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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 know it. 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. 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.

Situations triggering aggression are usually surprise encounters. For instance, you round a corner only to find a black bear standing nearby with two cubs, and--uh oh--you're between mom and her babies. That scenario is probably the worst of any other meeting in the woods. Bears will attack anyone who comes between them and their cubs.

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 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 on well away from it.

Finally, bears leave any number of signs that they've been around, which means they're likely to show up in a specific area a number of times. The signs range from tree scratch marks to scrape marks in or near a fire pit. Should you see any of these signs, or if you're near a game trail, find another spot to camp.

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

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

While you can usually run away from deer and moose--which might chase you, but give up once they see that youíre a no-threat wussónever run from a bear. Deer and moose are vegansóno interest in chowing down on a side of human. Bear are more or less omnivores. Your running may trigger an instinctive compulsion to pursue and attack you.

Inasmuch as black bear can run as fast as thirty miles an hour, you canít outrun them, but if they charge, you do have options.

Bear attacks are extremely rare and if you are in a group of three or more people, bears are very unlikely to attack. 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 of about 35 feet. That height, for reasons unknown, seems to convince a bear that youíre not the threat they thought you were and that climbing higher to tear you to pieces consumes too much energy. Black bear are better and more agile tree climbers than are grizzlies, but at that magic 35-foot mark, most bears figure youíve learned your lesson and climb back down to amble on.

If a bear is going to charge you, it will usually bluff charge making a puffing sound first to see what youíre going to do. Stand your ground—do NOT back up—and wave your arms over your head.In some case yelling at the bear will scare it off, but not always.

If you're going into the wild on your own, you should carry pepper spray with you. If a bear charges and you use it, itís most effective within fifteen feet or so. Aim for the animalís eyes. While itís fairly effective, it doesnít have the same effect on bears as it does on humans, but it will distract a bear long enough to allow you to scramble up a tree to safety or get away.

If you donít have pepper spray or a sturdy, nearby tree to climb, use anything you can to fight back; a branch, rock, anything that will convince the bear that youíre not going down without a fight. Itís the last recourse, and unfortunately, it may be your only recourse.

With grizzly bears, curling up in a fetal position and playing dead will more often than not make it leave the area, confident that its territory has one less threat. But black bears donít fall for the ruse, so you do need to fight back any way you can.

If you fall or get knocked downroll onto your stomach. Put your dominant hand behind your head and your non-dominant hand over that. If have a backpack, leave it on and use it as protection.

As is the case with any wild animal, there are those bears that donít see fit to act the way other members of their species do. The advice above is suggestive, not guaranteed. Thereís no way to tell how a bear might react to your presence, but the methods described above have been effective in defending against most bears. Nonetheless, while the advice is sound and based on the opinions of experts, bears should be avoided due to their unpredictable natures. If you make a lot of noise as youíre hiking along, most bears will run away. The most volatile scenario to trigger a bear attack is when you get between a bear and its cubs, so avoid doing so at all costs.

When you do set up camp, make sure that you set up 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 humansí, 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 that's too high for a bear to reach.
4. If you see a bear, but it has not seen you, quietly back away from it. Do NOT run! Never turn your back on a bear. If it's headed toward you on a trail, get downwind of it and let it pass, or take an off-trail detour, again downwind.


All time best-selling preparedness book by James Talmage Stevens -- Doctor Prepper



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