Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Backpacking Light’s print magazine. We felt that October would be a timely month to reproduce the article here, as hikers are grabbing those last few trail miles before winter snows engulf the mountains, and bears are entering hyperphagia and thus, becoming extremely active in these next several weeks prior to hibernation. In addition, for those of you hiking in areas with big game hunting (or for those of you hunting), please remain bear aware. Grizzlies in particular are attracted to gunshots and gut piles and your sense of awareness of them should be heightened. Hike safe, be careful, and respect these awesome creatures. – Ryan Jordan
by R. Clinton Ohlers
My most recent encounter with bears was with a mother and cub. My hiking partner and I had lingered atop a twiggy, wooded Appalachian summit. A rocky outcropping gave view to a sister peak a couple miles away and the river valley below. Light rains in the morning had kept almost everyone off the trail, and as we readied to head down the other side, Laura whispered, “Look, a bear.” Maybe 30 yards back down the trail, I caught the profile of a black bear.
It can be hard to gauge distance in the woods and, therefore, hard to tell a bear’s size. I perceived him as medium to smallish. He had been coming uphill along the grade and switched back our way. Seeing us he turned back. He paused only to sniff the air, head cocked to the side. Then, hindquarters disappearing into the brush, he was gone.
I waited and scanned about for a possible second bear. Sure enough, a much larger bruin emerged from the brush on the heels of the first. She ignored us, following her cub without a pause. If one didn’t know better, it could be easy to think the mother was unaware of our presence. That, however, is rather unlikely.
It is easy to underestimate bears. We underestimate their physical abilities like sight and smell, not to mention their amazing speed and agility. Then, there’s the matter of their considerable intelligence. Understanding bears is part of the art of traveling in bear habitat, especially when going the long distances made possible by light pack weight, minimal gear, and increasing experience. Understanding how they think and interact with their world can make finding the proper response during a bear encounter second nature.
In The Octopus and the Orangutan (2002), one of Eugene Linden’s several books on animal intelligence, Linden points out the correlation between brain size and a species’ reliance on concealed and varying food sources. In North America, bears have only one competitor in this regard: the largest-brained omnivores in the wilderness, nut-bar crunching Homo sapiens. Altercations with humans rarely, if ever, turn out well for the bear. In essence, bear-bagging (the practice of hanging your food in a tree, out of reach of a bear) and food canister compliance represent a battle of wits where the ultimate prize is not only to preserve one’s lunch (and dinner, and breakfast…), but also to preserve one’s gormandizing ursine competitor. Likewise, knowledge of bear psychology may enhance safety and the sense of reward found in those occasional, serendipitous encounters on the trail.
A number of years ago, Pennsylvania bear researcher Gary Alt recounted an experience that gives fascinating insight into bear intelligence. Alt was tracking a mature male black bear through light snowfall. The bear was aware of Alt and had no interest in cooperating. Its first move was to assess the situation.
“He made a loop several hundred yards in diameter, but did not quite return to his earlier trail,” Alt reports. “He stopped only 50 feet shy and built a nest downwind where he could watch for and smell anything following his old trail.” As Alt approached, the bear spotted him and took off unnoticed with a significant lead.
Continuing his pursuit, Alt recounts, “The bright afternoon sun was melting the snow from the rocks and [the bear] began to use this to his advantage, jumping from rock to rock. He left little sign this way, making tracking much more difficult.” Then the bear “came up with something new-back tracking.” Suddenly, the tracks simply stopped. No tracks. No bear. It was if the bruin had just disappeared.
Confused, Alt scanned the trees to see if the bear had climbed. Nothing. “I went back to the tracks. This time I noticed there were toe marks at both ends, even though there was no evidence in the snow to indicate the bear had turned around. I followed them back about fifty yards and found where the bear had jumped off the main trail, walking away in a direction perpendicular to his old tracks. He pulled this backtracking stunt on six different occasions during the day . . . Each time he placed his feet accurately in his old tracks and changed direction by about 90 degrees when leaving the main trail.” (Alt’s account can be found in Stephen Herrero’s Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, rev. ed., ).