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Safety in black bear country

Running bear (center of photo) near Lake City, Colorado
Running bear (center of photo) near Lake City, Colorado
Jilly Salva

For years, I’d heard the phrase “learning to live with wildlife” yet never gave it much thought. Until I encountered my first big mammal, a bear, up close and personal. Short of soiling my pants, I came away from the incident intact and since then have learned a thing or two about what to do when you meet a black bear in the backcountry.

A three hundred pound surprise
It’s true that during a long stretch of peak bagging obsession, I’d regularly strap on an iPod and lose myself for hours in the thunderous blare of music while scrambling along Colorado’s high peaks.

During an early morning climb of Handies Peak, I turned a bend in the trail and met one large furry black bear. I immediately froze. The bear didn’t seem to notice me even though it was a mere ten feet ahead. It was completely focused on raising its head and sniffing the air in my general direction. Without thinking, I instinctively cleared my throat, instead of screaming. That foreign sound was enough to cause the bear to abruptly turn and rocket full speed up the hillside.

Did rockin’ tunes almost led me into bear trouble?
Maybe. I’ve got a theory about mountaineers and intuitive capabilities. The sounds and messages of nature will guide us, if only we let them. Mountaineering with headphones numbs our intuitive skills. Loud music has a way of overriding sensorial cues that cause us to stop and fully observe our surroundings; just long enough to perhaps let a bear pass by. Maybe if I’d been sans iPod, I’d have enjoyed the landscape more or avoided the bear entirely.

Since that event my iPod stays at home!

Bear safety tips
According to the Colorado Division of Wildlife web site black bears rarely attack.

  • If you do surprise a bear, stay calm, never run and be sure the bear has an escape route.
  • If you see cubs, calmly leave the area because mama bear is close by.
  • It’s important to note that bears standing up are often trying to “identify you by getting a better look and smell.”

If you’re heading into bear country take five minutes to become familiar with the Camping and Hiking in Bear Country information located on the Colorado Division of Wildlife web site.

Other Colorado bear country considerations

  1. Rocky Mountain National Park requires bear canisters at all backcountry campsites below treeline.
  2. Some hikers wear a bell or carry a canister of bear spray during travel in bear country.
  3. Last summer I met a man who was openly wearing a handgun on the summit of Mt. Wilson. He claimed it was his protection against both man and beast.
  4. You don't have to carry a handgun, but it's smart to check with local authorities about any recent bear activity for areas where you'll be camping and mountaineering.
  5. Last, but not least, leave your Pod at home!

Have fun and be safe out there!

Twitter @JillySalva


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