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Ask a Bear: Am I Safe Observing You From a Kayak?

Our resident grizzly expert answers your burning questions in his weekly "Ask a Bear" column.

Q. Dear Bear,

I'm dreaming of taking a kayaking trip in Alaska, where I hope to see you strolling around on land. Am I any safer from you on the water than I would be hiking? Is there any chance you would swim out and attack me? If not, can I get any closer to you than I normally would on terra firma?
— Elisabeth K., via email


A. Dear Elisabeth,


I hope you’ll make your dream a reality – when it comes to population density, parts of Alaska (like Admiralty Island or Katmai National Park) are like Manhattan for bears, and rich salmon streams crisscross the landscape everywhere like Famous Original Ray’s Pizzerias. (My terrifyingly powerful jaws are watering at the mere thought.) Beyond salmon, both black bears and grizzlies regularly comb the Alaskan shoreline picking for carrion, shellfish, seaweed, sedge grasses, and beached tourists. (Just kidding about that last one. Relax!)


First we’ll address the matter of your personal safety. Bears are powerful swimmers, and can easily navigate streams and bodies of water that’d swallow a human not bound by boat. But we rarely hunt in water; even polar bears, the undisputed Michael Phelps of my kind, almost never catch seals in open water. Additionally, there are no records of a deep-water bear attack that I’ve discovered (though my claws sometimes get in the way of my typing and dialing). So if you are in deep water that would require me to swim, I’m very unlikely to attack you. But keep in mind: It’s perfectly possible for you to paddle through waters a mere two or three feet deep. In this situation, I can still run at or close to my famous blazing speed — especially if I feel defensive and threatened.


Which brings us to our next issue: If you have a buffer of deep water, can you get closer to me than on dry land? Probably — but I’m going to give you several reasons why you probably shouldn’t. First, a few human guidelines: In British Columbia, where bear-by-boat tours are very popular, parks officials require boats to keep a distance of 50 meters (164 feet). Alaska national parks recommend a minimum distance of 50 yards and a preferred distance of 300 yards. But a recent study into bear behavior in the Glacier Bay area of Alaska showed that 78 percent of bears exhibited disturbed behaviors when approached from within 100 meters. They stopped feeding, fled into underbrush, or increased their distance from the boat. 


The significance of this is two-fold. One, if you come within 100 meters, you are greatly increasing the chance I’ll get fussy and stop eating. This is bad for my survival, as I need to focus all my energy on food gathering to fatten up for winter. It also disrupts my normal ecological patterns, which quite frankly, is kinda rude. (Imagine if I started following you at close range on your morning commute, snapping photos and yammering. Annoying, right?) But the second reason you should maintain a distance of 100 yards is for your benefit: The longer you stay beyond my threshold for tolerating your presence, the longer you’ll get to observe me doing what I do best: being a bear in the wild. As long as I’m undisturbed, you’re more likely to catch me feeding, playing with cubs, hunting, and otherwise providing you with the money-shot wildlife experience you came all this way for.


So what do you say? You keep your distance on the water, and I promise I’ll give you a beary memorable experience to make your human friends jealous.



Star Star Star Star Star
Maggie Louden
Feb 14, 2014

Late Spring 2013, my husband & I kayaked in the Muir Inlet of Glacier Bay. We had an encounter with a brown bear on one of the beaches. We had pulled onto the beach to stretch our legs & snack. There was a bear way down from us where beach met the scruff. Suddenly we realized that he had walked over to our beach & was stiff-legging it & checking us out. We went into the water & got ready to reboard the kayak. After walking the length of the beach shoulder, the bear returned to his original beach to continue looking for food. We saw both brown & black bears from the kayak, but most ignored us. We were careful (as we could be) when choosing a camping site. This was our second time in Glacier Bay & I have kayaked also in Prince William sound. Alaska is magnificent to kayak in.


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