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What To Do If You Encounter a Bear in the Woods

By James and Terry Hyde, R.N., B.S.N.

In truth, none of the larger mammals in New England woods want anything to do with us. As long as we're far enough away from them, they'll likely take off in the opposite direction before we even know they were near. But if they feel threatened or cornered, it's a whole different story.

The only bear you'll encounter in New England is the black bear (even though they are sometimes more brown than black in color). Black bears, like their forest roommates, are trying to adjust to shrinking habitat. As a result, they are becoming more and more brazen around people. They've been known to enter cabins and automobiles to raid food storage bins and make off with whatever they can.

But, in general, black bears are far more afraid of you than you are of them, and if you make a lot of noise as you hike or set up camp, you'll very likely drive any nearby well away. But if you do come upon a bear unexpectedly, you need to know what to do.

If you're going into the wild on your own, we strongly recommend that you carry bear pepper spray with you. If a bear charges you, it’s most effective within fifteen feet or so. Aim for the animal’s eyes. It doesn’t have the same effect on bears as it does on humans, but it will distract a bear long enough to allow you to scramble to safety.

If a bear does see you and it's a good distance away, you want to make sure it knows that you're not a threat. Speak calmly to it, wave your arms above your head and slowly back away. Having your arms in the air makes you look bigger and tells the bruin you're human.

Situations triggering aggression are rare and are usually surprise encounters or finding youself between a sow (female bear) and her cubs. Let's say you round a corner, and suddenly you're between a bear and her cubs (they very often have twins). This secanario is worst case. Sows will charge just about anything if it gets bewteen them and their babies. You will need to get out of that situation any way you can and fast, but don't run unless you have no choice.

Second, there's great danger in hanging around a bear's kill site. If you're hiking or looking for a good place to camp, be on the lookout for carcasses and/or scavenger birds, such as ravens and crows, congregating in a specific area. If you see them, you may be near a kill site, so keep moving well away from it. Bears, wolves, cougars and other predators will return to the carcass of an animal they have taken repeatedly until only bones remain.

Finally, look for telltale signs of a bear's recent presence. Bears leave any number of signs that they've been around, including, scat, which is often a pile that's thick and black and may contain berries, claw scratch marks on trees and scrape marks in or near a fire pit. Should you see any of these signs and if you're near a game trail, find another spot to camp or trail to hike.

With grizzly bears, curling up in a fetal position and playing dead will more often than not make it leave you alone, confident that its territory has one less threat. But black bears don’t fall for the ruse, so you do need to fight back any way you can if a bear charges you. If you do not have pepper spray and it gets close enough, do all you can to jab its eyes hard with your thumbs or fingers and keep the pressure on until the bear backs off. That can end an attack right away. Also, punching a bear flush on its nose repeatedly will cause it to think twice about continuing its attack. Their noses are hyper-sensitive, so getting punched there hurts.

If you come upon a bear that’s close by and it’s letting you know it’s not happy about your presence, you need to look around and think fast.

Unless it's absolutely necessary and you see a large boulder to hide behind, NEVER run away from a black bear. Its triggers their natural response to fleeing prey. While bears will climb trees, usually to get away from dogs or other threats, they rarely climb higher than 35 feet or so.

Inasmuch as black bear can run as fast as thirty miles per hour, you can’t outrun them, but if they charge, you do have options.

Bear attacks are rare here in the East, and if you are in a group of three or more people, they are are very unlikely to occur unless you're between a sow and its cubs, as explained above. If you're alone, that's another matter.

If you have the time, the best thing is to find a tall sturdy tree and climb it as fast as you can to a height above 35 feet. That height, for reasons unknown, seems to convince a bear that you’re not worth the energy it would expend to get at you.

If a bear is going to charge you, it will usually bluff charge, and make a puffing sound first to see what you’re going to do. Stand your ground—do NOT back up. Wave your arms over your head. In some cases yelling at the bear will scare it off, but not always. Making a similar puffing sound in response, which can serve to give the bear pause.

If you don’t have pepper spray or a sturdy, nearby tree to climb, use anything you can to fight back; a branch, rock, anything that you can use as a weapon. It’s the last recourse, and unfortunately, it may be your only one.

If the bear does charge and knocks you down, roll onto your stomach to protect your vital organs. Put your dominant hand behind your head and your non-dominant hand over that. If you have a backpack, leave it on and use it as protection.

As is the case with any wild animal, there are those bears that don’t see fit to act the way other members of their species do. The advice above is suggestive, not guaranteed. There’s no way to tell how a bear might react to your presence, but the methods described above have been effective in defending against the usual bear attacks. Nonetheless, while the advice is sound and based on the opinions of experts, bears should be avoided due to their unpredictable natures.

Setting up Camp in Bear Habitat

When you set up camp, make sure that you have your outdoor kitchen well away and downwind of your campsite. While bears cannot see well, their sense of smell is many times stronger than that of humans,’ so when you cook a meal, it's a good idea to:

1. Cook only as much food as you plan to eat. Anything left over can be a bear magnet.

2. Change your clothes after cooking and double bag them in heavy-duty plastic bags. Bears can pick up the scent of food from the clothes you were wearing when cooking.

3. Never store food in your tent or your car. The best way to store it is to use a bag fastened to a rope that you throw over a tree branch and pull up until the bag is out of a bear's reach.

Again, bear attacks are rare, and if they hear you coming, you most likely won't see one. But, out of an abundance of caution, it's a good idea to have a canister or two of bear pepper spray. It's your best defense short of a gun.

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