Bear Aware on the West Coast Trail
Bears on the West Coast Trail are rare. The few that you do see will likely be near dawn or dusk foraging for food and will scamper off once they do see you. Early in the year hikes can be a little more dangerous for bear encounters if it’s a mother and cub but for the most part bears are few and far between. They do demand your attention and the less attractive you make the camping spots and trail for foraging the less likely they will venture into your way.
Black bear near the Nit Nat Narrows in 2009
Some things to remember:
- pack out all garbage and extra food
- store food away from the camping sites in the bear boxes or hanging from a tree
- make noise every so often while hiking
- reduce the amount of flavourful scents you wear
Go here for a great resource on being bear aware
I had a chance to talk with Dennis Kravetz and he recounted a great storey about meeting up with a bear during on of his hikes. It is recounted here.
I live in Arizona and go hiking every weekend without exception. I hike summit trails where I wind up at the top of a mountain, enjoy the views, and then come back down again. This has been a regular activity for 8 years which is when I moved to Arizona and I did the same sporadically over the prior 15 years as a vacationer in the state.
One of my favorite hikes is Madera Canyon, a site in a state park of the same name about 30 miles south of Tucson. I like to climb Mt. Wrightson there, a 9500 foot peak. The trail that takes you to the top (Bull Pass) starts at about 5000 feet, so the elevation gain is 4500 feet. The roundtrip hike is 11 miles. It is rugged and demanding but that is exactly what I like.
In 2009 I had completed about 9.5 of the 11 miles of the hike and the trail at this point is downhill and built into the side of a mountain which slopes sharply from your left to your right when you are returning on the trail. While many people envision Arizona as only cactus and desert, at the higher altitudes such as here there are Juniper trees, and Aspen and Pine trees in addition to many bushes and other plants. The area where I was at had many trees and plants. Going off the trail would be difficult particularly with the sharp slope and dense foliage. I was alone on this particular hike.
As I approached a bend in the trail I could not see around the corner given the heavy foliage. After taking two steps into the bend I came to an abrupt halt and stopped right in my tracks. Standing within two feet of me (yes, I could have reached out and touched him) was a large black bear. The bear was standing on his two rear legs, not a good sign, and looking at me over his right shoulder. He was about 7 feet tall on his hind legs and was standing right in the middle of the trail.
I’m not sure who was more spooked, me or the bear. Time slows down when you experience a more startling or traumatic event and we both stared at each other for about 12-15 seconds but it seemed like two or three minutes. Rather than panic, my brain immediately went to work as I tried to think of how to get out of the situation. I could not walk around the bear, and if I did, would be directly behind him, and he might interpret that as an attack. I couldn’t go off trail given the density of the brush and the sharp slope. And there was always the chance that this bear was a female (I couldn’t tell because it wasn’t wearing heels or a skirt) protecting some cubs who were further along the trail. If this were the case I would be directly between the adult and the cubs, about the worst situation to be in.I recalled from hiking and survival guides that noises might scare some bears. However I thought that being so close would cause the bear to interpret noise as part of an attack. I knew that to turn and run was one of the worst things to do since bears are not normally inclined to attack people but a fleeing person might cause their instincts to take over and they give chase with bad results for the human being. Needless to say having a bear standing erect and not budging is very bad particularly when you are this close.I knew that my next best option was merely to back up maintaining eye contact all the way and this is what I did. I stopped about 50 feet behind where the bear was. I could hear the bear going down the sharp slope to my right as he scraped against the bushes and was guessing that he might be getting a drink of water from the creek at the bottom of the slope. I decided not to continue on the trail just then because there was always the chance that there were trailing cubs further ahead. I stayed put and took off my backpack to get out a knife, then put the backpack back on.
I decided that should the bear reappear and approach aggressively I would go to my hands and knees, another thing I knew that from hiking guides that would discourage bears from attacking you. If the bear attacked repeatedly I was going to jump up and use the knife, preferring to go out fighting rather than just lie there and get mauled. The bear reappeared from my right about 20 feet ahead of me. However the bear seemed like we were old friends and did not get on his hind legs or approach me directly. He continued to cross the trail heading uphill from my right to my left. I saw no reason to drop to my hands and knees so I merely stood there and carefully watched him. When he was 100-200 feet away, I then continued ahead on the trail and all was well for the rest of my hike.I am actively involved in wildlife conservation and am on a zoo board for the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and also a member of the Phoenix Zoo. I have visited about 30-40 zoos in the U.S. and had wondered if I was ever this close to a bear, albeit with a glass wall in between us. I could not think of being this close to a bear and two feet is VERY close particularly when there is nothing in between.
Reading those hiking guides paid off for me. I now laugh when I tell others about the encounter. It was a potentially very dangerous situation that turned out well.
P.S. In case you want to know about me, I am a psychologist who runs a human resources consulting firm that is named Kravetz Associates (www.kravetz.com). However I spend most of my time these days writing non-fiction. I released two books in the past three months, The Directory for Building Competencies and The Competence Expert. They are available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. I recently finished a book on healthy living entitled A Sound Mind in a Sound Body: Live Long, Live Healthy that is currently being read by publishers.