I started back toward camp in lengthening shadows. With the slippery going along that narrow, loose-cobbled beach near the Hubbard Glacier, I was focused more on my feet than the brushy cut bank a few yards to my right. Weaving toward the bank to get around a scattering of boulders, I glanced through a break in the alders, up into the eyes of a female grizzly and her yearling cub. Twenty yards, maybe less—so close I could see her nostrils quivering.
I’d first spotted those same bears a few hours earlier, browsing on Indian celery, aware of my presence 200 yards away but unconcerned. I returned the favor by not crowding them—a typical, polite human- bear interaction, like many I’ve enjoyed over the years. The little female and her kid had faded into the brush, apparently headed in the opposite direction I planned to travel, and I’d gone back to taking pictures of the calving glacier. Now, here they were, way too close for comfort—mine, for sure, but far more importantly, theirs.
Bears hate surprises—female grizzlies with cubs, most of all. More than one third of all Alaska bear maulings are a result of female brown/grizzlies (two names for the identical species, Ursus arctos) engaging in cub defense—sudden, usually close-range attacks to neutralize perceived threats against their young. It’s a genetically ingrained survival strategy that reflects the two to three years needed to raise a cub to independence, and the low survival rate in a world where dominant males kill cubs whenever they can. Only one bear in 10 lives to breeding age.
The good news is, mother bears don’t want trouble. If they sense an oncoming threat from either bear or human soon enough, the vast majority will gather their young and scram. Those fierce attacks are only a last defensive resort. In the words of bear biologist Derek Stonorov, browns or grizzlies “are always on the ragged edge of leaving.” Channeling that mindset is the key to staying safe. Make plenty of noise as you hike—sing, make periodic, low shouts, wear bells on your pack harness. Remember, too, that bears are intimidated by size and numbers; tight-knit groups of four or more are virtually never attacked. Carrying pepper-based bear spray in an instantly accessible holster or pocket adds a measure of safety greater than carrying a firearm.
So there I stood, a poster child for risky bear behavior: traveling alone, quietly and without backup; I’d lent my bear spray to an inexperienced member of our party. I hadn’t done my part, and the bear had every right to bowl me over.
The vast majority of charges stop short of contact. Some experts call them bluffs; others say that a charge is a charge and what happens next depends on you, the bear and the situation. The standard advice is to face the bear and stand your ground to avoid stimulating a chasing reflex, as you would with a dog. If the bear makes contact, drop and play dead, with arms protecting neck and ears and knees drawn up. Even if you do get taken down, the odds of walking away with relatively minor injuries are good, as the female will usually retreat with her babies once a perceived threat has ceased.
All well and good but not that reassuring with an incoming momma grizzly three seconds from impact. She reared on her hind legs, waved her front paws and roared like a Hollywood bear, and sure enough, charged. My next move was more reflex than decision, and if I had the chance, I’d do it again. I ducked below the five-foot-high cut bank and scooted parallel to it rather than away from the bear, vanishing from her sight as suddenly as I’d appeared. As I sprinted, I was totally ready for the slamming impact, the hot breath, the teeth, and tucking up into that protective ball and hanging on. But the attack never came. I walked down the beach toward camp in the twilight, grateful for the kindness of bears—not the first time, and probably not the last.