Retired Glacier National Park Ranger Gary Moses points to a dug out tree stump along the Lion Mountain portion of the Whitefish Trail and raises his eyebrows.
Just a few yards down the trail, a trio of flipped-over rocks offer more evidence to the presence of the iconic animal that roams the woods of Montana — the grizzly bear.
However, a bear didn’t actually dig out the trees or flip the rocks, and the paw prints in the mud further down the trail weren’t that convincing either. The point, Moses tells the more than 64 people on the trail on a recent Thursday afternoon, is to get people to recognize signs of a bear’s presence while being more alert out in the woods.
Moses and Kim Corette, Whitefish Trail education specialist, led the “Bear Aware” guided hike sponsored by the Whitefish Legacy Partners. The two led hikers around the Whitefish Trail to educate them on the habits of bears and how to respond if they come across a black or grizzly bear in the wild.
After taking the time to listen and look for clues on the trail, hikers got to try shooting an inert bear spray can at Moses, who crouched about behind bushes and trees pretending to be a bear.
“A lot of what we do with bears is what we do with people,” Moses said. He demonstrated the body language he’d use with a bear — hands raised above his head, body upright and avoiding any signs of aggression like eye contact.
Should bear spray be necessary, Moses suggests not waiting until the bear charges to use it. When the bear even turns and focuses its attention on a hiker, that’s probably a good time to give a quick spray to ward off its interest. Moses advocates a one to two second burst made in a “Z” pattern and aimed slightly down.
“Most people say the only time you spray is when they’re being aggressive — I’m going to change that paradigm a bit,” he said. “I think bear spray became an equalizer that kind of changes our thinking of what we used to tell people to do. Instead of stand, fall to the ground, then curl up in a ball, how about stand and spray. What’s the downside?”
In addition, Moses said hikers should practice removing the safety from the spray before hiking so that the motion is automatic when panic sets in.
“There are so many people who are really, really afraid of bears in a way that is not natural or justified, because the myth is so big,” Corette added. “We have to increase knowledge for the community for being bear aware while living and recreating in bear country.”
Even Corette said she remembers coming out to her family’s summer cabin and feeling terrified of the threat of bears.
“People tell stories about bears being so after us, so the myth of the bear definitely scared me,” she said.
However, Moses and Corette did their best to dispel the myth.
Only a minute percentage of bear encounters are dangerous, Corette said.
Corette likes to remind people of the rarity of bear attacks with a memorable analogy.
“My favorite quote about bear encounters comes from Doug Chadwick, our local writer and biologist,” she said. “He said, ‘more people across the nation are injured by vending machines.’”
Gary Moses’ advice on how to stay safe on the trail.
• Hikers should be prepared before they even put their boots on. Bear spray will shoot at its effective range for about four years, he said, so people should be sure to know how old their spray is before heading out. If spray had previously been used, hikers should remind themselves the can is no longer full and will have a shorter spray duration.
• On the trail, be aware of signs of bear activity. Dug out tree stumps and flipped rocks provide nutritious bugs for hungry bears just out of hibernation. Bear scat looks similar to human feces, and in the early spring will likely be runny and inconsistent. If the smell of a carcass comes wafting down the trail, there’s a good possibility that a bear will be near and feeding.
• Tracks on the trail provide identification help too. If a line can be drawn beneath all five toe prints, it’s likely a grizzly, as black bears have more rounding in their toes and claws.
If a hiker does spot a bear, they should not crouch down and back away submissively. Instead, both hands should be raised above the head to appear bigger, and a firm but normal speaking voice should be used to communicate nonaggression to the bear.