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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.

Coastal Brown Bear, Alaska

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.

Travel in Southwest Alaska: Coastal Brown Bear Fishing For Salmon At Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park

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.

Travel in Southwest Alaska: Coastal Brown Bear Fishing For Salmon At Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park

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.

Travel in Southwest Alaska: Coastal Brown Bear Fishing For Salmon At Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park

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.

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.

Become a serious, long-term student of bear safety

I can be something of a curmudgeon about many of our supposed improvements in understanding about the world we live in. Nonetheless, I can say without reservation that both the quantity and quality of information regarding bear safety is vastly better than what was available when I first became interested in the subject thirty years ago. It’s not so much that what was available then was bad but that it is so much better and more readily available now.

Essential Reading

For all the usefulness of the web, at least one book remains an essential read: Stephen Herrero’s Bear Attacks, their Causes and Avoidance. If you read only one source on the subject, it should be this. (Be sure to get the latest edition.) My only reservation is that, as is almost inevitable with books like this, it can make bear attacks seem far more likely than they really are, although that is not the author’s intent. Please don’t let the fear become so much as to diminish your experience of being in bear country. I live in a remote part of Alaska where brown bears are far more numerous than humans, and the longest section of paved road is only 31 kilometers long, but I fear local drivers more than I fear bears. This even though brown bears regularly walk past the house where Susan and I live, and being charged taught us the potential danger of bears at a visceral level.

For those who live in bear country or are frequent visitors, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of remaining a serious student of the subject. A visitor to Katmai or Yellowstone National Parks on a once-in-a-lifetime trip can do well by just understanding and sticking to the basics. The more time you spend in bear country, however, the more important the finer distinctions become. Ongoing experience and research continues to refine our understanding of appropriate behavior around bears.

For example, it is common advice (or at least it was for a number of years) to break sticks in order to alert bears to your presence. This is not without reason, as bears do seem to pay particular attention to such sounds. Breaking sticks can be used as a dominance display in their world, and there are good reasons to think that the sound made is much more of an attention-getter than, say, the jingling of bells. Dominance displays, however, do not necessarily elicit the same responses among all bears. For example, they may cause a subadult bear or a lone sow to flee, but could trigger an aggressive response from a dominant male or a sow with cubs.

While such distinctions may do little, in practical terms, to change the odds for a brief and casual visitor to a well-controlled bear viewing area, experience has taught me that such distinctions do make a difference for regular travellers in bear country.

Travel in Southwest Alaska: Coastal Brown Bear Fishing For Salmon At Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park

Avoid becoming complacent about your understanding of bears

I’ve already mentioned this concern and, in any case, it may seem self evident. After all, becoming complacent is by definition a bad thing to do. Nonetheless, my experience and observing that of others motivates me to elaborate. We almost never think of ourselves as having grown complacent until after the fact (if then), so a bit of “prescribed paranoia” can be of value.

As mentioned above, at the time Susan and I were charged we sincerely believed that we were careful about bears. We never knowingly pushed the limits, and had no interest in proving ourselves around bears. Nonetheless, we had grown complacent, and it almost cost us.

I have encountered similar attitudes less often among inexperienced photographers than among the more experienced ones at Brooks Camp.
A few are nothing short of cocky, but most just think that they understand the bears there more than they do. I know this because I know the individual personalities of many of the Brooks bears fairly well, and these photographers often make blanket statements about the bears of the Brooks River that do not apply to all of them. (The most common error is to refer to the bears there as being “habituated” to humans in some regular, consistent sense of the word. In fact, the bears vary widely in how comfortable they are around us.) By themselves, such hasty generalizations may not be a great concern, but they can indicate the presence of other, more serious blind spots.

My point is not to demean anyone personally, especially having been guilty of complacency myself. Such errors are part of learning, at least for those willing to learn from experience. It’s just that mistakes of my own, along with those of others, have taught me the value of a heathy dose of conscientious self-doubt in relation to bears.

Learn how bears use the area you are sharing with them

Bears do seem to love to confound our predictions of their behavior, but they are nonetheless creatures of habit (in the big picture if not as much in the immediate moment). While making the most of local knowledge offers no guarantees, it is the smart way to play the odds. In addition to studying the terrain you are traveling and trying to look at it from how you think a bear would, make use of the best local knowledge available. While local naturalists, guides, and rangers are of course fallible, they can provide knowledge that is almost impossible to get in a short time by any other means.

While gut feelings are not perfect either, we should never make light of them. I always obey them when I am clear that they are not just petty worry, and foresee no serious cost to doing so. I have learned to never just brush them off.

Travel in Southwest Alaska: Coastal Brown Bear Fishing For Salmon At Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park

Beware of blind spots

This is something of an extension of the previous point, but deserves special mention. The core idea is that it is important while in the field to chose spots to work from that allow as much visibility as possible, in all directions.

We need to be willing to go to considerable lengths to avoid situations where a bear can accidentally walk up on us. Even though the majority of such instances occur without any harm to bears or humans, taking pains to avoid them is a good idea. It may seem paradoxical, but bears are capable of being astonishingly quiet while being more oblivious than it might seem a wild animal could be.

Obviously bears are capable of being noisy, and of being extremely alert as well, but we should never count on it. Once at Brooks Camp I had a very large male brown bear emerge from the grass about five meters away from me, neither of us aware of the other until he gave me a startled “Whoof!”.

An example of a likely situation for a surprise encounter is when a group of people have been walking along a trail used by both humans and bears, and the party walks out of a dense forest and into an abrupt opening with a spectacular vista. As quickly as possible each finds a space in the clearing from which to photograph or admire the view, going no further from where the trail leaves the forest than they have to. A few minutes later a bear, following the same trail and covering the same ground (bears often ignore human scent and sounds in areas where they are not hunted) walks right into the group of hikers at the edge of the woods, the dense forest making each party invisible to the other until the last moment. What happens next is completely dependent on the bear’s temperament and experience, and that of the people involved.

An extra minute or two of examining the place we want to work from, in light of avoiding surprise encounters, can make a great difference in our backcountry safety and enjoyment.

Beware of target fixation

A memory of mine from the summer of 2015, while working at Brooks Camp:

“Sir, please move away from that bear.”

The brown bear was about five meters from the photographer and walking toward him. The photographer was focused on his camera display and taking photos of the bear, stepping backward more slowly than the bear was advancing.

I saw no attempt by the photographer to change his behavior.

“Sir, please move further away from that bear—now!”

What I have seen may not exactly be target fixation in the strict sense, but it is at least psychologically close of kin. I have seen it take place too often to doubt its existence and its dangerous nature. Indeed, there are reasons to believe that it was partially responsible for the recent death of a photographer in Denali National Park.

Coastal Brown Bear, Alaska

Looking through a lens seems to narrow our frame of reference in such a way that we not only forget the area around us, we also forget that we are not just looking at a play of light on a screen. I suspect that this behavior can be unintentionally encouraged by photographing bears from platforms and other safe areas. We can develop the habit of narrowing our focus on the subject in relatively safe situations, and then without thinking carry that mindset into situations where such rapt attention can be dangerous.

The only solution I am aware of is being clear with ourselves that this is a genuine and potentially life-threatening problem, and then being resolutely disciplined in avoiding it. Having learned of the danger of target fixation, we need to keep our egos from convincing us that however much a risk it may be for others, we are somehow immune to it. This is all the more important if we are experienced. There’s just no substitute for self discipline.

Travel in Southwest Alaska: Coastal Brown Bear Fishing For Salmon At Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park

Eventually I was able, by means just barely within the bounds of civility, to get the photographer away from the bear, but not until he had gotten absurdly close. I wish I could say that such incidents were unusual, but I’m afraid that almost anyone who has worked at Brooks Camp can tell similar—if not worse—tales. I should mention that all visitors there are given a bear safety briefing, and while language barriers sometimes present problems, such was not the case in the above incident.

When I was young my father was a pilot and flight instructor in the U.S. Air Force, and I remember him telling me about how they taught student pilots to beware becoming so fixated on a target that they crashed into it. I have since come to learn that there is a similar danger for motorists approaching wrecks, paddlers approaching obstacles in whitewater, etc..

Beware of cub mania

This is a kind of target fixation, and it is a particularly powerful and dangerous form. It is my experience that with adult bears it is the more experienced photographers who are the most in danger from overly narrow attention, presumably because they are more comfortable around bears and thereby less on edge. However, there is something about the presence of cubs that seems to bring out the suicidal tendencies in all kinds of people. It can be quite scary to watch this play out, and of all the things rangers at Brooks Camp have to deal with this may be the most demoralizing.

It is a fundamental tenet of bear safety, borne out from experience stretching back thousands upon thousands of years, that sows with cubs are especially dangerous. (Multiple passages in the Bible, for example, mention the ferocity of a mother bear protecting her cubs.) Cubs almost always have their mother nearby, or soon will.

Even if we understand this, we should not take it for granted that in the excitement of the moment we will keep such knowledge in mind. I’m confident that the majority of people who do dangerous things while photographing cubs are capable of passing a test on the basics of bear safety beforehand.

The advice here is the same as for target fixation in general, with the provision that we must be especially wary of it when cubs are present. This is so, indeed it is especially so, when we see an opportunity for the photo of a lifetime.

Keep gear close at hand

Having found a spot to work from that provides good visibility in all directions, and having maintained our awareness of what is going on around us, we will be ready to move off calmly but quickly if a bear approaches. While this may solve the immediate problem, if moving off quickly means leaving our gear behind, we will only create more problems for the future. This is true for us, the bear, and quite possibly for other people as well.

Keeping bears from pilfering our food, and thereby associating humans with an easy meal, is a bedrock principle of bear safety. That said, we should not assume that leaving non-food items behind is of little concern. Besides the danger to our gear, it only encourages bears to investigate humans and their belongings more in the future. While bears are primarily oriented toward food when not in hibernation, they are intelligent, curious animals with an appreciation of novelty. Having something new and unusual to investigate and play with can be a powerful lure for them, especially young ones.

I bring this up because we visual artists often have more stuff lying around when we stop than others. It therefore takes us longer to pull everything together so that we can move off. This is all the more so if we have not placed our things in good order. Here I am thinking above all of plein air painters but it applies to photographers and sketchers as well. This is another instance in which a minute or two of preparation can make all the difference.

I should also mention that we painters should think carefully about our paints. Personally, I will not use oil paints in certain parts of bear country. Bears are particularly attracted to the smell of fats and oils, and where bears reside I will only use oil paints in areas that I am confident they rarely visit. When in doubt, I decide against the use of oils. I am not so concerned about watercolors and acrylics (except perhaps those watercolors that use honey as a binder), but even then I take time to consider their appropriateness. Sometimes I just draw and photograph, even though I’d love to paint.

In closing, I hope that while trying to encourage vigilance I have not encouraged chronic fear. Bears have brought me some of the best experiences of my life, and I am convinced to my marrow that bear viewing, when done intelligently and responsibly, is a positive force for their protection. In fact I think that it has become an essential one. Finding a balance point between caution and appreciation takes many years (at least it has for me), and I doubt that any of us ever become perfect at it. Fortunately, the majority of bears in the majority of instances are tolerant of our human foibles. They are usually willing to give us room to learn, especially if we are willing to keep our wits about us, give them some space, and show them the respect they deserve.

Extra Resources

National Park Service: Staying Safe Around Bears

Alaska Department of Natural Resources – Division of Parks & Outdoor Recreation: Bears and You

The Get Bear Smart Society: Bear Encounters

About The Author

Carl Ramm is a wildlife artist and naturalist who has spent most of his life in Alaska. Learn more about Carl’s art in the interview, “Naturalist Sketching in the Wild” by fellow artist Carol Lambert.

Carl spends his summer months as a bear tech managing brown bears at Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park. To find out more about his expert knowledge of bear safety, listen to the podcast, “Bear Management with Carl Ramm” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts.

Carl lives in King Salmon, with his wife, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Refuge Manager Susan Alexander, far from the contiguous road system in the Alaska Peninsula.

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