Posted: Sun Jun. 11, 2006 8:20 am
Bear country need not be a death trap for runners
By CRAIG MEDRED
Anchorage Daily News
Published: June 11, 2006
Last Modified: June 11, 2006 at 03:37 AM
I have a confession; I've been running in bear country again.
I know, a bunch of people who study bears say this is bad. We heard it again when runner Michael Mungoven stumbled into a sow grizzly near Anchor Point at the end of May and got chewed up. He survived, as do most bear attack victims, but still there were the warnings:
Don't run in bear country. You'll surprise a bear. The bear will attack you. You could be killed.
Yes this could happen. Lots of things could happen. The Earth could be struck by an asteroid killing us all while we are safely locked in our homes watching TV and waiting for heart disease to kill us.
But let's be real for a minute.
According to David Ropeik, the director of risk communication at the Harvard School of Public Health, and George Gray -- who together wrote "Risk: A Practical Guide to Deciding What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You" -- the chances of anyone being attacked by bear are 1 in 410,000.
The chances of being killed are even smaller: 1 in 1.2 million.
You are more than 4,600 times as likely to be killed or seriously injured in an automobile accident than to be attacked by a bear, let alone killed by one.
Whether runners increase the minimal odds of bear attack is, of course, a topic that can be debated.
On the one hand, runners are covering ground faster than hikers, which makes it harder for runners to assess their surroundings with eyes, ears and noses.
On the other hand, runners make more noise puffing and thumping through the woods than do people out for a walk. The thunder of size-10 Nikes on the ground might be enough to make some bears flee in panic. I have witnessed bears abandoning Raven Creek Valley as the Crow Pass Crossing foot race progresses down a trail through the alders, willows and head-high grass.
And if rumbling through bear country at some speed really is more dangerous than tiptoeing through slowly, you'd think mountain bikers would be the people getting mauled. They seem like perfect candidates.
They're often going fast down wilderness trails. They're usually on rough terrain that demands so much concentration there's no time to be looking around for bears or sign of bears. And they sometimes make precious little noise.
Because of these things, mountain bikers have been known to maul bears instead of vice-versa.
Several bears have been hit by mountain bikers at Whistler-Blackcomb, the big ski resort outside Vancouver, British Columbia. The resort heavily promotes downhill mountain biking. Downhill mountain bikers rocketing onto trails through the berry patches have surprised and then collided with bears.
There are no reports of mountain bikers T-boning bears in Alaska, though it could happen. One of my neighbors confessed he almost hit a bear on a steep and narrow trail last year. I know other mountain bikers who have had close calls.
But there are precious few reports of bears attacking mountain bikers. U.S. Geological Survey bear research biologist Tom Smith maintains a database of Alaska bear attacks. The last time we talked about bear attacks and mountain bikers earlier this year, he could find only one account.
That's right. Despite all those mountain bikers, only one of them has managed to find trouble. I have a theory as to why.
A mountain biker, standing over the handlebars several feet above the ground, must look pretty intimidating to a bear. Any bear sensing this large creature coming down the trail at speed is likely to flee in fear.
That's part of the reason I'm now just as likely to get my exercise mountain biking in bear country than running in bear country, although a bigger part of the reason is that I can go faster on a mountain bike, and I like going fast.
I also like to make note of the people I sometimes see out running when I'm riding in bear country. People such as biologist Jessy Coltrane of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game; she's one of the people charged with dealing with local problem bears. Or Jerry Lewanski, the director of the state Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, who dealt with bears for years, first as chief ranger for Chugach State Park and then as park superintendent.
They don't seem particularly concerned about running in bear country, but then it's really not the running that's the problem. It's the situational awareness. The people with bear knowledge run in wild places where they are less likely to run into bears.
They know you can walk into bear problems just as easily as you can run into them. They understand you can increase your chances of bear problems by putting yourself in areas where bears concentrate. They recognize you can raise your chances of surprising a bear by quietly sneaking into thick cover.
The latter is likely the reason Smith's data shows hunters are the people most often attacked by bears. They go sneaking around in bear country, and they surprise bears.
I know. I've been there.
I was moose hunting years ago when I ended up in close proximity to a grizzly sow and cubs. She charged. I hesitated to shoot, thinking she was bluffing. She wasn't. She ran me over, knocked me down, and grabbed me by the ankle.
At that point, I shot her. It is an experience I have no desire to replay.
So these days, if I'm running in country with fresh bear sign -- new scat, bear beds, fresh tracks in mud, that sort of thing -- I usually grab a can of pepper spray and the dogs. The latter are early-warning indicators. Their noses and ears detect things before mine. If they go suddenly alert, I take it as a sign I should do likewise.
The pepper spray is in case another bear ever charges. Pepper spray is not a perfect weapon. A strong argument can still be made that a firearm is better.
But the pepper spray is lighter and easier to carry, fits in the hand much like a relay baton when running, doesn't freak out people you meet on trails around the edge of the city, and can -- if need be -- teach a lesson to a loose dog just as easily as to a bear.
And according to Ropeik and Gray, you're about twice as likely to be attacked by that dog.
Posted: Sun Jun. 11, 2006 10:13 am
Lovin this article as well Dan. Keep posting them.
I tend to agree with the Author but with one caveat, I think you are twice as likely to run into wildlife on the trail while mtbing especially when riding alone, because you definitely sneak up on them, but when they see you barreling down the trail at them in close proximity with a high rate of speed, I've seen very few animals not flee for their lives.
Posted: Sun Jun. 11, 2006 11:24 am
Moose, Bear, Deer, Turkeys, Fox, Porcupines, Skunk, Squirrels, and at least one snake are some of the animals I've nearly collided or just scared off, and I think I've actually hit you Dan although perhaps you weren't laying in the trail at the time, but I think you were shortly after.