Posted by: Anna | August 11, 2010

To Bear in Mind

Before heading out on this trip, I was worried about bears. Everyone kept trying to tease and scare me about bears, and two people this year have died at / around Yellowstone in bear attacks. Yellowstone and Grand Teton have an interesting history of bears, and sizeable Grizzly and Black bear populations. In the past, bears were allowed to eat from the hotel dumpsters, and people would feed them along the road. Crazy to think about now, when you mostly see bears from a distance and are advised to stay at least 100 yards from bears. During our trip we saw 18 bears.

There are more black bears in Grand Teton, and more Grizzlies in Yellowstone (at least in our experience). Bears in Yellowstone (and it’s possible in Grand Teton as well, although happens much less frequently) attack and maul or kill people every year. I am afraid of mauling, and so before heading out on the trip I carefully studied bear safety. For those of you who have lived your entire lives in bear free zones (like me), I thought I would share the many precautions you have to follow to prevent bear attacks.

At camp —

  • All food must be stored at all times (other than when in use, such as while cooking /eating) in either a bear box or in the car. Bears at Yellowstone do not break into cars (which they do at Yosemite). A bear box is a heavy metal box with latches that require opposable thumbs. Yea for human opposable thumbs!

    Anna loves her bear box

  • All toiletries, such as toothpaste, deoderant, lotion, etc must also be stored in the same way.
  • No food can be dropped on the ground at your campsite.
  • Dishes and cooking tools (such as the camp stove) must be stored in the bear box or the car.
  • Dishes must be washed away from camp, and then all dishwater used must be poured out in the toilet (never at camp).
  • No water bottles can be left sitting out or in your tent.
  • You must brush your teeth in the bathroom and spit in the bathroom.

When hiking–

  • Do not carry smelly food.
  • Carry bear pepper spray, which you can spray, and hopefully you don’t blind yourself as well, because that’s your chance to run when the bear is attacking you.
  • Talk and sing loudly while hiking – this makes it hard to see other animals. But bears are most likely to attack hikers who surprise them on the trail.
  • If a bear approaches you, identify yourself as human and try to look larger than you are. I think this sounds funny. I can just imagine a bear coming toward me, and me saying, “Hi bear! I’m Anna, your friendly hiking human through your home. Please don’t mind me, and keep eating your grubs.”
  • Hike in groups, preferably groups of four or more. Bears see groups as one larger animal rather than individuals. Not the smartest animals, bears.
  • Avoid huckleberries and carcasses – bears protect their favorite food sources.
  • Never run from a bear – this can provoke an attack.
  • If a black bear attacks you, play dead in the fetal position.
  • If a grizzly attacks you, fight back. The people who survive grizzly attacks usually do it in groups, with one person getting attacked, and another fighting the grizzly. This seems completely terrifying.

At Grand Teton, I took a bear safety quiz and passed with flying colors. Tricky questions included:

  1. Are black bears dangerous?
  2. Can you store unopened cans of coke or beer in your tent?
  3. Can you leave your can of propane from your camp stove sitting out at camp? Now this is an interesting one that I saw at our campground at Jenny Lake. The ranger laughed and pointed out that bears are playful and curious, and about the last thing we need at a campground is a bear tossing a propane bottle in the air all in fun. Angry bear (after the propane explodes) + exploding propane = one dangerous camp!

Many of you may have heard about the attack that took place at Yellowstone about a week before we arrived. Three people sleeping in a tent were attacked at 4 AM by a bear (a momma bear – the most dangerous kind); one was killed and the other two injured. Here’s the frightening part – nothing was found in their tent. No food, and no toiletries. What this means, according to the rangers, is that someone previously kept food in their tent. The bear smelled it or ate some food left out at camp, and tried to come back for more. The bear doesn’t know that it’s new campers and that there is no food there. Once a bear has human food (which is much tastier than standard bear food – who wouldn’t prefer pizza and burgers to raw bison carcass that has been sitting out for several days, or huckleberries? Well, huckleberries are actually good. But bears also eat grubs and ants.), the bear becomes determined to keep eating human food and becomes aggressive toward humans. And that’s when it gets dangerous.

Mama grizzly with 2 cubs

It’s maddening at camp to see other campers put you at risk by disobeying bear precautions. We saw a propane canister out (see propane scenario above), people brushing their teeth and spitting into the campsite (bears have an amazingly good sense of smell, and the smell will attract them to the campsite looking for good things to eat), a family feeding the birds at a picnic area (and then leaving a pile of goldfish on the ground – brilliant! We picked it up.), and most stupidly, a campsite that left their dishes, cooking stove, and toiletries out ALL DAY sitting underneath a mosquito net. Because of course, a 1000 pound bear cannot get through or smell through a mosquito net. That campsite irked me so much that I actually told the campground manager, who cited them. That’s right, you can get fined and/or get your stuff confiscated. Then you have to call the park rangers to request your stuff (and probably your lecture) when you get back to camp.

We were exemplary bear safety campers. This did not prevent us from seeing a bear 10 feet from our tent; actually, only Jack saw it. He refused to get up with Tommy and me to go to the bathroom in the morning, and so he saw the bear. A lesson in not trying to laze around in your sleeping bag before the morning hike right there!


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