Bear Safety Q&A with Tim Rubbert
by Melissa Norris
Having hiked extensively in bear country Tim Rubbert has also engrossed himself in bear education. He has written two books, Hiking Safely in Grizzly Country and Hiking with Grizzlies: Lessons Learned. Both are available on Amazon.
FA: Can you share a little about your background and how you became a bear-safety expert?
TR: First off, I am not an expert. I have been observing bear behavior for over 30 years and have hiked in bear country—going on 44,000 miles now. I have learned a lot about bear behavior and habitat and have authored a couple of books on hiking in bear country. I am a nature photographer and I have a passion for bears. I don’t call myself a safety expert, and I realize I could get mauled by a bear.
The first time I was involved in a bear attack I was hiking with my friend Jim Cole in Glacier National Park. I had stayed back to look for signs of grizzlies and he got a little ahead of me. We were separated and we weren’t making noise and Jim surprised a subadult bear that was sleeping in the brush just off the trail. It attacked him out of fear. The first bite was right in the head, as they often are, and thank God he was face down because the bear took a big piece of his scalp. The second bite was into his wrist as he raised his arm to protect his head and the third time the bear was going for his hip but his camera in his camera holster carried on his hip prevented it, fortunately because it probably would have immobilized him. The whole time I thought the bear would turn and attack me. I stepped in and deployed one quick burst from my can of bear spray on her at 40 feet. The bear turned and charged me. I pushed my thumb on that spray and held it down until there was almost nothing left in the can. It stopped just five feet away. We still had 10 and a half miles to go after the attack and I had emptied most of my canister so we each vowed then to always each carry two cans of spray. Jim had a can but was never able to reach it in his pack. I’ve worn two cans since, one on each of my hips.
FA: What is your best advice for hiking and fishing in bear country?
TR: Make noise! Most of the times bear attacks occur when a bear gets startled in close proximity. The most important thing to do is let them know you are there. They may not change their behavior if they are near a good food source like berries or salmon, but their reaction seems to stem from them being scared. Also, carry bear spray.
FA: What do you suggest to people camping in bear country?
TR: The most important thing to remember is food storage. I camp a lot in Glacier and they have food-storage boxes for shared use that are meant to keep bears out. Out in the wild backcountry of Alaska, campers can use a tree limb to hang their food at least 10 feet off the ground. You’ll want to find a branch strong enough to hold your food but not strong enough to support the weight of a bear. A bear barrel is another option.
FA: What are some myths about bear that you’d like to debunk?
TR: Bears aren’t out to get you. As I mentioned, most attacks occur from startling a bear that did not know you were there and they want to neutralize the perceived threat. There are bears out there referred to as predatory bears that are aggressive and target people, but it is incredibly rare. I can say I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a predatory bear. In cases of that happening there could be something seriously wrong with the bear like he is wounded and is having a hard time getting food.
FA: Is bear spray effective?
TR: It is extremely effective. Both times I have used bear spray it has saved me from getting injured or possibly killed. I’ve also heard stories from other people who have lived thanks to being able to deploy their bear spray. I have been carrying bear spray since 1985, before you could buy it commercially. I saw a small ad in the back of a backpacking magazine and called the developer. Counter Assault was the first bear spray developed and tested on grizzlies.
The biggest concern about bear spray for people is getting the safety off. They make training canisters and it makes sense to practice with them frequently so it is easy to remember how to remove the safety and spray in a stressful emergency situation. People can practice taking the safety off on a live can, but they need to be careful they don’t accidentally hit the trigger.
One common question is whether bear spray or a gun is more effective as bear protection. For me it is a clear choice, I have never heard of anyone getting injured as a bystander from bear spray. There is a story of two black bear hunters I often share. These hunters saw a black grizzly and because it was black mistook it for a black bear. One of them shot it. It was only wounded and disappeared into heavy cover. They waited 20 minutes and decided to go look for it. Unfortunately, it was still alive and jumped on the hunting partner. The other hunter shot the bear. The bullet went through the bear and killed his partner. If they both had bear spray the outcome could have been quite different.
TR: I have been using Counter Assault bear spray exclusively since the mid 80s. They were the first to market. I have used Counter Assault successfully both times I used it and I am not about to change brands.
FA: I understand you were instrumental in helping save your friend who was attacked by a bear in 1993, thanks to your willingness to intervene and deploy your bear spray. Please tell us about any other bear attacks you’ve experienced.
TR: Since the attack on my friend Jim Cole, I have been carrying two cans of spray. In 1999 I was on a solo hike and I had stopped and sat near the edge of a cliff to have a bite and take a break. Whenever I sit down I always unholster one can of bear spray and set it right next to me within reach. I had come to the end of my break and was putting things back in my pack and I saw a brown blur out of the corner of my eye. A sow and yearling had walked up about 20 yards from me. She immediately became agitated and she and the cub started huffing, blowing and snorting. She started towards me and I yelled “No!” as loud as I could. That stopped her for a moment and then she and the cub both stood up on hind legs. I looked down hoping I’d find my unholstered bear spray. It was right by my foot so I picked it up as she decided to come towards me again. I deployed a short burst of spray but the wind was raging and I saw the orange spray turn right just before it hit her face. When you fire bear spray it makes a whoosh sound like a bear huffing itself, so that made the sow start circling around me and I began to think about climbing down the nearby cliff. One more charge and I sprayed the can of spray directly at her and she and the cub finally ran off in another direction. It’s been noted that standing is a way for bears to get a better look at you but I now think it is also a way of intimidation. Come to think of it that bear knew what she was doing because if she lunged at me and initiated contact chances are we both would have gone over the side of the cliff.
FA: What do you recommend if you are attacked by a bear?
TR: I don’t try to give people advice on what to do if they are under attack. My message is to prevent it from occurring. Always wear and know how to use your bear spray.
FA: What do you recommend if you are not the one attacked but are in the immediate area?
TR: I would intervene by making noise because I’d have bear spray and I know how to use it. If you do not have bear spray you can make noise to distract the bear if you can get somewhere such as in a vehicle or building and be protected from the bear. You could climb a tree but be aware both black bear and grizzly bears can climb, too.
FA: Should you play dead if under attack?
TR: That’s tough because if it is a defensive bear that is not looking to kill you than that could work, but if the bear is predatory, it is a different story, and playing dead is like inviting him to lunch.
FA: Please note anything else not covered that you want people to be educated on for bear safety.
TR: Besides ALWAYS carrying bear spray and making a lot of noise, learn as much as you can about the area. What is typical bear behavior for the area? What are their food sources? What are the signs of bears being around? Knowing this should help you be able to avoid bears, which is the best approach. Food source isn’t the only sign. Bears could be found using travel corridors between food sources. They are going to take the easy route like you, so be prepared to find them even if not directly near an abundant source of food.
Where I live in NW Montana moose must also be regarded with a healthy respect. When I hike in the Yellowstone area I am more concerned with bison as opposed to bears.
FA: Alaskans generally feel that way about moose, too. Thanks, Tim, for taking the time to share your experience with Fish Alaska magazine’s readers! Stay safe out there.