Prince of Wales Island is home to a healthy population of black bears, and it is wonderful to see these magnificent creatures under the right circumstances. The photo below is not one of those times.
The area is brushy, so it is hard to see well and difficult to move around in. The sow’s cub is nearby, but out of sight. The bear’s body is angled toward you, she’s looking straight at you, and her ears are back. This is not a happy place for you or the bear, so this page has information to help keep you out of this type of encounter.
Before You Go
Spend some time learning about bear behavior. While bears can be unpredictable, some knowledge will help you in most instances.
Practice with bear deterrents. If you need to use one then it’s too late to be learning how. Lots more on bear spray below, and a few notes on firearms.
Leave the bacon at home. Plan to pack foods without the strong odors that attract bears. Their noses are so sensitive that you might consider unscented body products (strawberry shampoo = yum).
Check out info on bear viewing sites on POW. Dog Salmon Fish Pass has a viewing platform and is staffed from mid-July through August.
Bears Live Here
POW Island is black bear territory, and some of them are trophy size. Black bears are smaller than brown bears, but no less formidable. A smaller, younger black bear is inexperienced, curious, and hungry, and may actually be more dangerous than bigger bears, so pay attention to every bear.
Bears can be anywhere in Alaska, but are more likely to be in their kitchen. They have limited summer months to stock up on fat for their winter hibernation, so food is a big priority. If salmon are in the streams then expect bears to be in the area. If the blueberries are ripe then the berry patch might be a bear-y patch. If you see or smell carrion then leave the area, because a bear may be guarding it’s food source.
A bear at a salmon stream, like the one above, is working for a living. Stay out of the bear’s big personal space.
Be Alert When Hiking
It’s easy to focus on the trail ahead, but remember to look all the way around regularly. Be in the environment with all of your senses.
Consider your surroundings. Noisy streams or thick brush may prevent a bear from sensing you. Use extra caution.
Don’t wear headphones or earbuds.
Time your hike for full daylight hours.
Hike in Pairs or Groups
People in groups make more noise, making bear encounters less likely. If you do see a bear then group together to appear larger, and talk calmly and firmly. All members of the group should have a plan in place for who handles the bear deterrent, and how and when the others should get out of the way.
Keep children near. They should not hike ahead.
Keep dogs leashed. Dogs are renowned for leading curious or irritated bears to people.
Let Bears Know What and Where You Are
Most bears don’t want to be around people, and will leave if they know that you are coming. Make noise! Talk loudly or sing to let bears know what you are.
Bear behavior: defensive bear, non-defensive bear
If a bear sees or approaches you then try to determine if it is a defensive or non-defensive bear.
Examples of a defensive bear include a mother protecting cubs, a bear defending it’s food source, and a surprised bear. If you see the bear yawn, huff, pop it’s jaws, salivate, raise its hackles, or lay it’s ears back then it’s probably a defensive bear. Momentary gestures mean a lot, so don’t dismiss them. Talk to the bear calmly and firmly while backing away slowly. Watch the bear and Do Not Run. If the bear moves toward you then prepare to use your bear spray.
A non-defensive bear may be curious, or, very rarely, predatory. If a bear walks toward you purposefully while watching you intently then it is a non-defensive bear. In that case hold your ground, ready your bear deterrent, act more aggressively, talk louder (do not scream), stomp your feet, and throw sticks or rocks.
If a bear is running toward you at close range then you only have time to ready your bear deterrent and use it.
If a black bear makes physical contact with you then fight. If you don’t have bear spray or a firearm then pick up a stick, go to work on the bear’s muzzle and face, and don’t give up.
More Bear Notes
Bears have a huge personal space, and they are very sensitive about who is in it. If you see a bear then don’t approach it. That little temptation to get closer for a good look? In that split second, remember that a bear can cover fifty yards in three seconds. They are stunningly fast and agile.
If you see a bear that doesn’t appear to be aware of you then leave slowly while watching the bear. Do Not Run. Bears chase their prey, so don’t act like prey.
Bears have personalities and moods. Each bear has it’s own set of behaviors.
Bears see and hear about as well as people do, which also means that some of them see and hear better than others. Bears rely heavily on their keen sense of smell.
The young bear above is curious but cautious. It is scenting while poised for a quick exit.
The most dangerous bear is the cute, fuzzy cub. Mama Bear is somewhere nearby, and might energetically defend her cub. If you see a cub and don’t see it’s mother, then group up, ready your deterrent, move back the way you came while staying on high alert. Don’t yell as the mother bear may take that as aggression.
Bears stand up on their hind legs to scent you or to get a better look. Yes, that makes them look even more impressive, but it’s usually not aggressive behavior. Talk firmly and calmly and let the bear know what you are.
A bear may make short bluff charges, then stop or retreat. Do Not Run.
Bears don’t like to feel cornered, so always give the bear an escape route.
Bears use trails and roads. If a bear is on the trail then give them the right of way.
Cubs and adult bears can climb trees.
Scavengers like the same food as bears, so groups of ravens and eagles are a signal that bears may be nearby. The photo below shows where fishermen spent the day catching and cleaning salmon. In the evening the tide went out and the wildlife came to feed on the scraps.
Carrying bear deterrent is a good idea, and bear spray is effective if you practice using it beforehand. Taking a canister of bear spray out to an unpopulated, safe place and learning to use it is cheap insurance.
Handle bear spray respectfully. It can incapacitate a bear, so it can do the same to humans.
Bear spray is not like mosquito repellent, so don’t apply it to yourself, your clothing, or your tent. It is for spraying an approaching bear at close range.
When you purchase bear spray and a holster, compare the spray distance and time on different brands. Check the expiration date, because this stuff won’t work as well after it expires. Read the instructions on the can. If the can has a cable tie around the nozzle then that needs to be cut off before you go out hiking. There is also a safety clip which you should leave in place until you are ready to deploy the spray. Leave the leash on the safety clip so that you don’t lose it.
So let’s go out and practice. Make sure no other people are around in your big, open space. Check the wind direction and aim downwind. This is practice, so you have that luxury. Pull the bear spray canister out of your belt holster or chest holster. (Bear spray in your backpack is useless.)
Hold the canister out at arm’s length, nozzle aimed away from you, flip the safety clip off with your thumb, and aim at the imaginary bear. The bear has to be in range of the spray, so don’t spray too soon. Aim low to get the spray into the bear’s nose and eyes. Press the actuator tab (trigger) with your thumb and spray for one to two seconds. If the bear keeps coming then spray it again. If your imaginary bear is coming fast then it has a lot of inertia. Also, it may be temporarily blinded by the spray, so step out of the way and let it go by.
If this was a real encounter then this would be an ideal time to leave the scene. Walk away quickly, but don’t run. Keep an eye on the bear, of course. After bear spray has been deployed it becomes a bear attractant. (A bear says, “M-m-m, interesting pepper smell. I think that I’ll go check that out.”)
Since this was your practice session, you can put the safety back on the can and practice again. The can has 7 to 9 seconds of spray in it depending on which one you bought. You can’t take bear spray on the plane to Alaska, and partial cans are not a sure bet - how many seconds of spray are left? - so you might as well make the most of your practice session. You’ll want to check out the sporting goods stores on POW anyway, and can buy bear spray when you arrive.
If you are chartering a flight to a remote area after you get to Prince of Wales Island then tell the pilot that you have bear spray! Most charter services have compartments for transporting it safely.
Store bear spray properly. For instance leaving it in your car in the sun, or tossing it up on the dash by the defroster, is potentially disastrous.
Partially used cans cannot be counted on when it counts, so they should be used for practice. The proper disposal of bear spray is delivering it to a household hazardous waste site.
In-depth information on guns and ammunition to use in bear country is beyond the scope of this article, but we included a few quick tips.
Please do your research, and practice, practice, practice.
Carrying two forms of bear deterrent is common in Alaska. While bear spray is an effective deterrent, sometimes a firearm is called for.
A 12 gauge shotgun with slugs (not buckshot!) is considered one of the most effective firearms for bears at close range.
Carry your gun in a way that makes it quick and easy to use.
Warning shots waste ammunition and don’t work very well.
Shooting a bear is a last resort when defending yourself from a bear.
If you shoot a bear in defense of life or property then the State of Alaska owns the bear. You must skin the bear and give the skull, and the hide with the claws attached to the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game. There’s also reporting and paperwork to do. More on that HERE.
I took the photos on this page, and none of the bears pictured were aggressive or threatening. All of the photos were taken from a distance with a telephoto lens. The sow near the top of the page had a cub and was near a fish stream. I was standing next to the open truck door. She flicked her ears back for a second and I took her hint and left. The photo of the bear looking into the salmon stream was taken at the Dog Salmon Fish Pass Wildlife Viewing Area.
I’ve been in Southeast Alaska all of my life, have spent a lot of time in the woods, and have never had a bear threaten or charge me. Bears have been curious and come near (within 50 feet) to check things out. I talked to them and then we each cautiously departed in separate directions. I have never had to use a bear deterrent.
Thank you for visiting, and happy hiking!