a predatory fashion.
The bear to be most wary of, and given the widest berth, is a sow with cubs for she will defend her offspring to the death– even if it is only a perceived threat. The mama bear is the one to be treated most delicately.
Big Brown Bears Are Predictable
Those with minimal bear experiences, tend to misinterpret signs and behavior from bears and believe it is impossible to predict bear behavior with any consistency. But they are no less predictable than any other animal. Like dogs or even humans, bears must be carefully assessed to decipher what their next intended move will be. They give signals. They make noises. They let the careful observer know precisely what they are about to do.
Nervous behavior in a bear includes yawning (no this doesn’t mean they are bored) and glancing around a great deal. Agitated behavior and extreme stress usually include massive salvation accompanied by dry coughing. These are all indicators that the animal is on edge and is deciding to flee or to fight. Aggressiveness tends to include ears back, popping the jaw, huffing and jumping up and down on the front legs. Extremely aggressive behavior entails charging– but that one’s obvious. Most charges though are bluff charges, and I have stood down a number of bears who put on the brakes when they see I am not backing down or running.
How To Deal With Brown Bear Threats
It is difficult to advise how to react during a bear encounter as each situation calls for something different and each bear an individual. Avoiding confrontation is not always possible especially when living and fishing amongst bears. Many authorities recommend arms in the air, slowly backing away, looking as big as one can while talking loudly to the bear. This is fine and recommended in some situations where everything is out in the open.
When startled, bears can become aggressive. These bears are usually best dealt with by slowly backing away to give space. In general, they don’t wish for contact or even a casual encounter with humans any more than we do with them. However the minute a bear starts exhibiting aggression or predatory behavior it is best to stand your ground and use a deep voice the way you would with a belligerent dog. Very occasionally I have fired a warning shot in the dirt in front of an aggressive bear. The noise, accompanied by earth spraying up in their face is usually enough of a deterrent to prevent a closer encounter.
With young, aggressive boars, I usually behave aggressively in return. They can be bluffed and often back down. However, encountering a sow with cubs, it is best to slowly back away while talking calmly, loudly and in a deep voice.
If a bear is running towards me, I first attempt to determine whether it is a bluff charge. Ninety-nine percent of every charge I have witnessed has been a bluff charge. But it can be difficult to quickly decide between a bluff charge and the real deal. Sometimes I think even the bear doesn’t know. Sometimes they change their mind. During these intense moments, I am calculating just how close a bear in full charge can get before I shoot the animal. However, I have thwarted killing many a bear by standing my ground, shouting aggressively and having a fixed distance in mind of where the bear might reach before I would need to commence shooting.
At times I am reminded of a new guide who set out on his day off to fish a nearby creek laden with fish and also bears. Upon his return, he recounted how after bumping into a bear, it had become aggressive and he worried he might have to shoot it. Eventually, he scared it off by shouting and standing his ground but said, “I thought about shooting that bear, but I think I was more scared of what Phil (my father) would say than I was of the bear!”
Don’t Take Big Brown Bears for Granted
Living in or even visiting bear country means you cannot take safety for granted. But all life leads to risk-taking of some sort. Each of us must decide the amount of calculated risks we are willing to venture to live the life we wish. An adventurous, outdoor lifestyle requires different risk-taking than living in the city. I much prefer my odds in bear country than hazarding rush hour traffic in New York City. The odds of a bear mauling are microscopic in comparison to a car crash. And in the 30 years we have been living and guiding on the Peninsula I have never had to shoot a bear in defense of life or property. Only a few of us have, my father and one of our long-time guides. My father had been guiding here over 30 years before he was forced to shoot a bear (quite another story and despite the plethora of couch-sitting,-advice-dispensing-Walter Mittys out there I may one day tell it) and the guide worked for us over 20 years before he also found himself in a situation where he had to shoot a charging bear in the dark. It died feet from him.
All in all, that equates to a lot of bear encounters, a lot of bear charges and a lot of bears in general that haven’t been shot due largely to observing and learning bear behavior and recognizing when there is a real threat and when there is not. Bears are not as much of a threat to us as surely we are to them. This is not to say that bears should be treated in a caviler manner or even without great caution. We should recognize them for what they are, a magnificent and sometimes dangerous creature deserving the highest respect.
Tia Shoemaker continues her life and job as a Registered Guide in the wilds of Alaska where she hopes another 30 years pass (at least) before she has to shoot a charging bear.