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On Being “Bear Aware”

black bears in Oregon

June 1, 2014 – Gary Lewis, Guest Blogger

On being “Bear Aware”

Bear hunting Oregon

Photo by Kathleen G. Nelson

We were in Idaho last week where the arrowleaf balsamroot was in bloom. I recalled what our guide told us in the breaks of the Salmon River. “The Indians knew when the bears were out of their dens by watching the arrowleaf blossom.”

It is that time of year when we should be “Bear Aware.” We are reminded of this when we go into an interpretive center, which is a fancy term for a place where they tell you how to think. In fact, there is a whole department at USDA Headquarters in Washington DC that does nothing but develop important pamphlets for distribution to first-time campers.

You might assume that Forest Service personnel spend a lot of time with bears. Too bad it’s so difficult getting the bears to travel to our Federal seat of government. It is surprising to learn that there is so much bear scat in a place frequented so rarely by bruins.

Black bear in Oregon

Photo Credit: Flickr user alltheparks

A lot of people do not understand why they need to be bear aware. Let me tell you why. Biologists say there are 660,000 bears alive on this continent. The thing you want to avoid is confrontations with bears.

Let’s examine an important document soon to be updated by the experts back East. The first thing they tell you is to avoid a bear’s personal space. News flash: Bears do not have personal space. Only persons have personal space. However, bears do have a big black space inside them for persons. That is what you want to avoid.

A lot of people point out that the chance of being eaten by a bear is about one in 100 million. This is true, especially if you live in Washington DC. If you live on Kodiak or hike the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the statistics tend to skew in favor of the sharp-toothed critter.

One of the wrinkles that confuse the first-timer is how to react when a bear is encountered. Let me help sort this out. If you are attacked by a brown bear, play dead. If you are attacked by a black bear, fight back. Brown bears want to kill their food. Black bears prefer food that is already dead. Simple right?

black bears in OregonThere is a problem. Some black bears are brown and some brown bears are almost black. You have to look for the hump – brown bears have a hump. To further add to a novice outdoorsman’s angst, a black bear could be an albino, which could be confused for a polar bear. It turns out that you should never leave your toothpaste in your tent in polar bear country. They have a weakness for toothpaste. Be sure to leave it at home and schedule a dental visit for the week you get back. If you make it back.

Here’s another way to tell the various bears apart. Smell their breath. A black bear’s breath might smell like huckleberries, while a polar bear’s might smell like Colgate. A brown bear’s breath is likely to smell like tie dye.

Another recommendation from the Federal government suggests polar bear avoidance requires specialized equipment. The pamphlet fails to mention what kind of equipment. I’m thinking maybe a cruise ship.

According to the statistics, three persons are likely to be consumed by bears this year. That is why, if you go into the wilds where a bear may be encountered, you should bring a can of pepper spray, also called capsicum in some parts of the country. In Alaska, they call it seasoning. Still, the chance of being eaten by a bear is so small you could put a tail on it and call it a flagellum.

Oregon Black bear hunting Oregon outdoor councilThe average reporter would end this story here, but, as has been pointed out by not a few readers and a number of educators, I am less than average. While working on this article, I uncovered a little known piece of evolutionary trivia.

Scientists who study the spending habits of a profligate congress and write for grants from Washington have determined – I am not making this up – that the grizzly bear, the human and the Peking duck all evolved from a creature called Casidinanerphalls, which sounds like a town in Minnesota.

We were all the size of mice and had to evolve to keep from being eaten by cats which were the size of cats. What happened, the lucky grant writers tell us is that over a period of a trillion years, some of the tiny bears began to catch prehistoric miniature salmon with their mouths while other little bears made tiny fishing rods and still other bears sprouted feathers and dove beneath the surface.

Eating all those little salmon helped us to grow into big bears and humans while the feathered rodent bears burned up all their energy flying south every fall. It was all very confusing and many a family reunion was ruined when a human tried to eat a duck or a bear gobbled up a human.

Maybe you still get frightened when you think about bears. Perhaps you remember the movie, The Edge, where a brown bear stalked Anthony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin and Harold Perrineau through the wilderness. It turns out that the vicious bear was not vicious after all, but a tame Kodiak brownie named Bart who survived to play in a number of movies in which an Alec Baldwin character was not killed. Pity.

Gary Lewis Oregon Outdoor Council
Gary Lewis

 About Gary:
Gary Lewis was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest and has been running rivers and walking forest trails for as long as he can remember. He is a hunting and fishing TV show host and an award-winning newspaper columnist for The Bend Bulletin. He has published 13 books, written hundreds of magazine articles and appeared in three DVDs.

His newest book “A Bear Hunter’s Guide to the Universe, Crazy tales from Uncle Geddy and the Bear Mountain Gang” is available on his website here (