A deep, bellowing roar erupted from the brush to my right. I had never heard such a sound, but there was no mistaking what it was. It was coming from an angry bear about twenty meters away. From the crack of breaking limbs and the crashing of brush, and from the proximity of the roaring, I could tell that the bear was coming toward me and my wife Susan, and quickly. I could feel the weight and force of the bear’s footsteps coming through the ground.
My heart sank. As often as I had thought about the possibility, I never really thought it would happen to us.
Without looking toward the charge, I grabbed the canister of bear spray in the holster on my backpack’s left shoulder strap. I pulled it free, releasing the safety without conscious effort (thank goodness I’d practiced—lots). I pointed the canister in the direction of the crashing brush, looking that way for the first time. The bear was close now, well within ten meters and still coming. The big, round head and other features told me that it was a brown bear. I pressed the trigger and a cloud of grey/orange mist shot out in the direction of the bear. Her eyes widened in surprise and she disappeared. We could still hear her crashing through the brush, now moving quickly away.
From the moment I first heard her roar until she spun around and left, no more than six seconds had passed, and more likely two or three.
The bear fled more or less in the direction we’d just come, so our only reasonable choice was to keep going forward along the trail. Susan and I took a few steps and then heard the sound of small, leathery feet running through the brush on the opposite side of the trail from where the bear had just been. The footsteps took off in the direction the departing sow. The sound of the footsteps and the movement of the brush were almost certainly those of a bear cub, probably one in its first summer.
We’d managed to get between a sow bear and her cub, about as bad a move as can be made in bear country.
A few things went right. The pepper spray had proven itself to be a good choice. My frequent practice at removing the canister from its holster and releasing the safety mechanism had paid off, even though Susan and I had often wondered if I was being paranoid in how often I rehearsed it. The best thing was that neither humans nor bears bears sustained any lasting harm.
Big things had gone wrong, however, or the incident might never have happened. We were not making noise to alert the bears, and in exactly the type of situation where it matters most; in thick brush by loud, running water.
It is possible that we would have been charged even if we had been making noise, but all involved might have had more time to assess the situation. We might at least have gotten a warning, and perhaps a chance to move back, which we would have immediately done. It is also possible that the sow would have taken her cub away from the area without charging us.
What is certain is that we were being quiet in exactly the kind of situation in which the bears most needed to be alerted to our presence, and we did not even have the excuse of being new to the Alaskan wild. There was no excuse. In spite of what we thought before the incident, we’d grown complacent about bear safety, enough so to get ourselves into deep trouble. And while there is no reason to think that either the sow or her cub came to any lasting harm, we did cause serious stress and pain in a situation that likely could have been avoided.
We’d always cared about bear safety, both for our sake and that of our ursine cousins. Nonetheless we’d grown more casual with our precautions than was wise. All that changed. Besides becoming wholehearted advocates for the value of bear spray (since bolstered by formal studies), our interest in bear safety in general was, shall we say, invigorated.
We spoke with bear biologists, bear guides, friends with extensive bear experience, and anyone else we thought we could learn from. This was greatly aided by Susan later becoming a manager of wildlife refuges with bear populations, first with black bears in southeastern Arkansas and then (at the time of this writing) over four million acres of prime brown bear habitat, far from the road system in Alaska.
After moving to our current home on the Alaska Peninsula, I became a regular visitor to, and later worked at, Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park. I was fortunate to be able to greatly increase my experience with brown bears while at Brooks Camp, and to exponentially increase my observations of bear/human interaction.
In reflecting on all this, it became clear that while there is a lot of excellent information available on bear safety for the general audience, there is relatively little that addresses the particular needs of visual artists; photographers, painters, and sketchers. My experience at Brooks Camp made it clear that the very act of intensely focusing on a bear while photographing can create dangers that are not normal in other activities, and experience elsewhere had made me aware of dangers to which other arts are prone.
What follows is based on my experience and that of others with the three species of bears in North America; brown/grizzly bears, North American black bears, and polar bears. Brown bears and polar bears are of course found in Europe and Asia as well as North America, and Asian black bears have many similarities to those in North America. My hope, then, is that this information will prove relevant to a wide audience. In addition to feedback concerning the bears covered, I am interested in readers’ thoughts about how the information that follows pertains to other bear species.
In what follows, I will first flesh out of my advice to seek out the guidance of experts, and to continue to do so for as long as spending time in bear country is a part of your life. Bear safety researchers continue to expand and refine the available knowledge and practical advice.
I will then emphasize certain aspects of the standard advice and offer some tips of my own that I think are most relevant to the needs of visual artists. In no way is this intended as an authoritative, final word on the subject. My hope is to help initiate an ongoing discussion of bear safety among visual artists who share the privilege of venturing into bear country on a regular basis.