True North Blog

Wild Animals – Dealing with the Unexpected

The purpose of this article is to share with you three easy tips on how to best deal with — better yet, altogether avoid — a surprise encounter with wildlife that could mean the difference between a great story to share with friends and a bad outcome.

Still, it’s important to know that unprovoked wild animal attacks are exceedingly rare.  Consider that more people die in any given year from bee stings in urban locations than by animals — like bears, cougars, snakes, even sharks, combined.  In fact, as own Senior Instructor J.C. McGreehan is quick to point out in our survival courses, the animal most consistently responsible for the greatest number of deaths in the United States each year is the humble cow.  In short, based on my thousands of hours spent in wilderness locations, I’ve learned that wild animals generally just want us to leave them alone.  They simply aren’t, despite what too many seem to believe, the heartless predators waiting to bounce on an unsuspecting human.  Yet, the occasional attention grabbing headline of a gruesome attack does continue to fuel this myth and fear.

In reality, what is increasingly the most common way to be killed or injured in the outdoors is the selfie.  That is, using a smartphone camera to jockey oneself to get the perfect angle or backdrop for a photograph to demonstrate one’s adventurous spirit for social media.  People are literally stepping off cliffs or walking up to Apex-predators in this quest.  One notable example occurred in 2011, when three friends were swept 317 feet to their deaths over the Vernal Falls at Yosemite National Park — initially, two climbed over the safety rail and ignored the warning signs to step into the seemingly calm, calf-deep section of the river, only to slip, fall, and be unable to grab hold of the slick rocks; the third jumped in an effort to try to save them (Their families later filed suit against the National Park Service for negligence).  Locally, McConnell’s Mill State Park is another hot spot for just such selfie attempts.

But the Unexpected Can Happen

Still, there is no denying that there has been an uptick in unwelcome animal-human encounters in the wild over the last three decades.  One reason is that there has been almost an explosion in the numbers of people now involved in outdoor activities over this period, thereby increasing the chances of interaction.  Another involves mountain bikers and trail runners, but can also include hikers, who become vulnerable because they are apt to surprise an animal, thereby triggering a chase response.

Two years ago in Montana, Brad Treat, a law enforcement officer with the U.S. Forest Service, was enjoying a mountain bike ride with a friend when a grizzly bear fatally mauled him after he accidentally surprised it by colliding with the animal at a high rate of speed.

Recommendations to Consider

First and foremost, reduce the element of surprise.  You can do this by simply being aware of your surroundings and slowing down.  Another is to make noise, like periodically calling out or blowing a whistle, to make your presence known, particularly at corners and other blind spots.

Second, carry bear-spray on you.   Don’t store it in your pack or attach it to your bike because it’s of no use if you become separated from it.

Bear-spray is basically just “pepper spray” used by law enforcement but is designed to exit its canister far more robustly, for a longer distance, and in more of a plume than the human-oriented types.  It is also a great choice because it is equally effective and applicable on other animals besides bears, from small to large.  Furthermore, it’s easy to use and relatively inexpensive.  Just be prepared for the inevitable blow-back — Even residual contact with that red mist can momentarily incapacitate your vision and breathing.

But you think that you’d prefer a gun?  In my opinion, if I were given the choice between a gun and spray, I’d prefer the latter.  Even for someone with the applicable training, I think it highly unlikely that given the short reaction time typically involved, that one could draw their weapon and accurately target the animal.  Even if one could, the greater probability is that one would simply make the animal angrier.  Spray, by contrast, offers greater room for error in those initial moments of stress.

Here’s my third recommendation … Don’t think that it can’t happen to you.  Be prepared and don’t become complacent.

Why?  ‘Cause it happened to me.

My Bear Story

In August 2016, I was walking along an old logging road in Quebec Run Wild Area that follows the east-side of Laurel Run, when I heard a quick series of loud snaps, then splashing of water at my 10:00, about 15 yards away.  I turned and focused only to see a very large, circular black blur, with a small, circular brown blur in the middle, coming towards me at a reasonably high rate of speed.  As my brain attempted to process this information, I initially had what I prefer to describe as a tactical withdrawal … but you’ll likely see it for what it really was.  After 2-3 steps, though, my brain reengaged allowing me to properly respond: I spun around towards the bear; raised my arms out above my head; aggressively screamed at it; and thought how much things were gonna suck in the next few seconds.  But the bear, now only about 5 yards away, suddenly turned and ran away from me up the hill off my 2:00.

I prefer to believe that I was fearsome, but the reality is that I likely just startled the bear and it wanted no contact with me in the first place.

Where was my bear-spray?

Next to my tent at my campsite.

Erik Kulick leaning aginst wall with True North badge on blue shirt

About the Author

Erik is the founder of True North Wilderness Survival School. He is a police officer, EMS provider, a Wilderness EMT, and a Fellow of the Academy of Wilderness Medicine. He has been featured in national and international media, including CNN, the Associated Press, and Backpacker. To learn more about Erik, visit him on LinkedIn and be sure to follow him on Facebook and YouTube.

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