Living in Alaska, walkers and bikers have more to worry about than vehicle traffic. Sometimes the biggest fear isn’t a truck crowding you out of the bike lane. It’s rounding a corner to find a bear blocking the trail while feeding on a fresh kill.
Sometimes you’ll hear about wildlife encounters that don’t go well for the hiker or biker, such as the Anchorage cyclist who was attacked by a brown bear while riding to work on June 15. (Luckily, the cyclist suffered minor injuries and he eventually was able to finish his ride to the Anchorage hospital where he works. The Municipality of Anchorage is not closing the trail this time, though it did after two maulings in 2008.) But most times, hikers and bikers can avoid problems with wildlife if they follow some basic safety rules.
The State of Alaska has a couple of websites that deal with traveling in bear country. These include “Alaska’s Bears,” “Bears and You,” “The Essentials for Traveling in Bear Country,” “Safety In Bear Country,” and “Living in Harmony With Bears.”
This page about bear safety for kids is from the Alaska Public Lands Information Centers, and this link has bear safety tips from the Municipality of Anchorage. MountainNature.com has this page about mountain bike safety when riding in bear country. AlaskaDispatch.com reporter Craig Medred, who survived his own bear attack about 20-25 years ago, wrote this article on June 10 about biking and bears.
Even with this wealth of information available about living in bear country, some Alaskans still seem shocked to learn bears have wandered into their local downtown area. In recent years, I’ve seen bears in downtown Anchorage (near the Delaney Park Strip), Juneau (in front of the Red Dog Saloon and in downtown Douglas), Sitka (by the fire station and Westmark Hotel), Barrow (three blocks from the North Slope Borough Department of Public Safety) and other communities.
If bears, moose and other large mammals are making their way into downtown areas, then you can expect to find them on the local trails. In most cases, the animals don’t want contact with humans, so there are minimal safety issues. But that can change, especially if the bear or moose doesn’t hear you coming or you get between a mother and its young. Animal encounters can result in severe injuries and even death (moose have been known to kick people).
Here are some basic safety rules (check out the links for more information):
- Make lots of noise when you travel through bear country. Get bells for your belt or bike, carry a whistle (the sound of a whistle carries farther than a voice), sing, or travel in groups. Your biggest danger is sneaking up on a bear, and mountain bikes can be pretty silent.
- Be alert at all times while on the trail. Take off the headphones (take out the ear buds) so you can listen for animal sounds. Watch for other animal signs, such as scat in the trail, animal tracks, rubbing patches on trees, birds circling overhead (usually the sign of a fresh kill), etc.
- Leave the dog at home, or at least keep it leashed. As much fun as it is to take your dog on a hike, they can increase your danger on the trail. Curious dogs have been known to wander into a bear, then bring it back to their humans as the bear chases the dogs down the trail.
- Properly store food in camp. Bears have a very sharp sense of smell, so make sure all food is stored in air-tight containers. Never leave food out (in fact, hang it between two trees away from your tent so bears can’t reach it). Make your cooking area at least 100 feet away from your sleeping area.
Even though there can be some risk when you go biking or hiking in the Alaska wilderness, you are more likely to be hurt by a twisted ankle than by a wild animal. Please read the safety links, and be alert when in the wilderness. And don’t forget to have fun.