Les Palmer: Don’t run!

Author’s note: This column first appeared in the Clarion Jan. 23, 2004. With both bears and people starting to emerge from their dens this month, it’s a timely reminder, as well as a warning. — LP

At a remote Alaskan lodge, several anglers and a couple of guides were rehashing the day’s fishing. One of the anglers remarked that a brown bear had poked its head out of the brush near his group.

“What did you do?” another angler asked.

“I ran,” said one of the guides.

To me, a guide saying “I ran” was frightening. Any guide in Alaska should know how to handle bear encounters, and this one obviously didn’t. He and his clients had been lucky the bear didn’t become excited and charge.

Running from bears is often taken lightly. People jokingly say, “I don’t have to run faster than a bear; I just have to outrun you.” But running is no joke. It can turn what would have been a pleasant encounter into a mauling.

Somewhere in the bear-safety literature there may be advice that running is the thing to do in a certain situation, but I can’t find it. Instead, the standard advice is “don’t run,” “keep calm” and “hold your ground.” “Increase your distance,” yes. But not at a run.

“Don’t Run,” the Web site of the Cordova Ranger District of the Chugach National Forest advises. It goes on to warn: “You can’t outrun a bear. They have been clocked at speeds up to 35 mph, and like dogs, they will chase fleeing animals.”

We humans don’t usually think of ourselves as prey, we so seldom are, nowadays. But when we act like prey, predators will instinctively treat us as such. When surfers and swimmers are attacked by sharks, it’s because they resemble prey.

From the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Web site: “When you encounter a bear, the way you react could determine whether or not the bear will charge. Never run from a bear; the bear might perceive you as prey and follow in pursuit.”

Instead of running, slowly backing away has been found to be the best way to handle most encounters. If you are in a bear’s “personal space,” the bear is likely to consider you as a threat, according to experts.

From the video, “Staying Safe in Bear Country”: “What do you do if a bear becomes aware of you? If you cannot leave without the bear becoming aware of you, calmly and in a non-threatening way, from as far away as possible, identify yourself as human. Talk to the bear in a slow, respectful voice and move your arms slowly. Increase your distance. If possible, try to move upwind, to give the bear your scent. When a bear is aware of you and appears unconcerned, you should take this opportunity to leave. Don’t run! It could invite pursuit. Keep track of the bear as you move away. Give it plenty of room. Continue to increase your distance.”

The booklet “Living in Harmony with Bears” contains the advice of several acknowledged bear experts. Their collective recommendation when encountering a bear: “IDENTIFY YOURSELF AS HUMAN AND DON’T RUN. If a bear becomes increasingly stressed and aggressive, talk to it in a low voice. DON’T RUN. Bears can go about 35 mph — even the fat ones!”

When you think about some of the bear attacks you’ve heard about and read about, you can’t help but wonder if someone triggered the attack by running, jumping or otherwise exciting the predatory instinct of the bear.

The next time your fishing, hunting or hiking partner says, “I don’t have to run faster than a bear; I just have to outrun you,” don’t laugh. Start looking for a partner who won’t run.

For more information:

The Department of Fish and Game (43961 Kalifornsky Beach Rd., Soldotna) has an excellent, free booklet, “Living in Harmony with Bears,” as well as other free printed material for people who live, travel and recreate in bear country, meaning anywhere in outdoor Alaska. For more information, call 262-9368.

A Google search for “Living in Harmony with Bears” will show you an nps.gov Web page where you can download it in pdf format.

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Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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