Bear necessities: Outdoors enthusiasts need to be careful

Posted: Friday, May 23, 2003

Many relish the experience of spending time in the great outdoors by hiking, backpacking and camping. However, there is much to be aware besides the perfect way to build a s'more.

Spending time in the wilderness of Alaska also brings with it the inherent possibility of bears, and knowing what to do, and what not to do, in bear country can often mean the difference between carefree fun outing or a brush with death.

"This is a dangerous time to hike and camp," said Dr. Stephen Stringham. Stringham has more than 30 years experience working with bears in Alaska, conducting much of his field research from less than 10 yards away from wild bears.

"There's not much food available, sows have cubs and are defensive of them, and boars look to mate in May and June and are therefore more aggressive," he said.

Stringham explained bears are just coming out of hibernation and are hungry for food. However, salmon haven't run yet and berries aren't available, so the bears are still losing weight.

This can make a dangerous combination when paired with outdoor enthusiasts and their camp food cuisine. Bears like camp food and can smell it miles away, but there are things which can be done to minimize the chance of battling a bruin for your bagels.

"The main thing we recommend to everyone is to keep a clean campsite," said Jim Hall, deputy refuge manager at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. "Keeping a clean campsite is a standard safety procedure."

When possible, it's best to choose a campsite with good visibility so bears can be seen approaching from a distance and they can see you. Also, avoid sites that would be popular bear feeding sites, such as near salmon streams or berry bushes.

When a potential site is selected, inspect the area for signs of bear activity, such as paw prints or scat. Also, avoid sites with messy human activity. It does little good to be safe and clean if the people who camped there the night before were careless and left food scraps and garbage strewn about.

It's sound advice to avoid cooking in the same place sleeping will occur. It's best to choose a spot to cook at least 100 yards downwind from a selected tent sites.

Another solution may be to make dinner earlier in the evening, and then continue to trek a few more miles before setting up camp.

Whichever option is chosen, all remaining food should be either hung, or stored in bear proof bags or canisters, also 100 yards away from sleeping areas, and preferably away from where the evening meal was prepared.

Stored food can be sealed in plastic bags to minimize odors.

It's also important to remember that bears are attracted to anything with scent, so food-related garbage such as bags and wrappers, as well as things like toothpaste, deodorant, or any other aromatic items should also be secured with the food.

Another hint to reducing the chances of bear interactions is to minimize food prep time and mess. This can be done by using freeze-dried meals that only require mixing with boil water directly in the food bag. This means no pots or pans and very little cooking time, thus reducing the odor that could chum in nearby bears.

If cooking is preferred, then one-pot cooking is the best bet. Fewer pots mean fewer dishes to clean, especially if eating directly from the pot. If dishwater contains food waste, filter it through a nylon stocking or small mesh strainer, and hang the strainer with the food.

Drain cooking liquid, such as water to boil rice or pasta, 100 yards away from camp. Never burn or bury garbage, pack out what gets packed in.

It's also a good idea to change clothes from the ones that were worn while cooking. Washing your hands and face well after cooking can further eliminate food odor.

Any bears that get into food while camping should be reported to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. This information could help other campers.

Hall recommends anyone who is new to hiking and camping in bear country stop by the refuge to obtain a copy of the free pamphlet "Living in Harmony with Bears."

Also, for those interested in learning more about bears and their behavior, Dr. Stringham teaches courses on "Bears & Bear Safety" and "Big Game & Furbearing Mammals" at the Kenai Peninsula College and the Mat-Su campuses of the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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