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Sixth Sense: It's Not Just a Movie

by Jeff Varvil

Military veterans will tell you it’s real. Police Officers will tell you it’s real. An Alaskan fisherman knows it’s real. Whether it’s the hair sticking up on the back of your neck, or that weird feeling you get when you’re being watched, we humans have a sixth sense that we know very little about. 
Photo by Jeff Varvil

Here's Doc with the reason we were on the river... bears or no bears. 

Scientists have been trying to unlock the human brain for nearly a century and have yet to come up with anything but theories. Before giant waves slammed into south Asian coastlines, both wild and domestic animals seemed to know that something was about to happen and fled to safety. 

According to eyewitness accounts, the following events happened: elephants screamed loudly and ran for higher ground, dogs refused to go outdoors, flamingos abandoned their low-lying breeding areas, and zoo animals rushed into their shelters and could not be enticed to come back out, not even with food. 
How did they do it?

If humans have this “sixth sense”, why don’t we have more control over it?
After all my research there is only one thing that is clear. When you live in a land that plays host to three of North America’s largest killing species, not using this sense can be a fatal mistake.


As I hiked up the Tazimina River near Lake Clark my sixth sense meter suddenly began to redline! I cautiously sauntered into the middle of the waist deep tributary and scanned the brushy banks on either side for anything peculiar. I caught my own reflection in the water and gave myself a quirky smile. I definitely fit the “burly” description, after having lived seven days in the bush. 

I grumbled under my breath as two colossal rainbows spooked out of a clear pool and shot down stream into a shallow rift. A sacrilegious act under normal circumstances, I chose to trust my instincts and stuck with walking the river. The familiar goose pimples appeared on my arm and the short hair on the back of my neck began to rise. I let my eyesight take in my surroundings and I turned my head from side to side trying to detect even the faintest noise over the rushing white water. 

Like the deer I grew up hunting as a boy in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, my nose was instinctively upturned, testing the wind for a smell I did not wish to encounter. Something was amiss and my brain just hadn’t figured it out yet. I looked, smelled, listened, and tasted the air and still nothing. 
I felt the wind change direction and the smell hit me like a freight train. My nose pointed me to the riverbank about twenty yards downstream where I had come from. 

As I focused in closer on the thick foliage, it came to me. I flinched and stepped back as if a bullet had hit me. I saw a giant paw amongst the tall grass. Then a leg appears and finally a bushel basket head with two beady black eyes pointing right at me. Of course she was there the whole time. I had missed her. Or had I? It was Ursus arctos Linnaeus, the Alaska brown bear. 

Photo by Jeff Varvil

These bears know good fishing when they see it. This is a good illustration of why your "Sixth Sense" should be working!  Not all bears stand right out on the river bank where you can see them. 

She was fat and happy, around eight hundred pounds I figured. She had been gorging all fall on salmon and was content to watch this funny looking biped who was trespassing in her fishing grounds. I had been less then fifteen yards from her and she never moved. Maybe she was sleeping at the time I passed her. Maybe not. I don’t even like to think about it now. That was the closest I can say I have ever been to a wild brown bear. At least that I knew about? The fact is that if brown bears were all man killers, there would be a whole lot fewer fisherman on Alaska’s wild rivers. 

The brown bear (sometimes called a grizzly in North America) is a large animal, usually dark brown in color, though it can vary from a light creamy shade through to black. The long guard hairs over the shoulders and back are often tipped with white, which, from a distance, gives a grizzled appearance. The brown bear is characterized by a distinctive hump on the shoulders, a slightly dished profile to the face, and long claws on the front paws. 

There is considerable variability in the size of brown bears from different populations, depending on the food available. Determining representative weights of specific populations is also difficult as there are seasonal considerations to take into account. For instance, some bears can weigh twice as much in the fall as they might weigh in spring. Adult males may weigh 300-1200 lbs. compared with 205-800 lbs. for females. At birth, cubs weigh 11 oz. to 1 lb. 6 oz. 

The largest bears are found on the west coast of British Columbia and Alaska, and on offshore islands along coastal Alaska, such as Kodiak and Admiralty. Lake Clark, Katmai and Iliamnia drainages are also home to some true giants squaring over eleven feet. Brown bears occupy a wide range of habitats including dense forests, sub alpine mountain areas, and tundra. They were once abundant on the central plains of North America, but have since been extirpated. 

The range of the brown bear is the widest of any species of bear in the world. They are found in localized populations in eastern and Western Europe, across Northern Asia and in Japan. In North America, brown bears are found in western Canada, Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Washington. 

Female brown bears reach sexual maturity at four and a half to seven years of age. Males may become sexually mature at a similar age but are likely too small to enter the breeding population until they are eight to 10 years old. Mating takes place from early May to the middle of July but implantation does not occur until about October or November. The young are born from about January to March. The litter size ranges from one to four, but two is most common. 

Cubs remain with their mothers for at least two and a half years, so females generally breed every three years. In some areas, such as near the Arctic coast, the gap in breeding time is considerably longer. Longevity in the wild is 20 to 25 years. Under most circumstances, brown bears live as lone individuals, except for females accompanied by their cubs. During the breeding season, a male may attend a female for up to two weeks for mating. 

Brown bears are distributed in overlapping home ranges and male home ranges are larger than those occupied by females. Despite their propensity for a solitary existence, brown bears congregate at high densities where food is abundant, such as salmon streams or garbage dumps. In such circumstances, adult males are the more dominant. 

Photo courtesy of Jeff Varvil

Here I am with another reason we were on the river.

That brings us to where we started. As sport fishermen invade deeper into Alaska’s wild rivers to pursue various angling opportunities, they run the risk of human bear encounters. Jeff Gross, an Alaska state biologist agrees. He said, “avoid surprising bears, especially sows with cubs, [it’s a good idea to carry] a whistle to blow when moving through brush where visibility is poor. Be ever alert for signs of bears such as a half consumed salmon carcasses or bear scat”. Gross also said that, “If you do confront a bear do NOT try to run away…back away slowly while talking softly to the bear. If you come across a bear kill, leave the area immediately by backtracking where you came from”. 

That is sound advice from a pro. This writer’s advice is to carry a big gun or pepper spray and walk lightly, but loudly. Attacks rarely happen but having the means to protect yourself from an attack is a smart idea. In the United States and Canada during the 90’s, bears killed 29 people. During the same period, 250 were killed in dog attacks. You are 12 times more likely to die of a bee sting than a bear attack. Point being, bear attacks are rare, but always be prepared. Here are some more tips to improve your odds in bear country:

  • Identify yourself as human to bears you cannot avoid by talking and slowly waving your arms. Try to give the bear your scent.
  • Increase your distance from the bear, even if the animal appears unconcerned.  Do NOT run. That could invite pursuit.

If a bear approaches you, here are several things to remember:

  • Stand your ground!
  • Quickly assess the situation. Is the bear behaving defensively or in some other way?
  • Remain calm and remember that attacks are rare.
  • Do NOT run unless you are absolutely sure of reaching safety.
  • Prepare your deterrent.

If a bear approaches you in a non-defensive manner:

  • Talk to the animal in a firm voice.
  • Try to move away from the bears travel path.
  • If the bear follows you with its attention directed at you, STOP! Stand your ground and prepare to use your deterrent. 
  • Act aggressively towards the bear. SHOUT! Make yourself look as big as possible.
  • If the bear attacks, use your deterrent and fight for your life.

If the bear is approaching in a defensive manner:

  • Try to appear non-threatening.
  • Do not shout at the bear. Lower your head and eyes and talk to the bear in a calm voice. 
  • If the bear stops its approach, increase your distance from the animal.
  • If the bear continues its approach, stand your ground. Keep talking calmly and prepare to use your deterrent.
  • If the bear cannot be deterred and is intent on attack, fall to the ground as close to contact as possible and play dead.
  • When the attack stops, remain still and wait for the bear to leave. If an attack is prolonged or the bear starts to chew, it is no longer being defensive.

Remember: If an attack is defensive, play dead. If an attack is predatory, fight back. Though bears rarely attack people, they should be treated as a dangerous animal. Treat them with caution and respect. Learn as much as possible about bears and how your behavior can prevent problems. The safest thing to do when in bear country is to avoid all encounters with bears. 

Most of safety is preventing encounters:

  • Stay alert and be aware of your surroundings. 
  • Don’t surprise bears, warn them of your presence.
  • Choose campsites carefully and keep them clean and free of attractants.
  • Move away undetected from bears that are unaware of you or distant.

Remember…use all your senses, all six of them!  Enjoy all Alaska has to offer. 

Jeff Varvil has been an Alaskan fishing guide and rafter for many years and is currently the Manager for West Marine in Anchorage. 


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