In 2000 I was living and training for biathlon in Canada.

On July 6th, I had a good friend and teammate get attacked and killed by a black bear in Quebec.

One minute she was out on the run through the trees; the next minute, we were all getting phone calls about Mary Beth’s death.

I was back in the states when I heard of the bear attack and her death.

It was hard to lose a friend and teammate.

It was also hard knowing that the cause of her death was a black bear.

Since then, I haven’t been a fan of bears. I like them from a distance, but sometimes when I’m skiing or hiking on the trails, my thoughts turn to Mary Beth.

One thing that has helped calm my bear fears has been through education. Learning more about bears, both grizzly and black, and how they might react if I stumble on their path is essential to know.

Another thing that alleviates my fears is hiking with a can of bear spray in places where we expect to see bears.

Several years ago, my husband and I attended a workshop on how to use bear spray taught by our local Game & Fish office. And we were even able to practice using a training can of bear spray (one without capsaicin).

Here’s what we learned about how to use bear spray.

1) Carry bear spray on a hip holster or chest holster to make it easy to access. You can deploy bear spray straight from a hip holster.

2) When you’re being charged or attacked by a bear, remove the safety on the bear spray.

3) Steady your body and your can of bear spray and, with your thumb, deploy the trigger. You can hold onto the can of bear spray with your other hand for more stability (while you are peeing your pants…because let’s face it, a bear is charging you and wants to lick your face).

4) Spray several 2-3 second bursts when the bear is about 10-15 feet away. Pay attention to where the wind is blowing and aim the spray slightly down toward the ground since the bear will have it’s head closer to the ground while charging, and you’ll want the bear spray to get in the bears’ face.

5) After the bear feels the effects of the bear spray, it will likely back away and try to figure out what is going on. While the bear is confused, it’s your chance to high tail it out of there but do so calmly without running.

6) You will probably feel some effects of the bear spray too. You might feel some burning on your skin. Your eyes might water, you might choke a little bit, but that’s okay because it beats the alternative.

After any bear encounter, call and report aggressive bear behavior so they know. That report is essential!

While we didn’t use a real can of bear spray during our workshop, it was still good to learn how to remove the safety, press the trigger, and how to aim. It’s straightforward, but I don’t think it would be so easy to do while being charged.

A few other things to note:

  • When you’re doing your pre-hike check think about wildlife activity in your area and what you’ll need to protect yourself.
  • It’s a terrible idea to have your bear spray tucked away inside your pack. It seems obvious, but it’s worth mentioning because people do it.
  • It’s also a bad idea to leave your bear spray in a hot car. Bear spray can explode in high temperatures, and it can ruin the inside of your vehicle. 
  • It’s recommended that everyone in your group carries a can of bear spray, except someone who might not be able to remove the safety or use the spray properly, like a young child.
  • It’s a good idea to practice! Call your local Game & Fish Office, or look for wildlife awareness classes in your area to see if they can show you how to use a can of bear spray with a practice can.

Bears are beautiful and amazing animals. I hope never to have to use my can of bear spray on one, but if I do, I feel more confident that now I know how to do so.

Sometimes when I put on my old team warm-up jacket and see the ‘MB’ patch that my teammates and I sewed onto our jackets to remember Mary Beth, I know and respect the fact that the bear is stronger and mightier than me. I’m humble enough to realize that, but I’m no longer afraid. 

For more info on how to use bear spray check out these three websites.

-Rebecca

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