We had a day of sunshine in between last week’s storms and I headed for the mountains. Despite it having been a cool, wet spring, the winter snows have melted up to nearly 8,000′ and the snow that fell the previous days was mostly melted, leaving many roads wet but passable for the first time in months. As I slowly coasted down the two-track road in a steep side canyon, a bear exploded from the brush in front of me, dashed with remarkable speed up the hill, and disappeared in the vegetation. Not knowing if it was a sow with cubs, I reached a point at which I could turn around and left it in peace.
The animal I saw was a black bear, in spite of it’s cinnamon brown fur. Grizzly bears were extirpated from Utah in the 1920s. An old timer once taught me how to tell the difference between a black bear and a grizzly: walk up behind it, give it a hard kick in the rear, and then climb the nearest tree as quickly as possible. If it climbs the tree and eats you, it’s a black bear. If it knocks the tree down and eats you, it’s a grizzly. Please note: this advice is, practically speaking, not the safest way to make the distinction and should only be attempted by trained experts.
Bears are intelligent, curious, opportunistic, and powerful. If you find yourself in bear country, act appropriately and respectfully. Assume they are around, even if you don’t see them. Keep a clean and bear-proof camp. Avoid surprising them. Bears don’t like it and may react badly. Should you encounter a bear, don’t run. Bears are faster than you. Don’t climb the nearest tree. Bears can climb more quickly than you. Should you encounter a bear, don’t disturb it. Leave it alone, give it plenty of room, and leave the area.
But what if a bear finds you, and worse, it won’t leave you alone? Pepper spray, if legal in your state, may act as a deterrent – but not always. Firearms are at times a necessity, especially in grizzly country. Many black bear attacks can be averted by fighting back. Yell. Scream. Swear. Question your attacker’s parentage, education, manners, and political party. Pray if you like but do it loudly. Throw sticks and rocks. Make yourself look as big – and as little like a “free lunch” – as possible. Retreat to safety as slowly and as calmly as circumstances permit.
This advice saved a good friend’s life. One night several years ago, not far from my bear sighting, he was forced to inch backwards down a trail, in the dark, for nearly two miles, a black bear charging him over and over again. The attacks lasted for over an hour, until my friend reached the safety of his truck. He carried no weapons. But he kept his nerve, alone in the dark, as he fought for his life. And he lived to tell the tale, frightened but unscarred.
If you have further questions about bear identification, I wish I could you refer you to the old timer mentioned above. Unfortunately, he was eaten by a bear while field-testing his method.