Close encounters of the grizzly kind (or, how to survive a bear attack)

As bear populations make a comeback, many of the same issues that initially helped cement their decline are rearing their ugly head once more. Namely unfortunate human-bear encounters.

Yet despite the gnarly attack stories making headlines, including some stories we’ve covered here at Love Nature, most bears want nothing to do with people. In fact, they usually tend to try and stay clear of us.

But as both our populations grow and expand, the chances of running into one another become much greater. And in many instances, bear country is the same type of habitat favourable for human habitation, or so breathtaking it lures us in.

So what advice should explorers, hikers, and nature enthusiasts keep in mind next time they enter the forest to help protect both themselves and bears? And what can be done in the worst case scenario, when a bear won’t back down?

Love Nature caught up with a few experts, whose jobs often put them in close contact with bears. We also checked in with a man who not only survived one of the most rare of all bear attacks in a remote part of Canada, but came back for more, revisiting the scene of his trauma a year later.

Bear safety 101

Most bear attacks are the result of bad timing—when a bear is caught unaware, especially when cubs or a kill is near by. Others generally involve an ill bear, plagued by a mentally disorientating disease like rabies.

While each species is a bit different in temperament there are some general rules to follow to help prevent encounters.

The first thing to consider is that most bears don’t want to eat you. Paige Davidson of Montana Grizzly Encounter, says the animals in their neck of the woods, black, brown, and grizzly bears, are true omnivores, more than 90 per cent of their foodstuff coming from non-animal sources.

‘In no way is it normal for a grizzly or brown bear to see humans as food,’ Davidson says. ‘And only around their cubs do they become truly territorial. But they will defend their young no matter what, even against a male bear twice their size or more.’

This truth explains the reasoning behind a lot of the basic bear precautions, which centre around ensuring the animals know you’re in the area, and a human, not another bear.

Ellie Archer, director of community outreach with the Get Bear Smart Society, says bear-to-bear combat is fairly frequent. A lot of times when a bear attacks a human, they’ve actually mistaken them for an imposing bear.

According to all the experts interviewed, the first step to making sure you’re not mistaken for a bear is being loud.

‘Anytime you’re in bear land you are trying to let the bears you’re there,’ Archer says. ‘This means talking loudly, in noises that are clearly of human-only origin, not screams or shouts that could be mistaken for other forest critters.’

Davidson says this can be a surprisingly tricky task when hiking alone, which is in itself never recommended. She suggests listening to music and singing, as long as you’re not using headphones. Archer adds to listen for snaps, like breaking branches, because chances are you’ve got a bear nearby.

Places bears might be grazing, hunting, or caring for their young are areas to keep especially alert. Water features of any kind draw bears. And grizzly’s tend to like wide open fields, meaning when they’re faced with an intruder they’re more likely to try and stand their ground, recognising they’ve got essentially no where to hide.

Davidson recommends keeping away from scented products of any kind, given grizzly bears can track a smell from three miles away or more. ‘If you smell good, a bear may be tempted to see if you taste as good as you smell,’ says Davidson.

When it comes to packing your gear, every expert had the same advice—bear spray, bear spray, bear spray. Bring at least one, if not two, containers. Archer says having two means you have a way to both deter the bear initially and another for your escape.

And keep the spray cans holstered to your hip or near your hands at all times, safety off. ‘There’s no time for reaching in your bag when a full sized grizzly is charging you,’ says Davidson.

Species differences

Grizly Bears at Katmai National Park, Alaska, USA Photo by: Gleb Tarro / Shutterstock
Grizly Bears at Katmai National Park, Alaska, USA
Photo by: Gleb Tarro / Shutterstock

When considering how best to handle yourself around bears, its critical to know the species you’re working with. Some easy to distinguish traits can be found here.

If a bear doesn’t respond to the noisy-human routine, the course of action varies. Black bears are generally more skittish than their relatives, but if they don’t back off, Davidson recommends making yourself look as big as possible by waving your arms or spreading out a jacket. And no matter what, keep trying to talk to the bear calmly.

Archer says most black bears will flee up a tree if they get a chance, and if they can’t, fall back to elaborate bluffs in hopes of scaring you off. A bluff involves swatting the ground, snorting, and making false charges, she explains. ‘This is bear-language for “You’re close enough”.’

Unlike black bears, which can be carefully coached away from camps, you don’t want to take on a brown bear unless there’s no other option. Avoiding eye contact with brown bears is key because they view this as a challenge, Davidson explains. The best thing to do if you come across one in close quarters is to keep calmly talking to the bear, look to the side but still keeping it in eyesight, and slowly back away.

While incredibly rare, if either a black or brown bear does seem intent on physical contact, stand your ground. Use your bear spray when the animal is 20 to 30 feet away, aiming for the eyes and nose. ‘If the bear spray isn’t enough, give it all you’ve got using whatever weapons you can find, aiming for the eyes, nose and mouth,’ says Davidson.

Grizzly behaviour can be trickier to figure out. A bear may be acting defensively because cubs are close by or they’re protecting food. Young males may even approach humans testing their dominance.

Archer says if a grizzly seems aggressive and comes close, look it in the eye yell ‘Get out of here bear!’

Look for rocks to throw at the animal, or large sticks that act as a weapon. Bear spray can be useful at this stage.

If all else fails and the grizzly makes contact, play dead. Roll over on your stomach and try to cover your neck and the back of your head. Keep your legs and elbows wide to make yourself harder to flip over. Once the bear has lost interest, stay entirely still until you’re sure it’s gone. If at any point the bear begins to eat you, or the attack is prolonged, switch strategies and fight for your life.

Truly seeing bears

Like humans, personality varies from bear to bear. Archer leads visitors on guided tours into bear zones in remote British Columbia. People travel from all over the world to experience the region’s grizzly and black bears first hand.

‘I know there are some bears that recognise me, and some will sort of come to hang out when I’m in the forest with guest,’ she says. ‘We even have bears who leave their cubs with us while they go hunting in the nearby stream. It’s a deep sense of trust between species that are really not that different.’

Archer leads groups of four to six individuals through ancient bear trails, not necessarily aiming for a direct encounter. She explains stressing bears out or imposing on their space is the furthest from her intention. Viewing bears is preferably done without the bear’s knowledge, but when encounters do happen, she doesn’t shy away from them outright.

Why taken people to see bears? Archer says the motivation is two-fold. In her experience, it only takes one positive experience with people to guide a bear’s perspective of our species for life. The same goes for humans.

‘When people send time with these animals they see their true nature. Most leave amazed at how incredibly gentle and peaceful grizzlies are in real life,’ says Archer. ‘They take this experience home with them.’

The polar bear man

Photo by chbaum / Shutterstock
Photo by chbaum / Shutterstock

Matthew Dyer is a lawyer by trade, but says he’s never felt comfortable bound-up indoors.

‘I don’t feel I’m out of the ordinary,’ he says matter of factly. ‘We all like to be out in nature, I just find it especially spiritual.’

When Dyer saw an ad in the 2012 fall issue of Sierra magazine for a trip through the Torngat Mountains National Park, just south of the Arctic circle in Labrador, Canada, he knew this would be the trip of a lifetime. Initially turned down by the team leaders due to his lack of experience, Dyer spent months training, eventually winning their approval.

Sierra Club leaders did all the negotiating, Dyer explains. The team planned to spend two weeks in the park. A small plane dropped them off from basecamp, and a second drop off, of food supplies, was scheduled half way through their journey.

Dyer says he’d seen black bears and grizzly before, but the Torngat’s house a different species altogether— polar bears.

Gary Baikie, Superintendent at Torngat Mountains National Park, explains the park, sitting on recognized Inuit homeland and staffed entirely by those of Inuit descent, is home to a unique and stunning array of wildlife. There are plenty of boreal and arctic critters that draw visitors to the park, like mass colonies of nesting seabirds, foxes, wolves, caribou, arctic hare and even lemmings. But Baikie says there is resident in particular that you need to be aware of at all times.

‘Of course we want people to act in a way that is respectful to all animals, which means keeping a safe distance and your eyes and ears open,’ he says. ‘But polar bears are true carnivores, and while unlikely, they are an animal that will indeed stalk and hunt humans.’

Dyer says their team brought basic bear precautions—bear spray, noisemakers, and an electric perimeter fence to surround their tents at night. But soon into the hike they spotted a polar bear clearly watching the camp, even lolling his tongue about in the air, getting their scent. He says everyone became pretty uncomfortable and knew this wasn’t a good thing. Their trip leader set off a flare, which drove the bear off. But he didn’t go far, perching on a rock to watch their camp. It was an anxious, long, night, Dyer says.

‘I don’t think any of us had any experience with polar bears,’ he says. ‘And looking at the size of that electric fence versus the animal…I didn’t have much hope it would stand a chance.’

The next morning the team was relieved to find the bear was gone. The weather was terrible, cold, windy, and wet. They decided not to break camp and head inland as planned.

‘Nothing seemed out of the norm that night,’ Dyer says. ‘But around 3am I woke up for whatever the reason. And when I opened my eyes I could see the outline of a bear’s forearm over me. I recall yelling ‘bear in camp!’ and almost instantly he was on me.’

The bear took to pummelling Dyer, trying to drag him out of the tent. He went for his head, at which point Dyer tried to cover his face, resulting in a crushed hand. Eventually the bear got a grasp and with brute strength tore him free. Intertwined, the pair fell backwards onto the ground.

‘The force was tremendous, I think that’s when my lung likely collapsed. He had my head clamped in his massive jaw, from left temple to right jaw, and began dragging me full speed,’ says Dyer. At this point he felt his vertebrate brake. ‘I remember thinking there was no hope for me, this was the end. I could smell his breath, which was pretty bad, and I began to wonder what it’d be like to be dead.’

Dyer says he had no pain in the moment. And surprisingly, no ill will towards the bear. He realized that he was being taken to the river, away from the group, just as the bear would do with a seal. He had resigned himself to his fate.

But Dyer was heavy prey, even for the massive polar bear. And his team was hot on his trail, albeit by this point assuming they were trying to save his corpse. Team leader Rich Gross shot off a flare, causing the bear to drop Dyer and run off, but not far. Soon the bear turned and was heading back towards Dyer’s near-lifeless body. Gross shot off another flare. This time the deterrent was enough.

Dyer says his recollection of the events that followed are blurrier. By an act of fate, one of their team members was a physician, Rick Isenberg, who got Dyer into a stable enough condition to be transported. Early that morning Dyer was taken by helicopter to George River Clinic, which he describes as ‘seriously tiny’. Everyone was extremely kind, Dyer recalls. The medics tried their best to patch him up, prepping him to be taken to larger hospital.

‘I remember everyone was so worried about my neck, which was a mess of ripped up veins and such, but breathing was becoming harder and harder,’ says Dyer. ‘I tried to tell them my neck’s OK, help me breathe!’

The next thing Dyer recalls is waking up in a Montreal hospital, his wife at his side. It took months of physical therapy for Dyer to recover. Yet amidst all this, he keep a level head about what happened, even gaining a sense of kinship with the bear.

‘I knew I was just a piece of food and he [the bear] was hungry,’ says Dyer. ‘I was the one that went there, he didn’t come to me. I eat meat and I don’t hate the things I eat. It’s just the course of nature.’

Bear attack survivor Matt Dyer breathes the fresh air of the High Sierra. Photo by JAKE ABRAHAMSON /
Bear attack survivor Matt Dyer breathes the fresh air of the High Sierra. Photo by JAKE ABRAHAMSON /

A sensational fluke

The staff at Torngats go to great lengths to warn visitor about the potential problems with polar bears. Baikie says before heading out hikers are required to watch a polar bear safety video.

‘The video helps give people a sense of polar bear behaviour, which is quite different from other types of bears people are more accustomed to,’ says Baikie. ‘We want everyone in the park to have some idea of the bear’s physical cues and what they mean.’

Baikie explains a threatened polar bear will sometimes hiss, or put their head down and make a bluff charge. Others will simply growl and keep you in sight as they pass.

Aside from being keen to polar bear behaviour, Baikie says the moment hikers are dropped off they’re told to move inland at least 10 kilometres. Most of the bear’s life is spent on the coast, close to their major food sources like seal and fish. Hikers are also advised to take great care when setting up camp, ensuring the electric perimeter fence surrounds it fully. And of course multiple cans of bear spray, kept within immediate hands reach, is crucial.

The Torngat’s team has one more or less surefire trick up their sleeve to keep visitors, and polar bears, safe.

‘I cannot talk enough about the benefits of hiring one of our bear guides,’ says Baikie, certified Inuit staff that carry loaded guns. ‘Not only do bear guides provide hiker’s a piece of mind, they also greatly enhance the experience with their knowledge of the terrain, local history, and legend.’

Bear bangers and screamers, pyrotechnic-like explosives that are fired out of a special shotgun or pistol, are bear guard’s first line of defence. Baikie says he’s seen these tools in action and they’re highly effective. Putting down a bear is a last resort, but if an animal is extremely aggressive they will. Luckily for everyone involved, given Baikie says polar bear encounters occur on a pretty much daily basis and the animals live in the park year round, this doesn’t happen often.

Dyer’s case was a rare and sensational fluke, there’s no way around it. He says looking back on the trip, there are things that may have prevented it. The decision to spend another day in camp, instead of heading inland, was likely their biggest mistake. But he doesn’t spend a lot of time regretting the past.

Just a year after the attack, Dyer returned to Torngat with those who saved his life—compliments VICE and InsideClimate News.

‘I don’t dwell on what happened. Places like the Torngats need to be keep wild not just for animals, but also for us humans,’ says Dyer. ‘My major message to people is not to freak out, fearful over what may or may not happen in life. Just get out there and live it.’


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Want to learn more about bears? We’ve got a great selection of natural history documentaries on the subject, including Evolution of the Polar Bear, now streaming on the Love Nature app—for the best on demand natural history programming out there. Sign up today for your 30-day free trial.


1802596Evolution of the Polar Bear

As arctic temperatures rise, polar bears are faced with the increasingly difficult challenge of finding new territory to hunt and survive. As contact with brown bears and grizzlies become more frequent occurrences, inter-species breeding may be the key for polar bears to survive the rapidly deteriorating climate.