Playing it Safe in Bear Country: a Few Stories From the Other Side

To be sure, Bear, Honey and Curly are always welcome at our house.


At 3 am we were awakened by a dull thumping-and-scraping coming from our garage.  In my half-awake haze I wondered why one of the kids would be up at this hour, and in the garage no less.  Then I heard slap-slap-slap-slap-slap! on the mud room door, and I realized my husband was up, making a ruckus of his own.

There’s something in our garage, he said.

My husband strode purposefully out of the room, and I was left confused as to where he thought he was going, if our garage was being rearranged (so it seemed) by someone who didn’t belong in there.  He returned, key fob in hand, and pressed the panic button.

And then not one.

Not two.

But three bears loped up our driveway, eyes reflected in the garage’s floodlight as they looked from where the startling noise came.  The cub scampered up a tree but there was no way he was more freaked out than I was.

We inspected our garage and found no damage done, just a huge mess left behind.  Guess those three bears found our trash to be juuust right.

It was totally an “our bad” moment.  We always keep our garage door closed at night (to prevent bear visits) but this time forgot to check before we went to bed.  And our error was exposed and used to the bears’ advantage.

Knowledge of basic bear safety is a must if you live in bear country but surprisingly, many people don’t have that information.  And even if you do not take up permanent residence in these areas, but visit and/or camp there, you still need to know how to exist harmoniously with bears.  I’ll be 100 percent honest…if my husband and father-in-law hadn’t spent so much time camping in backcountry, I wouldn’t know squat about the behavior of bears; but because they have, our family is bear-prepared.

Well, mostly.

We’ve had to learn rapidly from our mistakes.  There’s nothing like picking up week-old take-out containers and wiping up congealed yogurt smeared on the garage floor to help you remember to close the garage door at night.  Every night.  Without fail.

Now I’m no bear expert, but I do have some stories to share, courtesy of people who have “been there.”  I thank my husband and father-in-law and my pioneer-woman aunt from Montana with much of what follows.  Keep in mind that this is not a comprehensive bear-safety manual (so I’ve included some reputable websites below).  But we humans like stories, and narratives stick well with us, so my goal is to provide some basics on existing harmoniously with bears…for our safety, our children’s safety, and the safety and well-being of the animals themselves.

First of all, the bears were here first.  We humans have encroached on their space, their territory.  We need to respect that.  Ok.  That’s all I have to say from the soap box, for now.

Secondly, if you see a bear (or more importantly, if he sees you) do not run away.  I know, right?  A four-hundred pound creature sniffing around your picnic site is enough to make anyone initiate a fast break.  But don’t do it.  Running “makes prey” and the bear will give chase.  Bears naturally do not like people so you want to reinforce that distaste (no pun intended…).  Move slowly away, facing the bear.  Shout, clap, or sing loudly (some people carry whistles) to startle him away.

Bears like stinky and smelly.  Really, they do.  (To our neighbor who put forth some skeptical nonsense about the quality of bear olfactory receptors…are you for REAL?!)  This shouldn’t be a surprise, given bears’ propensity for trash with fresh and fermenting leftovers.  However, we get stuck on the food aspect of trash, that bears are attracted to what people eat and reject from their plates.  While this is certainly true, bears are curious, and have a crazy-amazing discriminatory sense of smell.  They can smell the food residue around a sealed jar, for example.  But they are also attracted to that fragrant but seemingly empty laundry detergent bottle in your recycle bin.  So here are some stories that reinforce  the attraction to stinky and smelly:

Back to the soap box…in this case, literally.  My father-in-law was camping with his boy scout troop and forgot to put his bar soap in the bear bag.  Knowing bears will check out fragrant things, he took his plastic container of soap out of the campsite and set it on a rock near the latrine (also stinky, of course).  In the morning he found his soap dish several feet away from where he had left it and punctured with teeth marks. The soap itself was nowhere to be found.

Natural musk versus the store-bought kind.  My husband knows a camper who awoke to find a bear licking his underarms.  Thinking that guy tossed the deodorant and went au natural for the rest of his trip.

Even the best-laid plans…  My husband, while a ranger at Philmont Boy Scout Camp, recalls the story of an experienced back-country guide who chewed tobacco.  He always carried his snuff in the back pocket of his jeans but smartly placed his tin in a bear bag at night.  However, one evening while out under the stars, he was rudely awakened when a bear bit him in the backside…evidently because the bear detected the rich aroma of (absent) tobacco.  The ranger lived, because he silently endured severe pain while he allowed the bear to roll him over.  (Bears like to overturn fallen logs looking for grubs to eat.)  Not finding a meal under this particular swell-smelling “log,” the bear moved on.  Talk about presence of mind and body.  The ranger, not the bear.

Choosy bears choose…whatever they want!  This is my absolute favorite backcountry story from my husband.  A motivated bear can bring down even the most securely-hung bear bag.  But some go even farther than that.  My husband relates how a bear nabbed a bag strung high in the trees and took it, sat down on his haunches, and started sorting through it.  She batted the yummy canned and dehydrated food into one pile, and pawed the bug repellant and sunscreen into another.  So at some point she learned she did not like the taste of DEET and Coppertone?  Huh.  

So in short, don’t attempt to “repel” a bear from your home or campsite with something stinky.  Don’t use soap, don’t use vinegar, don’t use anything.  You are inviting a curious bear to check things out and what’s worse, teaching her to make repeat visits to your place and inspect other homes and tents as well.  Don’t give a bear reason to return.  A habituated bear can become an aggressive bear and be a serious danger to your neighborhood and all who reside there.  Case in point:  a family we know had a bear break in through a window screen and enter their home.  She was attracted by the fragrant chilis they had been cooking the night before.  Fortunately, no one was hurt but you can believe they kept all low windows closed from that point on, which is something we hadn’t thought to do until we heard the story.  There’s always something to learn.

By now, many of us have heard about the teen who was bit in the head by a black bear while camping in Colorado.  Reports focused on whether there was food left in the campsite and stated that none was found.  But something attracted the bear.  Whether it was food, the scent of sunscreen or hair care products, or whether this was a bear habituated to nose around campsites because of careless campers, something brought that bear to that campsite, and money could be wagered that this wasn’t a totally random event.

Bears are amazing creatures.  They are clever.  They learn from trial-and-error and effectively at that.  We humans struggle to keep up with that uncanny talent because, after all, we are human and make mistakes (like leaving our garage doors open…) .  It’s no short order to learn what we need to know in order to live in bear country.  It takes effort but we need to do it.  For us, for our children and our neighbors, and for the beautiful animals themselves.  Here’s a couple reputable sources to consult (also look for BearSmart programs in your area as well):

And one final important note.  We human moms talk about how protective we are of our children and I know how much I love to use the term “Momma Bear” when I’m on the offensive.  While we moms are tough as nails when it comes to our brood, hell hath no fury like a furry mama bear.  Whatever you do, no matter how cute, never, ever approach a bear cub.  Or even a yearling, which is much larger but still a “kid.”  If you don’t see Mom, don’t assume she’s not around…because she is.  I remember the first bear cub I saw in the wild and darn it, if he wasn’t the cutest thing.  But don’t be sucked in.  Keep your distance.  Even my aunt, who has lived and breathed the air of Big Sky Country most of her life, was lured by a beautiful yearling black bear with a cinnamon-colored stripe along its back.  Her humanity convinced her she wanted that picture.  Then she realized she had walked several campsites away and was alone following this bear.  She never saw the mother, fortunately, but when she returned to camp, her young grandson reminded her:

Never get between a bear and his mama.

She will tell you herself how much danger she had put herself in.

To end this on a lighter note, here’s a text exchange between my husband and myself:

(Go Packers!!!!)


[This has been a lot of info, but not comprehensive.  Do refer to the websites above for more details about sharing our beautiful world with bears.]


To summarize the “bear basics” from this post:

~The bears were here first.  Be respectful of them and the environment we share.  Take the time to be educated.

~Do not run away from a bear.  Instead, make noise (consider carrying a whistle when outdoors.  Or use your key fob) and move away slowly, and facing the bear.

~Bears are curious about almost anything smelly, not just people food.  They like soap and other fragrant items.  If you are camping, engineer a bear bag with your food and other smelly items.  (While not smelly, bears are also big fans of birdseed and the sweet liquid in hummingbird feeders.  Consider use of these items carefully.)

~Keep main level and other low-to-the-ground windows closed at night, and when cooking or baking.  And keep  garage doors shut as well.

~Never, ever approach a cub or yearling…Momma Bear is nearby!

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