Its that time of the year when spring fever hits and we are out in the mountains every chance we get. From antlers to turkeys to bears to spring training, we are there pounding the hills. Its also the time of the year when our furry friend the bear wakes up and starts to prowl. If we are hunting them, a close encounter is just what were looking for, but if we bump into a griz or blackie and we're not prepared, things can go south quick. The easiest way to avoid an unwanted confrontation with a bruin is to make lots of noise while we are out and about. The biggest cause of trouble with bears is a surprise encounter where the bear feels threatened or cornered, and its quickest way out of trouble is to take you out.
Of course, most of us are hunters and the last thing we want to make is noise. So how do we avoid unwanted encounters? The best way is just to be aware all the time and avoid thick spots with no visibility when possible. By paying attention when on the move you can spot signs that bears are close. You will often see rocks rolled over, tore up logs, bear poo, and sometimes bear hair and scratching on trees.
Once you spot any of these signs, you must go into high alert mode and spot any bear before it spots you. If you do spot them first, keep the wind in your favor, and quietly retreat or change your route to avoid an encounter.
Bear protection is also a great idea to carry when your out in the mountains. This is usually either a pistol or one of the commercially available bear sprays. I like to carry a bottle of bear spray on my pack or belt anytime I am out. There are many opinions on which is better the gun or the spray but I lean towards the spray because its lightweight and easy to pack. A fully loaded pistol can weigh up to 5 times as much as spray and hasn't proven to be any more effective. The biggest thing with spray is to test it out and be familiar with it before you need it. You must be very comfortable with your spray or gun to use it effectively in a high pressure situation. Another thing with spray is to get used to the safety systems on your can of spray and respect them. Several years ago on Kodiak Island I lost my safety off of my bear spray and continued to keep it on my belt. The next day while getting out of our raft my spray caught on one of the ropes on the raft and proceed to spray straight into my side for several seconds. This made for a cold wet day in the field as I had to shed the shirts I was wearing and hunt in a spare T-shirt I had in my pack. My armpits and anything sweating burned like you wouldn't believe! The fella driving the raft also got some spray in his face but it could have been much worse. No matter what you choose to carry make sure it is very accessible. It will do no good buried in the pack.
Camping is another aspect to think about when in bear country. This is one place where it really pays to not be lazy. All food should be stored and cooked well away from your camping spot. This is sometimes a big pain in the butt as we often times get to camp late, cold, and tired after a long day of chasing elk but it sure beats having a bear snooping around for a candy bar in your pack while you are sleeping. When storing food make sure to hang it as high as possible. I prefer keeping all food in a waterproof sack which I will tie a rope to and pull it 15 feet high into a tree. Another neat camping item is an electric bear fence. You can surround your whole camp with a fence which may keep you safe while you sleep. The downside to these are weight and bulkiness on back country hunts.
One other spot to pay close attention to is at the site of a kill. It can be surprising how fast predators can find your kill. Even while blood trailing I have run into mountain lions and coyotes. Once you get your animal keep a constant lookout for bears. If you have someone with you it will help keep a lookout while you butcher. Most of us aren't tough enough to pack an elk to the truck in one trip so we must be on high alert when returning to the kill for additional quarters. I prefer to move all the quarters away from the site of the kill before I ever pack anything out. Hopefully a bear will go to the carcass before your quarters. Try to hang them in a spot you can inspect from as far as possible on your return to avoid unnecessary encounters.
Have fun out there this year in your adventures and remember to keep safe be bear aware.