Arming in Bear Country: Facing Alaska’s Imminent Danger

If you find yourself in Alaska's bear country, be sure to follow these tips to stay safe and prepared. 

By Peter B. Mathiesen

Arming in Bear Country: Facing Alaska’s Imminent Danger
Photograph Courtesy of Peter B. Mathiesen
A large grizzly boar just 25 yards across the stream from an angler in western Alaska.

As a full-time resident of rural Alaska, I deal with grizzly bears from the time they leave the den in April or May until the day in late October or early November they tuck themselves away. 

A wilderness boat captain, fly-fishing guide, and off-grid cabin builder, my encounters are frequent and often in close quarters. If you read my town Facebook page, you’ll find a “Beware: Bear in Town” post at least a half-dozen times each summer.

When travelling to the Alaskan wilderness, knowing how to behave in bear country is always on the mind of any visitor, from tourists getting off ships to the hunter planning their first caribou hunt. While I don’t fear these beasts like I once did, hundreds of grizzly contacts and dozens of charges have refined my ideas about bear protection.

Three Kinds of Grizzly Attacks

Coexisting as a human in bear country can take some getting used to, yet grizzlies are surprisingly predictable. Their intentions are clear and basic to read. The good news: Typically, you’re not on the menu. Too, when a grizzly truly attacks, it’s usually a surprise—to you and the bear—and it occurs in an instant. 

Knowing how to read the situation when bears are present can keep you from doing foolish things. 

There’s the 50-yard charge on the salmon stream from the irritated three-year-old bear, for instance. He’s actually testing you. Unless he’s had success intimidating others, they are pretty much all bark and almost never bite. All they want is a place to fish. By standing your ground, most bluff charges are easily discouraged (though you may be weak in the knees when it’s over). 

Big males are less of an issue. Their ownership of the woods is complete. Give them ample room and you’ll find they just don’t need to prove themselves. Older boar attacks are extremely rare and usually involve the bear’s hidden food cache. However, if there is an attack, it will almost always end in death to the human. 

The most common source of bear attacks on humans comes from sows with cubs. During the summer, sows are nervous about their cubs’ safety. This constant tension is elevated to an extreme by marauding boars, as these dominant males kill the cubs to send the sow into estrus so the males can mate. In short, moms are rarely calm and should always be viewed with caution.

When a sow attacks, it’s almost always because a human surprised her in tight quarters when the cubs are close. These attacks are so sudden, many armed victims end up shooting the bear while being mauled. 

What to Carry

Photograph Courtesy of Peter B. Mathiesen
The author’s daily carry in the bush, a Ruger Alaskan in .454 Casull.

My first bear gun was a Remington 870 Express with a pistol grip and an 18-inch barrel. I carried it over my shoulder everywhere. 

The gun was loaded with the standard Alaskan bear medicine: six shells with an alternating even mix of buckshot and a slug. This is one of the most effective bear deterrents on the planet. However, the drawback is the relative bulk of the gun, which can be fatiguing on long hikes or pack-ins. That said, it took one bluff charge in western Alaska for me to learn my lesson. When I reached over my shoulder, I found no gun because I’d left “Remmy” in the raft. This was proof that either I was going to go back to carrying the 870 every day or I was going to invest in a handgun at the first gun shop I came to after I got off the river. 

Fast forward to the end of that summer, where my carry choice became the classic Ruger Blackhawk .44 Mag with an eight-inch barrel. A super firearm, unfortunately I spent two years trying unsuccessfully to find the right holster to keep the revolver from stabbing me in the ribs or thighs inside my waders. That led me to a slimmed-down, four-inch-barreled version of the same revolver. There were a few, brief, experimental carries with a 1911 .45 ACP, but the reality is, anything smaller-caliber in a handgun is just not big enough for bears.

Numerous discussions with grizzly bear and wilderness guides have resounded in a consistent opinion—.44 Mags and under are just too small because of a lack of put-down power. Within the last decade, the availability of what used to be custom calibers like the .454 Casull and the .480 and the .500 S&W Mags have reset the bar when it comes to stopping dangerous game in close quarters.

My gun of choice today, after years of experience in rural Alaska, is the Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan .454 Casull with a two-inch barrel and Crimson Trace laser grip. It’s surely one of the more miserable revolvers on the planet to discharge, and it’s also ridiculously loud. But it’s a bear-stopper of the first degree, and being outside in the elements during most of the summer necessitates a stainless-steel finish. To house and carry it afield is a nylon chest holster made by Man Gear Alaska. And as much as I love leather holsters, they just don’t cut it in a four-day rain. 

In the last few years, a local trend for carry in bear country is the Glock Gen4 Model 20 in 10mm. The rationale is the impressive power these rounds can deliver. The 10mm does indeed have some oomph, but it’s scant compared to a Casull or the big .480 and .500 S&W Mags. Yes, the auto semi-action in the Glock is a definite benefit, and the large capacity of up to 15 rounds may give you a sense of security—but 15 rounds won’t help if the first shot doesn’t stop the bear.

While defense-style shotguns are dependable performers, they lack practical conveyance. Their best application is for a boat or truck. In the case of my polar bear guard tour above the Arctic pack ice, the 870 was standard-issue. I was never without it.

When you’re controlling the distance from the bear, a rifle is a good choice—but a classic lever-action like the .45-70 or even one in .454 Casull will not work when the bear is on top of you. Remember what I said about real attacks—they’re a surprise, and they happen fast. Add to that the instances where bears have been known to knock rifles and shotguns out of the hands of their prey with one paw swipe, and once again the handgun looks like the better choice.

Rules of Engagement

Photograph Courtesy of Peter B. Mathiesen
Bears are so numerous in south-central Alaska, tourists find fresh bear scat right on the ATV trails.

Rule No. 1: Be sure to carry something larger than a .44 Mag., one with the shortest barrel length you can shoot well within 15 feet. The reality is, a bear killed at 25 yards should have never been shot. 

Rule No. 2: Alaska law allows you to protect yourself if you believe there’s imminent danger. However, if you kill a bear, be prepared to spend a few days being interviewed by the game wardens, and the area where the kill took place will be treated as a crime scene if and until you’re cleared.

Should You Carry in Alaska?

If you’re fishing, I don’t recommend carrying unless you’re alone without a guide. When possible, leave the carrying of firearms as bear protection to the more experienced Alaskan. An exception is if you’re big-game hunting without a guide. In that scenario, a hunter should consider a large handgun and carry it with them 100 percent of the time in the bush. A freshly gutted moose or caribou can quickly bring in an interested brown bear.

About the Author: Peter B. Mathiesen has hunted, guided and fished in 12 different countries on four continents. As a full-time journalist since 1995, he frequently writes about gear, automotive, travel, fly fishing, wilderness construction, and the shooting sports.

Over the years he has been a contributing editor on the mastheads of Field & Stream, Bassmaster, and Outdoor Life Magazine. In addition, he has written for American Hunter and Rifleman, In Fisherman, Fly Rod & Reel, Popular Mechanics, Shot Business, and Range 360, His most recent book, Tales of The Alaska State Troopers is available on Amazon.

You can connect with Peter on Facebook.

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