Here’s a hypothetical situation: You’re wandering the paths of Yellowstone, basking in all the glorious bounty of this country’s national parks, when you suddenly come across a bear. (This is more likely than you’d think because, as the National Park Service notes, “all of Yellowstone is bear habitat.”) Do you run? Hide? Play dead? Shout? Ask politely for Mr. Bear to please leave you alone?
The answer is: some of these, all of these, none of these at all. That’s not a riddle! It’s just that there are so many things to remember in the event of a bear encounter. Just look at all of the scenarios listed here and here by the NPS. The bear’s distance, demeanor, and type all require different approaches. Recollecting all of them is a lot to ask even on a normal day; how is anyone supposed to do that while also GRIPPED BY FEAR THAT A 600-POUND MUSCLED OMNIVORE WITH CLAWS THAT CAN RIP APART FLESH AND A JAW STRONG ENOUGH TO CRUSH BONES IS HEADED STRAIGHT TOWARD YOU?
But okay, let’s remember that that’s a worst-case scenario. If the bear is far away enough that it doesn’t see you, then you should try to escape undetected, slowly and carefully and downwind so the bear doesn’t smell you. Sure, that’s intuitive enough. If the bear does spy you from afar — maybe even standing up on two legs to sniff the air, like a cute little Winnie the Pooh capable of imparting agony and death — then still try to get away slowly, but head upwind so the bear can catch wind of your scent and duly avoid you. Fine, fine, sounds a little nerve-wracking, but still doable for this old noggin.
But if you’re too close, and the bear’s body language warns you to back the fuck off — through clacking teeth, huffing, woofing, and slapping the ground, per the NPS — then back away slowly, if you have still maintained control of your cognitive and motor skills when face to face with a creature so equally feared and revered that it has been worshipped as a deity across many ethnic religions.
Do not run from the animal that not even Usain Bolt could outpace; and, contrary to everything that popular culture has told me, do not climb a tree and do not play dead. If the bear is “curious or predatory,” which means head up and ears erect (I guess more than they are normally erect?), then still try to back away without running, or if left with no other option, yell at the bear whose mouth contains at least 10 more teeth than a fully mature adult’s. Again, all of this advice should play back in your head like a song on a repeat even as you find your mind has turned to mush and your feet to lead.
And if the bear does charge at you, you must desperately remember to ignore every cell in your body screaming at you to run from death embodied, galloping towards you at 35 miles per hour, the Grim Reaper perched upon its back like a warrior atop a war steed. “Stay still and stand your ground,” says the NPS. “Most of the time” the bear will not actually see the charge through. What happens the other times, and how will you know that that time is this time? I have no answer for the latter, but you must play dead, except only right before the bear arrives at full speed, assuming you don’t shit yourself unconscious first. I hope you’re taking notes here!! Remain still, braveheart, and do not fight back — unless the bear is not in a defensive mood but more curious or predatory, in which case you have to fight for your life after having exhausted all your mental energy analyzing the bear’s emotional state and figuring out the calculus of which if-then statement applies at any given moment in your face-off against an apex predator.
But wait, there’s more information to cram into your pea brain already so overloaded with bear encounter facts! Is it a brown/grizzly bear attack? Play dead and don’t fight back, unless the fight escalates. Is it a black bear attack? Do not play dead, run! Forget what I said about Usain Bolt! Or prepare to fight and/or die, like Hector at the gates of Troy. By the way, brown bears can be blond, brown, or nearly black in color, and black bears can be black, blond, brown, or cinnamon. Best of luck figuring it out when you’re in the moment!
I’ve attempted to come up with a simple mnemonic device to aid in recalling how not to die during bear encounters. Feel free to take this out into the field and let me know if they work, i.e., you survive. To the tune of “Yankee Doodle,” sort of:
If bear FAR AWAY then GET AWAY but if HUFF AND PUFF then GTFO except if EARS RAISED and you can’t GTFO then RAISE YOUR VOICE until bear FAKE CHARGE then CHARGE UP AND STAND UP unless FAKE CHARGE becomes REAL CHARGE then REALIZE IT AND PLAY DEAD and if bear KEEP ATTACKING (or BROWN/GRIZZLY BEAR) then KEEP STILL (like a BROWN ACORN) unless KEEP ATTACKING FOR REAL then FIGHT BACK OR DIE FOR REAL unless BLACK BEAR then RUN LIKE ESCAPING THE BLACK DEATH unless KEEP ATTACKING FOR REAL then FIGHT BACK OR DIE FOR REAL.
If this song doesn’t work to jog your memory, please keep it to yourself; I don’t think it would be very self-care for me to be constantly reminded of failure.