I thought and thought about what I could possibly say about bears that was original to me. I didn’t want to write about what someone else learned about bears and publish it as my discovery after finding out about it, but I failed to learn something that only I knew about bears. So what follows came from Moon Alaska and was apparently learned by Lisa Maloney. Lisa lives in Anchorage and writes about Alaska for Moon and other publications. She has probably seen wild bears on many occasions.
I have had close bear encounters two times. Neither was personally threatening. What was threatening was a film I saw in Canada about bear attacks. It was so vivid that I hoped never to have a similar encounter while by myself. The film really frightened me. I have put myself in harm’s way repeatedly over the years but have been lucky not to have had an actual face to face with a bear. I have never met one in the wild even though I have been to Kodiak Island and other places in Alaska where they live. I have talked to people who have seen them accidentally and never want to be confronted with a bear. My 2 meetings with real bears were encounter enough to last a lifetime and not make me crave another.
Ruth and I accidentally saw a bear family crossing a road up on Mount Rainier once. It was an unforgettable experience but short-lived. Another time I watched for hours in the town of Aspen, CO while a trapped bear tried to decide whether or not to cause an incident at a weekly market. He decided not to cause a problem and leapt toward a honey display without actually scoring food. He climbed a tree near the booth and stayed for hours. The police tried to get the gathered crowd to leave the bear alone and go get lunch instead, but no one paid any attention to his request to leave. I was included among those who stayed to see what would happen. This was not among my proudest moments. I deserved to have a genuine bear encounter but did not.
What I learned from Lisa is that there are basically 3 types of bears in Alaska: black, brown, and grizzly. People associate bears with this state and actually hope for an encounter. It’s the one animal they hope to see there, but most don’t. Ruth and I have seen foxes and elk and other large animals in the wild but not bears. I am really glad to have avoided such an encounter and, after seeing the movie in Canada, am very glad to have avoided such. They can weigh up to 350 pounds and can be mean to humans they meet. Blacks are fine climbers so scurrying up a tree is no solution, and they can run up to 35 mph for short times. They are usually encountered by humans while they are foraging for berries or salmon and we spot them.
What Lisa told me is that black bears are not always black. They can even be white like polar bears. Relying on color is to cause trouble for yourself. There are upwards of 100,000 black bears in Alaska, so seeing one is not unreasonable. A more reliable guide to which type of bear you have met are face and body shape. Black bears have prominent ears and long, straight noses. They also lack a pronounced shoulder hump that can be seen always on a brown or a grizzly. Can you imagine checking out a bear for its type under any circumstance? Meeting a brown bear on Kodiak or near Nome is actually less likely than not. Browns and grizzlys are the same type of bear, and meeting any of these three is to be avoided whenever possible. More about bears coming up later.