guns and Alaska for a working wilderness backpacker

7:11 p.m. on February 13, 2013 (EST)
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I am a wilderness botanist,  and up to this point all of my work and backpacking experience has been in the lower 48.  I would never even consider carrying a gun while backpacking in California.  The squelch on the radio is adequate in the very unlikely event of black bear attack, and mountain lions are way sneakier than I am, and really rare at the elevations that I work. 

It looks like I may be in Alaska this summer though, which raises the gun question.  I would wait until I am there and can better gauge the situation, but if I will end up wanting a gun, I want to get one now and start training with it.  As some minor gun safety training is required for the job, it seems possible I may be issued one, but this is solidly outside my area of expertise.  So my questions:

Is it practical to learn to shoot one accurately in three months?

Is a handgun of some sort a viable option?  As I will be working, a rifle seems cumbersome.  Do any of you have experience with multitasking while carrying a longer gun?  My inexperienced thought is that I would not be using it except at extremely short range, both because of concern over bluff charges, and worry over accuracy.

Is a gun even needed?  At this point it is likely that I will either be in central or northern Alaska, in some pretty remote areas, so I am interested in the answer to this question both in regard to brown bears and polar bears.

Thoughts on air horns would be appreciated as well.

I am particularly interested in feedback from people who work in rural Alaska or Northern Canada.


8:13 p.m. on February 13, 2013 (EST)
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Not sure how kindly everyone takes to posts regarding firearms, but here it goes. If you have little or no experience with a handgun, I'd recommend taking a course for safety reasons, and also a course on how to shoot properly. If you practice with a few hundred rounds over the course of a few months, using the tips from the skills class, you should become pretty decent.

You would need a pretty large caliber to do anything to a large bear, and large caliber guns are even harder to get good at shooting due to the recoil. If you want something that could legit protect you from a kodiak grizzly, I'd go with a .50 caliber pistol such as the Desert Eagle or a S&W .500 revolver. You'll need some serious coaching and practice with these guns.

If you're better with a rifle, go with a rifle. Shotguns have lots of stopping power, and you can even load the gun strategically with ammo so that you can give warnings to the wild life.

Start with a bean bag shot - when it hits the bear it will hurt like hell but not injure it. Might scare it off. Next round could be loaded with bird shot to cause a big spread that will hurt but not kill the bear. The rest of the loads would be slugs that could drop the bear if 3 or 4 were pumped out. 

get a good shoulder sling and you'll barely notice that it's on your back.

8:56 p.m. on February 13, 2013 (EST)
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Handguns are something I am quite familiar with, having competed and trained a few people over the last 30 years. 

Of course, a handgun is much more convenient and handy (ha ha) than a long gun, but certainly won't be as powerful as your options with a long gun.

Since I do have long time experience with firearms and handguns in particular, and now do some camping and backpacking in Yellowstone and surrounding areas, I've been particularly interested in this topic.

From everything that I've read, bear spray is really the way to go.  I read recently that bear spray is effective 95% of the time it has been used, and I really doubt that any sort of handgun is going to give you better results than that.  Also the expense of initial firearm purchase and ammo to become proficient is not inconsequential. Bear spray, on the other hand, is fairly cheap.

The only reason I can think of to carry a handgun would be in case of an attack in your tent at night. Spray would be pretty useless in that instance, but that would be an extemely rare and desperate situation.  

All that said, I do carry in grizzly country, both a handgun and bear spray. And while I am proficient (as in 10k-20k rounds a year for 30 years) with the handgun I'm not under any illusions about the so called stopping power of any handgun round.  Bears are big! Bears are tough! I really believe bear spray is the best option, and if you are in an area of very high bear activity, bring a shot gun.  

9:13 p.m. on February 13, 2013 (EST)
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Very good advice,alcap. I would carry bear spray, an air horn and a short pump shotgun. While you could prob become fairly proficient with a handgun in three months, the fear during an attack will take over with that small amount of training. A shotgun is much easier to shoot and there is a wide range of shells available. They make flash bang rounds as well as dragons breath, it shoots a tongue of flame for fifteen feet. I think your best bet is to try to scare them away first, then use deadly force to protect your life if needed. I carry a handgun, but have shot thousands and thousands of rounds a year for several decades. I dont have experience in alaska, but have many years of gun training.

12:00 a.m. on February 14, 2013 (EST)
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Alcap is spot on, IMO. Bear spray is effective and a horn would work too. However, what you carry will be somewhat determined by where you are in Alaska. If it is someplace like Denali, the brown bears there(often called Toklat Grizzlies) are not especially large as their food source is typical for mountainous area grizzlies. In places like McNeil River, the brown bears get big. If it is a high bear population area, most biologists I've worked with carry a shotgun. Usually this is a pump, some with a barrel as short as 26 inches. This makes it easier to handle. The standard bear load is to have 00 buckshot in the first round and deer slugs thereafter. A shotgun is easier to handle than a large caliber handgun. At McNeil River, I worked with the ranger there, and he had never had to use the shotgun to kill a bear in all the time he was there. Most bears are wary of humans. The problem bears are the camp bears and other bears that are habituated to humans, sick, old, hungry, or sometimes the young ones that have just gotten kicked out. The latter are often traveling to establish their own territory and are burning lots of valuable fat, but not getting enough to eat.

3:49 a.m. on February 14, 2013 (EST)
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Maybe the best way to approach this issue is to think, "What if I can't have a gun?" Consider every practice and habit that would help keep you safe. Become an expert in bear behavior, learn how to travel in the bush without surprising bears, envision close encounters, including attacks, by bears. I'm sure you have done all this. Carry two cans of bear spray if you will be out far from camp/base; you might encounter another bear on your way back.

A biologist friend of mine spends every summer in Glacier armed with only her wits and bear spray and has had many encounters but no full on attacks yet. It can be done.

As you know, if you are unfortunate enough to surprise a sow with cubs, you will have about two seconds to react. Do you think you will be able to draw a heavy revolver and fire toward the bear that fast? Probably not, but you probably won't be able to draw your spray inside of two seconds either.

When walking through a high danger area -- thick willows and alders -- be ready and able to lay down heavy suppressive fire in a heartbeat, whether from a can of spray or a Ruger Redhawk. Of course an 18" Mossberg 500 or a Remington 870 loaded with Brenneke or Dixie slugs is a little more deadly, and maybe easier to point and shoot than a .44 magnum. 

A lot of people in Alaska pack 10mm Glock pistols, maybe hoping that they can shoot a charging bear a few times really fast, thus dissuading it. This might be the best option if you are absolutely convinced that you must carry a handgun. While not as deadly on bear as a .44 mag it will be much easier to learn to shoot effectively, considering the .44's violent recoil when loaded with heavy cast bullets.

The idea is to do everything you possibly can to avoid harming a bear. Pepper spray repels bears really well almost all of the time, so focus on deploying that if you can.

10:54 a.m. on February 14, 2013 (EST)
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I worked in SE Alaska in the 1980s and saw bears everyday.  Once I got a close look at the coastal brown fish eating bears I carried a pistol only once.  I believe in bear spray and common sense.  Make noise a habit when you travel thru riparian zones or in low visibility areas or its foggy.  Never sleep anywhere near your food.

Lots of firearm choices.  They help me sleep better.  They give a tremendous psychological lift out in the wild places, especially when working alone.  Today I would carry a .45-70 rifle probably a Marlin lever like a guide gun.  They are stainless steel with a short barrel and easy to carry.  They can be fired rapidly and accurately with 5 rounds and over 3000 foot pounds of energy.

A Smith and Wesson .500 handgun is not for everyone.  It is easy to carry but difficult to control for the average person. Too much recoil.  A Glock 10 has a relatively puny 600 foot pounds of energy.  A .44 mag has more like 1200 ft pds and is about the max handgun most people can learn to shoot well.  A .454 Casull is in the 1800 foot pound range, but too much gun for many people.

A shotgun is good choice for people that don't have a lot of skill or interest in guns.  A 12 gauge is relatively light and easy to carry with a sling and can hold a lot of rounds.  00 buckshot and slugs are the preferred projectiles.

Make noise, carry bear spray, carry a firearm and pay attention.  People that work in the bush will see bears.  It comes with the territory.  Be smart about it and give yourself options in case you end up in a jam.  My time working in Alaska was one of the most exciting things I have ever done and the memories are like it was yesterday.

11:06 a.m. on February 14, 2013 (EST)
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I backpacked in Alaska in the late 70's and bicycle toured across Alaska in 2006. I saw on all occasions many bears, mostly brown bears, the Alaska version of the Grizzly. I never had a bad encounter and was in places like Denali, the Brooks Range and the Gates of the Arctic for many months at a time. I never had anything more than little jingling bells on my boots and pack. All the bears I saw or met on the trails and in the wilds never gave me any problems. 

I saw lots of others on foot and 4x4s with huge Dirty Harry style guns and rifles. They would make a big thing out of having to carry them being in Alaska.

I have carried a sling shot with me as I use it more for small game hunting than protection. I have had more problems with cow moose with their calves than any bears.

11:43 a.m. on February 14, 2013 (EST)
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Welcome to Trailspace Parkie!

This topic has been discussed extensively on Trailspace.  It might be worth doing a search and reading through other treads.

A few insights seem to have arisen through  many long discussions.  Forgive my interpretation and paraphrasing:

1. No single strategy is sufficient to mitigate risk when traveling in bear country.

2. Most experienced travelers recommend multiple, redundant and flexible deterrent (air horn, firecrackers, small-caliber handguns , buckshot, bear spray) and offensive (high caliber handguns, shotguns with slugs, high caliber rifles) measures.

3. Strategies for risk mitigation in grizzly country are different from strategies in black bear country. Polar bears are widely regarded as more predatory and dangerous than both.

4. Knowledge of bear behavior is essential to avoid encounters and manage them if they occur.

5. Personal behavior modification (announcing your presence, scanning for sign and prints, storing food properly) are important strategies in preventing adverse encounters.

6. Bear spray is effective in deterring attacks from black and grizzly bears.  Evidence for the efficacy of bear spray against polar bears is much thinner.

In other words, your decision to carry a firearm is an important one, but many other factors will have a great influence on your relative risk of adverse bear encounters.

1:32 p.m. on February 14, 2013 (EST)
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One thing that the guides we used when photographing the bears in Alaska carry with them that doesn't get mentioned much, and is omitted in Seth's excellent summary above is road flares. For some reason, the bears seem to be intimidated by something about the flares - sound? appearance? The guides also were equipped with spray and firearms, though all the ones we worked with said they had never had to use the guns - the spray and the flares had proven over a number of years to be fully effective, as well as knowledge of bear behavior and modifying your own behavior.

The main thing is, as Seth points out, thorough education and mentoring from those who work daily in the bear areas.


2:25 p.m. on February 14, 2013 (EST)
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Here's a link to an article about whether spray is more effective than a firearm.

I have a paper copy of a USFS study conducted in 1998(I can't seem to find it online) that determined when a firearm was used in a bear attack, there were more serious injuries than if pepper spray was used. Their conclusion was that the wounded bear, in many cases, fatally wounded bear was angered even more by being hurt and managed to inflict more serious injuries on the victim.

The bottom line in all this, is that attacks by bears, versus bear encounters, is very small. You are more apt to get struck and killed by a car on your way to the outdoor store to pick up bear spray, than you are getting hurt by a bear in the bush.

3:03 p.m. on February 14, 2013 (EST)
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A while ago I posted a link to a University of Alaska study that showed that out of the hundreds of bear attacks in the state where bear spray was deployed, no one ever got killed, and injuries were from being knocked over while the bear scrambled to escape. And unlike the retaliatory behaviour Erich mentions, the use of bear spray didn't provoke an aggressive response. 

If you're not familiar with guns, I suspect you'd be more likely to shoot yourself in the foot than injure the bear. You don't have to aim a can of bear spray very carefully at all, and little training is required to use it. 

I started carrying bear spray when I realized that everybody I know who work for Parks in the Canadian Rockies carried bear spray, and the only ones who carried a gun did so for use against rowdy tourists. 

3:17 p.m. on February 14, 2013 (EST)
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Seth said:

2. Most experienced travelers recommend multiple, redundant and flexible deterrent (air horn, firecrackers, small-caliber handguns , buckshot, bear spray) and offensive (high caliber handguns, shotguns with slugs, high caliber rifles) measures.


To clarify, many experienced backcountry travellers in the US, where carrying a gun is both culturally acceptable and legal, suggest carrying a gun of some kind in addition to bear spray, despite repeated studies that show them to be no more effective against bear attacks than any other noisemaker. Many comment, though, that the gun is for protection from people not bears. 

In every other country, hunters might carry a rifle if they're intent on shooting a bear, but for defensive purposes no one else carries one. 

When I ran into a tourist coming down a trail in Jasper with a hand gun poking out of a waistband pocket, I tried my best to get him arrested, but I guess he managed to evade the wardens on his way back to the border. 

3:48 p.m. on February 14, 2013 (EST)
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Seth, multiple deterrents are recommended certainly, and these include air horns, spray, banging on pans. I would not include a small caliber handgun. As a noise maker, perhaps, but in your haste, you are more likely to anger the bear and shoot yourself in the foot, literally and figuratively. 

Here's a link to an article on myths about bears. Knowledge about bears can keep us safe.

6:24 p.m. on February 14, 2013 (EST)
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I’d very highly recommend to go heeled!

It’s better to have one and not need it than need one and not have it, and when you need a gun, you really really need a gun, and little else will do!

I'd recommend you get a nice used .357 magnum revolver, or .40 or .45 caliber automatic. Maybe even a 10 mm if you can find a used Glock in that caliber.

 Eh, I’d also recommend taking a 12 gauge shotgun along!

Nothing beats the effectiveness of a 12 gauge at close range, and they are cheap to buy and easy to learn to manipulate. It’s just hard to hang one on your hip. But I’d like heck have one in the truck!

Put a sling on the shotgun and you can carry it easily enough while hiking or even backpacking. The sidearm can go in a cheap nylon shoulder holster and will not interfere with backpack straps much, if at all. If not carrying a pack, use a cheap nylon hip holster.

By all means try the pepper spray, try to avoid trouble any way you can and what-not, and don’t think you will stop a charging bear with a handgun – Any hand gun, unless you have the kind of experience Alcap and some others have.

Me, I’d take one of my trusty .44 thumbusters with heavy loads and I’d try to break the back of any charging bear, but I’ve been slinging heavy .44 thumbusters for over twenty years.

But this doesn’t mean that a handgun will not save your life. You do have to know your way around that gun, and sidearms take a great deal more training to use effectively than a long arm, but you don’t have to be Wyatt Earp to save yerself. If you use that sidearm on a bear, it will be in a point blank dust up.

Here are a few documented cases where a having a handgun handy saved a few lives. Note that none of the weapons used are usally considered "bear guns" -

A grizzly bear that emerged from a thicket and charged two backpackers in the backcountry of Denali National Park and Preserve was shot and killed by one of the two who was carrying a .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol, according to park officials


Here is a neat series of still photos showing a Montana game warden mixing it up with a griz before killing it with a .357 magnum revolver.

The rangers up in Alaska have started carrying .40 caliber handguns as have most law enforcement folks these days and yes, they have killed a few very big bears with the "little" .40 calibers.

Bear killed with .40 caliber handgun -

Park rangers encountered a large, aggressive male brown bear within minutes of arriving. Ranger Joel Ellis said two officers stood by with shotguns as he fired 11 times with a semi-automatic handgun before the animal fell, 12 feet away.

So, if you haven’t armed yourself before now for the defense of self and family from two and maybe even four legged critters, it is certainly time to do so now ( And what took you so long??).

For specific recommendations, go to yer local pawn shop or gun shop, and look over the used pump action 12 gauge shotguns. For less than 300 bucks you should be able to pick up a dandy. Remington, Mossberg, maybe an old Winchester 1200 or 1300 ( my personal pick, they have a lighter aluminum receiver ) lots of good ones out there. Get something with a short barrel but you don't need an extended magazine.

You can even go to Bi-Mart or maybe Wal-Mart and get a good deal on such a gun -

Next, the sidearm.

If you stick with quality guns like Glock and Ruger, you’re  almost guaranteed to get a decent used handgun. Of course there are many, many makes and models of used handguns, but these two brands are among the most rugged of sidearms ever invented by Mankind, and you can buy a used one with confidence. Not always so other brands. 

 So start off by asking  “Got any used Ruger .357s?” and see what turns up. Next, “How ‘bout any used .40, .45, or maybe 10mm automatics, Glocks or maybe Rugers?” See what fits, tickles your fancy, and fits your budget.  

Revolvers have some real advantages – If a bear does get on top of you, you can draw a revolver, press it into the side of the bear, and discharge it. This is called a contact wound, and it is a very terrible thing indeed because the gas that propels the bullet also enters the body of the thing yer shooting. Very messy, blood and stuff will be blown back out of the wound, but your revolver will not jam and you can continue firing until the bear gets the heck off you, or dies, or you run out of bullets.

Revolvers are also very easy to learn to load, unload, clean and care for, and you can tell at a glance if it is loaded, and they have no saftey levers or buttons to mess with before you shoot, just grab it up and yank that trigger.  They are a very good pick for a beginning pistolero.

Automatics have some real advantages too – They are rather easy to shoot for a given caliber. I’m sure you could pick up the handling of a full size .40, .45 or even 10mm  auto pretty durn easily.  This is because these guns have reciprocating parts that partially absorb the recoil forces, and they are typically chambered for milder calibers than the magnum revolvers. Even the “powerful” 10mm is no hotter than my “Skeeter” .44 special revolver loads, and is really a pussycat to shoot.

They also usually have more bullets on board, and that can be a very fine thing indeed.

But the care and feeding is more complicated, and you’d have to learn how to disassemble the thing for cleaning and you have to learn the proper drills to load, unload and clear jams and the like.

Also, if a bear gets on top of you and starts chewing on yer neck, and you draw yer trusty automatic and press it into the side of the bear, the slide can be pushed back out of battery just enough ( 1/8th inch will do it ) and the gun will not go off! Even if it did, the body fluids blown back out of such a close contact body shot may well indeed jam the gun, rendering it useless.

Don’t, whatever you do, tell the gun dealer you’re buying a gun for defense from bears!  They will try to sell you very expensive, and very powerful revolver like the .500 S&W, .454 Casul, or at least a .44 magnum, and believe me,  YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO LEARN TO SHOOT SUCH A POWERFUL WEAPON IN THE SHORT TIME YOU HAVE!

Don’t even try to go there! Use the 12 gauge if you have to, and save the sidearm for point blank dust ups, which is what they are ideal for.


Anf please feel free to contact me if you have specific questions.

- Bawana.          

7:20 p.m. on February 14, 2013 (EST)
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I should add – That shotgun is a mighty versatile weapon indeed, and is great as a deterrent as well as killin’

Back when my wife and I first homesteaded our bit of forest we pulled a small travel trailer up into the hills and started work on our little off grid cottage, and right away we right away ran into trouble with nuisance black bears.  We had this dang bear hanging around that we just couldn’t get rid of. We kept our camp as clean as possible, no trash or anything left about.

 I was worried that one fine day when I was off at work it might indeed maul my wife, who was always out in the forest.

Sure, I could have easily killed it, but I like wildlife, and I like living Where The Wild Things Roam. One night that dang bear was messing in our camp, and I up and ran outside buck naked and wielding my pet .44 magnum Ruger Boat Anchor. I shot right by the beasts head, under his belly and all around him. I emptied the gun. The bear just sat down and looked at me.

I didn’t know if I should re-load and kill the silly thing or what! So I gave it up and went back to bed.

But no amount of loud noise scared that thing off. I called the DNR, told ‘em my bear troubles and they said “So? You moved into the bears neighborhood, deal with it.”  Then the guy on the line paused as if looking around the office, and asked in a lower voice, “You got a shotgun?”  He explained that I should pepper the bears butt with a very light load of # 8 bird shot to drive it off.

A bear, even a black bear, is thick skinned and the birdshot will do no real harm, but it will hurt like the dickens, and to drive off a bear you must hurt it!

That bear eventually did stop messing with us, probably because it never got anything to eat from us, so I didn’t get to try the bird shot on him.

A few years latrer, I had another interesting bear encounter. My wife and I had gone on a five day backpacking trip – And we’d forgotten to get rid of the small amount of garbage in our kitchen first! –

Yep, it got ripe ( it was summer ) and when we got back we found some real cool bear prints on our cottage windows!

We heated water on our stove and my wife got the first hot shower. I stepped out the back door to go to the outhouse, and ran into Mr. Black Bear at a distance of about five feet.

Now, naturally I was carrying my trusty pump action 12 gauge shotgun – I mean I did know we had a bear in the area checking us out, and honestly I very seldom go to the outhouse unarmed anyway – What self-respecting backwoodsman does?

I stood my ground and got mad as heck and yelled at that bear. He stood his ground and growled at me!   So I emptied that 12 gauge into the dirt right under his nose!

Four rounds of 00 buckshot.  Have you ever been on the business end of a 12 gauge at point blank range?     

The bear didn’t even blink! He stood his ground and growled some more at me, and my gun was empty now...

I was so mad I almost banged him over the head with the empty gun, but instead I retreated inside ( and told my wife, who was still happily enjoying her first hot shower in five days and not about to leave the shower unless she had to but was understandably concerned, what all the noise was about  ) and got my trusty AK-47 and went back out.

The bear had circled the cottage, and was moving to the front porch. I stood in front of the porch and yelled at him, but he kept coming.

Right about then I figured that bear needed to die – But I figured I’d give him one last chance.

I aimed over his head and ripped off five fast rounds, and the bear ran away.  

I re-loaded my shotgun with more 00 buckshot, but the last round I thumbed in ( last in, first out! ) was #8 bird shot.

A few days later I was getting ready for bed and brushing my teeth. Do you stand in from of the bathroom mirror and watch yerself brush yer teeth, or do you wander about while brushing?

I’m of the wandering type myself, and I happened to glance out the window and sure enough, the bear was back!

I grabbed up that shotgun and ran outside in my underwear, toothbrush firmly clamped in my mug!


One blast of the # 8 to his butt from about 50 feet away did indeed send him flying!

And I went easy on him and he caught only part of the pattern, the rest of the shot went into my outhouse door, where it is to this day.

I could hear that bear run clear over the mountain.

In the years since, I’ve used the # 8 birdshot trick again, with similar results.

The moral of the story is this – To drive off a bear, noise will not work at all, and you must HURT it.

When my one neighbor on this mountain gets bears in his yard he trees then with his dogs, and gets out his trusty Wrist Rocket sling shot, and empties a whole bag of marbles into that bears hide!!    



Thwap !

And so on. Then he takes the dogs inside and watches from a window as the bear slinks off, never to raid his garden again.

Now when I shoot a bear with # 8, I do indeed instantly rack that slide and chamber some 00 or even 000 buckshot, and bring that blunderbuss right back down onto target.

Ain’t no telling if that bear may charge, and having seen bears run I know just how fast they are.

So anyway, as I was sayin’, the 12 gauge is about as versatile as a tool can be, and it is downright surprising what some folk stuff down the muzzle of these things.   

You can get bean bags, rubber buckshot, rubber slugs, exploding shells, pepper spray blasts, light bird shot, buck shot, and 3” slugs that will knock a grizz right on his butt you name it!

I’d trust a blast of rubber buckshot to drive off a bear every time – And you rack that slide as the gun recoils and chamber 00 buck, and if it doesn’t leave, you can defend yerself.

Yep, anyone going into bear country should have a 12 gauge.

7:24 p.m. on February 14, 2013 (EST)
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go with a shotgun and bear spray. load the shotgun with slugs, and use it if the bear spray doesn't work. the best defense is prevention. make a lot of noise in the backcountry. letting the bears know you're there is the better way to go.

10:20 p.m. on February 14, 2013 (EST)
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Edtbob, you should have put him in the freezer. The third time I had a problem with the same bear, he would become dinner. Black bear is delicious, espescially smoked or slow roasted. I know im gonna hear some negative comments, but it does taste really good, very rich like moose meat.

8:12 a.m. on February 15, 2013 (EST)
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I like Erich's point about making a wounded bear angry. That is very true. Any animal is much more dangerous once hurt, wounded, or fearing for it's life.

10:13 a.m. on February 15, 2013 (EST)
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When firing at a target that moves towards you, zigzagging as attacking bears do,  you can miss, and even if you do hit it, it will probably keep coming. Unless it dies immediately, it will be angry and in pain. Not a nice companion to have.

When you fire spray in the general direction of a bear it forms a cloud 10-25 feet in front to you that the bear runs into. The bears skids to a halt and runs away. 

Bottom line - bear spray always works when fired. Guns only work sometimes. 

Polular opinion to the contrary, guns don't solve every problem you might run into. 

But I would direct you back to the original enquiry The OP is admittedly inexperienced with firearms, yet you're telling him/her to lug around military grade firepower. Do you seriously expect the OP, with those skills,  to be able to kill a charging grizzly with one shot? 

10:46 a.m. on February 15, 2013 (EST)
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was the question directed at me? He asked about fire arms, I gave him a concise answer that was quite accurate judging the other answers that also referred to fire arms in terms of bullet size and options. "Military grade firepower" is necessary for a large animal like that. He wanted an answer, I told the truth. I also told him he should receive safety training and take a handling course. What he does from there has nothing to do with me.

You sound anti-gun, and I'm ok with that if it's your choice, but your statement that bear spray always works is literally false. There are very few things that are constant and fail proof. Bear spray has the potential to misfire or malfunction. That is a fact, especially if it expires, is stored incorrectly, or gets used improperly. Also, guns only misfire or malfunction when you've done something to cause that, aka human interference, such as not clean it, put it in conditions that are bad for it, or give it ammo that doesn't work well. It's okay not to like guns, but don't be irrational about it.

I carry a gun AND bear spray when I hike in summer. The bear spray is for animals, the gun is for protection. The gun is also useful for loud signaling in the event of a last ditch effort to be found. I've read about hunters being found this way when they were lost. If you tried to get me arrested in any similar fashion when I was hiking, you'd just get laughed at. I research the open carry laws and follow them strictly whenever I choose to exercise that right while hiking.

11:18 a.m. on February 15, 2013 (EST)
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To clarify with Parkie, you mention polar bears and northern Alaska. Unless you are in a northern coastal area, you will not find polar bears. Polar bears are known to see anything as prey. After all, we are smaller than a good sized seal, but probably less dangerous looking. What is changing, is that the sea ice is disappearing because of climate change. Polar bears are having to swim large distances to hunt. While they are good swimmers, they burn lots of valuable fat when they do this. What is happening in some areas, (I don't know about Alaska) is that what are called grolar bears are being produced, which are a barren lands grizzly/polar bear mix. What I don't know and there have not been enough observations on this, is if these grolar bears exhibit a combination of traits of their parents. Are they producing more predatory barren lands bears?

Certainly any polar bear that is hungry is apt to take more risks to survive, and that might mean a confrontation with man.

I will note that in the aftermath of the story Bob cites, about the two hikers who killed a bear in Denali, a couple of things emerged. One was that upon hearing something in the bushes presumably a bear, one of the hikers drew his pistol and they kept approaching the noise. As well, they say they ran back to road to in form rangers. Both of these behaviors are contradictory to what you should do if you wish to avoid a confrontation with a bear.

On a tragic note, Denali suffered its first fatality by a bear last summer, when a lone male hiker was mauled by a bear. In video the hiker took, it was determined that the bear was grazing while the hiker was filming the bear for up to eight minutes. Conceivably, the hiker entered the bear's "safe area". When the hiker's body was recovered, the bear in question was killed, but there was at least one other bear in the area.

12:15 p.m. on February 15, 2013 (EST)
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In answer to Parkie's question about firearms training, it is mandatory for Biologists in the NWT to have specialized firearms training. This includes "speed loading" shotguns while maintaining target acquisition. Also, our Biologists have hand gun training and carry a .44 magnum while working on the sea ice. We also use spotters who' s job it is to watch out for approaching bears.

As for the Grolar bear mentioned by Erich, there have been numerous sightings and samples of these hybrids in the area of Banks Island and Victoria Island. There is evidence that they are fertile as DNA tests have shown. I have not heard of hybrids occurring in Alaska, though but then anything is possible. The sample size of existing hybrids is far too small to draw any conclusions as to their aggressiveness or lack there of.

Polar bears have been known to wonder far inland. A polar bear sighting was confirmed in far north eastern Saskatchewan about ten years ago. Polar bears have also been spotted around Deline, outside of Norman Wells. Unfortunately, they were shot.

First and foremost, follow the safety regulations of your employer and check on liability. As for me, I carry a firearm all the time for work, but when I am out on my own time I seldom do.

It is important to remember that, in spite of all the rhetoric and hype, human/bear encounters are extremely rare and usually the end result is a dead bear. Not bad odds considering the number of human fatalities in our cities.

1:25 p.m. on February 15, 2013 (EST)
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Good discussion as usual.  Bear spray is a great tool to have.  EtdBob's calibers are too light.

1:42 p.m. on February 15, 2013 (EST)
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Agreed. Bear spray is a great tool. Although, you may have issues carrying it on an aircraft.

3:19 p.m. on February 15, 2013 (EST)
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hotdogman said:

Edtbob, you should have put him in the freezer. The third time I had a problem with the same bear, he would become dinner. Black bear is delicious, espescially smoked or slow roasted. I know im gonna hear some negative comments, but it does taste really good, very rich like moose meat.

 Be aware that bears are carriers of trinchinella spiralis worms. At leas one Arctic expedition died from eating bear meat and picking up trinchinosis as a result.

4:27 p.m. on February 15, 2013 (EST)
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BillS. did you mean Trichinosis? If so, it is caused by a ringworm called Trichinella spirelis and is common in pork and wild game. I eat bear meat regularly, including black, grizzly and polar bear. The parasite is easily destroyed by cooking meat to an internal temperature of 62C, that's well done.

4:28 p.m. on February 15, 2013 (EST)
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 Polar bear liver is poisonous. The vitamin A in polar bear liver is more than enough for a toxic dose.

9:31 p.m. on February 15, 2013 (EST)
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Bottom line - bear spray always works when fired. Guns only work sometimes. 

When you really need bear spray to work is in those conditions that cause a bear to be startled and thus fearful. 

  • You are downwind of the bear and the wind is high. The bear can't smell you or hear you and you don't see him. You startle the bear, he charges in self-defense, you use the bear spray and it blows back into your face. 
  • A heavy rain obscures the sound of your walking and vision is limited. You startle a bear, he charges in self-defense, you use the bear spray and the rain drives the spray mist into the ground.
  • A strong cross-wind blows the mist away as quickly as you spray.

I'm sure others can provide other scenarios in which bear spray will be ineffective. "Always" is a very strong word.

8:57 a.m. on February 16, 2013 (EST)
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Personally I've never had to carry a gun in the backcountry, but it is more accurate to say that I'm pro-bear spray than anti-gun.

I referred you all to the U of Alaska study, which found that in not a single case when bear spray was deployed did someone get killed. In every case, the victom survived (although three people were injured) and the bear left the area long enough for them to escape. Of those three injuries, two were in hospital for less than 24 hrs, and only one had to stay longer. In the Brigham Young University study, covering 20 years and hundreds of confrontations, the results were even better with only 3 injuries, where none required hospitalization. 

It could be said that any injury, even one caused by the bear running someone over while trying to escape, negates the 100% success rate, but I would argue that success can be measured more accurately by the fact that everybody lived to tell the tale. That would be 'all the time'. 

Here's the University of Alaska study:

Summaries of the Brigham Young University study here, with two issues addressed - one as to whether bear spray works, and the other comparing it to using a gun:

And a few published analyses:

Interestingly, this New York Times article, based on the Journal of Wildlife Management publication, challenges the earler conclusion that bear spray doesn't work as well on polar bears as on black or brown bears, saying only that it was only tested on a too-small sample group of 5 bears but worked perfectly in those cases.

A 1998 review of Steven Herrero's 1985 University of Calgary study changes his earlier conclusions a bit to agree with the U of A:

Another source also quotes Hererro's findings that 50% of gun users were injured when trying to defend against a bear attack, but 92% of those using bear spray were uninjured. Note that it takes an average of four accurate gun shots to stop a charging grizzly. 

And of 71 instances studied that time, only 5 were affected by the wind (although in every case it worked!). In none of the hundreds of cases cited in the various studies did the bear spray fail to fire and in none did it fail to reach the bear in sufficient quantities to deter the attack. An excellent summary here, by an organization that works in this area every day:

More instructions here on how to use it properly:

Gentlemen and ladies, there are four independent studies cited here, produced by experts at three different universities, and summaries and conclusions published in a variety of professional journals, outdoor magazines and local and national newspapers.

The science backs it all up. If you want absolutes, the information is there. If you don't like the conclusions, the only thing left to do would be to take a can of bear spray and go fire it at a bear. Alternatively, groups like Wildsmart (above) offer training with dummy cans, or you can just wait until the one you have expires and go blast a bush with it. If you've never tried it, you'll find it an enlightening experience. 

9:04 a.m. on February 16, 2013 (EST)
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I dont doubt that bear spray works most of the time. I dont wanna be one of the three that got chewed a little, I carry spray, a horn and a gun. As ive said before im always gear heavy in other areas, why not be the most prepared I can. I dont advocate a gun for the average hiker, they are expensive and dangerous in untrained hands. If you arent trained, you are more likely to shoot another member of your group, or your own foot by accident. Bear attacks happn really fast, the less aware you are, the faster they will seem.

10:49 a.m. on February 16, 2013 (EST)
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Good points by waders, and excellent references by Peter.  It is telling to me how often bush people from Alaska and Canada rely on firearms.  They are always the last resort.

We should remember that the dumb sh*ts at the top of the thread were saved by using a revolver as a deterrent.

1:00 p.m. on February 16, 2013 (EST)
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"There are lies, damn lies, and statistics." - Samuel Clemens

In all of the 4 incidents the spray apparently changed the behavior of the bear; however, in no cases did the bear leave the area after being sprayed. In 1 case the bear was shot and killed after being sprayed. In another case the bear left after a shotgun was fired. In the other 2 cases the person left. In 1 the bear didn't follow, but in the other the bear followed and the person was finally able to make it to camp, but only after firing a bear banger. No people were injured.

from Field Use of Capsicum Spray as a Bear Deterrent -- Stephen Herrero and Andrew Higgins -- in speaking of four aggressive black bears

So, the "100% success rate" mentioned in a post above depends upon supplementing pepper spray with shotguns and bear bangers. That doesn't seem like a success for the spray, but for firearms. It might more accurately be summed up as follows:  "In 75% of the cases of aggressive black bears in the study, after use of bear spray it was necessary to take other action with firearms or explosives." 


3:45 p.m. on February 16, 2013 (EST)
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there's another option - a bear banger.

10:48 p.m. on February 16, 2013 (EST)
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I agree with just about everyone on here. All the positives point to bear spray as the best form of protection when it comes to bear encounters. Though it's never a bad idea to carry. A good short barrel 12 gauge is a great defense gun under any type of hostile encounter.

But, if you are not comfortable with firearms, by all means... nothing is better than proper training. I'm not sure about your area, but most sheriff offices hold training classes. Although, being in California you might end up with a pair of those bright polished bracelets from behind; just for asking. Don't get me wrong, Cali is beautiful country; but the politics are wack.

9:31 a.m. on February 17, 2013 (EST)
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Nice job by waders.  A large caliber pistol is a bear banger.

I wouldn't take a gun class from the sheriff's office if my life depended on it.  They are full of Barney Fife type guys who are not very knowledgeable about guns.  The nearest gun range here has a canopy over it.  It is full of bullet holes.  You guessed it, the police firing range.

1:35 p.m. on February 17, 2013 (EST)
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Wow ppine,

Sounds like I wouldn't put much faith in the Nevada law enforcement. One of the benefits of the south is that most of us grow up around firearms. (maybe thats where that shoe Reno 911 started from) Learning at an early age, the basics. The classes offered around here are a good start for beginners.

But, like I said when it comes to Cali... beautiful place. One of my favorite states when it comes to the landscape. But I'd take an ugly state anyday just knowing I don't have someone telling me to sit or stand when I hit the head.

2:27 p.m. on February 17, 2013 (EST)
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I was speaking of the bear banger device - an explosive device. it's kind of like a rocket propelled m80. supposed to scare the bear away. they work from what I understand. as far as gun classes goes, our local range has an instructor who is an ex marine. no barney here.

9:22 p.m. on February 17, 2013 (EST)
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Why not use a bangstick? It could be used as a trekking staff with the bang in the handle! That way, it would always be where you need it, in your hand. Of course, you would only use it if the bear got close enough. Having the bangstick  would give you confidence. A 50 cal. bangstick would take down a medium-size black bear if you got him in the head. (A brown bear, not so much.)



2:03 p.m. on February 18, 2013 (EST)
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I have no objection to someone carrying a gun as another defense, in addition to bear spray, bangers, and horns. However, the caveat here is that a firearm takes training, and in the event that you use it, you will have to kill the bear, not merely leave it wounded in the bush, or anger it enough that it tears you or your partner to pieces before it dies. As well, I am concerned that a bear might just be bluffing, it might not be an actual attack, so understanding bear behavior is important. And determining a bluff is not easy, unless you have a good deal of experience with such behavior. Who here has had multiple experiences with a bluff charges?

10:39 p.m. on February 18, 2013 (EST)
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I'm glad you have no objection to someone carrying a gun; though I don't think anyone gives a fig whether you object or not. 

You are

concerned that a bear might just be bluffing, it might not be an actual attack, so understanding bear behavior is important. And determining a bluff is not easy, unless you have a good deal of experience with such behavior. Who here has had multiple experiences with a bluff charges?

Well, you are concerned that a bear may just be bluffing; but the hiker should be concerned that the bear may not be bluffing. The best practice then, when you see a bear charging, should be to assume it is an attack and prepare to kill the bear while you are still out of the bear's reach. Establish a deadline. Since we need to have experienced multiple bluff charges before we can determine the bear's intent; and since we don't have that experience; it is logical that we consider all cases worst cases. If we err on the side of safety and a bear dies because it was charging us, at least we are alive. We will never know the bear's intent, unless he left a note.

12:28 a.m. on February 19, 2013 (EST)
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Amen! Better safe than sorry!

2:44 a.m. on February 19, 2013 (EST)
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I think, waders and hotdog, you miss my point. As with the other thread, it is of prime importance, to understand bear behavior. That includes learning their language. Dr. Lynn Rogers mentions that bears are quite predictable, whereas much common myth says that bears are unpredictable. As has been noted in the studies that have been cited in this and the other thread, there have been more serious injuries when a bear is shot and wounded. I am not advocating that you should not go with a firearm if it makes you feel safe. But not everyone may be as skilled with firearm, or as cool one needs to be in a dangerous situation. One poster mentioned breaking a charging bear's spine with a pistol shot. Another, putting a shot through the eye. Possible? Certainly! But as a planned defense? Over the last forty years that I have had bear encounters, I have heard the usual myths. A bear that stands is about to attack, humans can outrun a bear down hill, bears have poor eyesight. Early on, I believed some. As I encountered more bears, and participated in studies and filmed them, my fear, the irrational fear that many people have, became respect with the knowledge of bears as a complex species. My posts are not meant to create a gun vs. spray attitude, but to inspire people to learn more about bear behavior. Certainly we should err on the side of safety. But arming ourselves with the knowledge of a bear's body language is one more defensive weapon in our quiver. And though a bear cannot leave a written note as to it's intention, it's body language can tell us a great deal. Is it rocking back and forth, has it clacked it's teeth, has it yawned, what noises is it making? These are all part of the bear's language. Waders, you are obviously a successful and knowledgeable fisherman. You understand fish behavior, enough so that you have published a book about their ability to see different wave lengths. So too the successful hunter, or in my case the successful wildlife photographer, has to understand the species that he is stalking. Have I carried a firearm on some of my arctic trips? Yes. But my main defense was trying very hard not to put myself in a situation where I might have to use it.

Trailspace is a great resource of people from diverse backgrounds, ages and locations who are all interested in experiencing the outdoors in different ways. As we worry over the best tarp, the best stove, the best pack, we may lose sight of the knowledge of our environment and the species within it, both flora and fauna. The gear helps us connect with the places, and the ecology we find there. But our experience in that stone wall in the Smokies, or that river in the NWT, or that pass in the High Sierras, is why we leave our urban and rural environments and seek something else.

10:22 a.m. on February 19, 2013 (EST)
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Well said Erich. My comment may have been misunderstood, I would rather see a dead bear than a dead person. I agree completely with your thoughts about learning bear behavior. There are so many anti-gun people on here I find myself in the position of defending a right we all have. I am a gun person, card carrying member of the nra, but im not unreasonable. People with no training should not carry a gun, period. I dont live in grizzly country, but see blacks quite regularly. Some have been aggressive, most just ran. I dont want to shoot a bear for no reason, but I dont wanna be killed either.

12:22 p.m. on February 28, 2013 (EST)
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Amen hotdogman! The anti-gunners may think another way when the are exposed to a threat without an equelizer. Be it an animal, a criminal, or their own powers that be. (That in itself is for another site all together)

3:45 p.m. on February 28, 2013 (EST)
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I don't really have an opinion on if there should be a gun. I DO have an opinion on wounding wild game with number 8 bird shot, and that opinion is very poor.

In my past I have been a trapper / hunter and I have taken game in traps that were shot with number 8 shot, and left wounded, alive, to become infected, and that is not pretty, and ruins any meat, and trashes any fur.

There can be no worse death for game, than to be 'lightly shot' and left with 0 medical attention until death.

 IMO if one carries a weapon and would fire it as a warning at game, that's one thing.. But Miss or Kill.

Other wise for bear, use nothing smaller than 00 Buck.

6:36 a.m. on March 1, 2013 (EST)
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Lodge pole, I like you more with every post you make. Thats a good point no one has made yet. Not just having a gun, but having the right gun and ammo is a must.

1:02 p.m. on March 1, 2013 (EST)
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A big welcome to Lodge Pole.  Are you a tipi man?  Glad to hear from smart, experienced people.

8:17 p.m. on March 1, 2013 (EST)
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I wouldn't waste time with bird shot. all you'll do is piss the bear off. you need to use slugs - something with real stopping power. 00 buck may work, but you would need a few shots to do the job and you may not have that much time. you want to stop the bear first and kill it second, or just kill it first. I too am a card carrying member of the NRA. by the way, welcome lodge pole!

8:28 p.m. on March 1, 2013 (EST)
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hotdogman said:

Lodge pole, I like you more with every post you make. Thats a good point no one has made yet. Not just having a gun, but having the right gun and ammo is a must.

 Some day i will have to tell the tail of shooting a deer I thought had been wounded, and left to live..

The short:

 Turned out to be the best eating deer I had yet. That deer was soused on rotten apples. So much for mercy killing huh? Totally ruined my hunting season. I should have clubbed it with a stick.... (boo hoo)

8:31 p.m. on March 1, 2013 (EST)
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ppine said:

A big welcome to Lodge Pole.  Are you a tipi man?  Glad to hear from smart, experienced people.

 yup :-)

8:50 p.m. on March 1, 2013 (EST)
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Trailjester said:

I wouldn't waste time with bird shot. all you'll do is piss the bear off. you need to use slugs - something with real stopping power. 00 buck may work, but you would need a few shots to do the job and you may not have that much time. you want to stop the bear first and kill it second, or just kill it first. I too am a card carrying member of the NRA. by the way, welcome lodge pole!

 Did you just change your avatar? Or did Ii have a senior moment?

ugg   :-(


I agree to never use bird shot on anything but birds you hope to put in the pot.

Using bird shot to scare game to make a noise may or not have the desired effect. But shooting any game with bird shot not a bird will still kill the game animals some day, and until that day that game animal will suffer pure Hell.


 The idea is sickening to me. I have encountered this before and seen the end results several times. usually garbage raccoons loaded with number 8's and sick, infected and dying, with worthless pelts, rotten teeth all festered and skin infections that would make most sane people puke.


My policy for varmints as i have no Griz is Miss clean or Kill.

I see black bear all the time, hiking, just walking in the dooryard, riding my mc bike... 

Only one, well 2 a mama and her cub became of any concern to me.

At that time i was working for a B&B in Jackson NH as Mr fix it.

These 2 bears came and tore up the chicken house, which wasn't a great idea on their part. They started a bad habit of doing this on each Friday night, and the staff were frightened little city kids would be mauled by these bears, as the kids were encouraged to go see the 3 little pigs, the geese, turkeys, chickens and horses we had.


NH F&G complained I was wrong and this was just a few big raccoons.

Then came rains and i got tracks and covered the tracks with milk crates and had F&G come again. They set up a electric fence that zapped me a few times and then the bears just tore that to bits...


Next F&G brought in a big culvert trap and caught baby bear and he got to go on vacation up to the Connecticut Lakes, which i found very upsetting since i also wanted to go.

Last thing was one day I caught mama bear in the act and just happened to be on a really stupid but very fast horse, and i just also happened to have my Ruger Super Blackhawk .44 mag on my belt, which gave me super hero powers and i chased that mama bear right up and over Mt Tyrol in Jackson NH. i did fire the gun a couple times to enhance the desired effect, but i did not shoot the bear.

Ended that problem.


12:50 p.m. on March 3, 2013 (EST)
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People always used to ask me- "Can you shoot off your saddle mules?"

"Sure", I said, .................."but only once."

2:25 p.m. on March 4, 2013 (EST)
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Your mules were somewhat smarter than that horse was. That horse was a pacing trotter that swim, moving both feet on the same side at the same time. Everything that horse saw was a Panther. That counted potatoe chops bags blowing in the wind to park benches to a pile of neatly stacked fire wood trailside... Everything was a panther, except for Bears of course that were nothing, plain old didn't exisit.

A real true HUH? What Bear? LOL

I did begin shooting with as BB gun in the paddock, and I also hung a hunt of white canvass from the barn gull wing.

When I was done that horse would stand for a 6 pounder cannon and not twitch.

Never the less the potatoe chips bags were still Panthers.

6:39 p.m. on March 4, 2013 (EST)
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nothing like being on a green horse when facing down a killer bear! Yee haw!

12:19 p.m. on March 5, 2013 (EST)
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My mules were apprehensive around bears, but well behaved.  It was mountain lions and even bobcats that set them off.

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