Don't panic when a bear or mountain lion cross your path

Credit: US Forest Service
It was about noon, this past Memorial Day when a riding partner and myself see the black bear.

We are on our way back out of Pike's Peak National Forest on our mountain bikes, finishing a four-hour ride, approaching the edge of Colorado Springs, CO.

The bear appeared alongside a road that runs by a creek, took a quick glance in our direction, took off up the hill and disappeared into the woods. Lucky for us!

This was my second encounter with one of my areas two more dangerous inhabitants. Several years ago, I was hiking with my dog up the final ridge to a nearby peak, when we came across a mountain lion that appeared out of nowhere from a rocky outcrop.

Fortunately for us the mountain lion was more afraid of us than we where of him and it took off down the back of the ridge. Or was he just not hungry?

Encounters with wild animals are not uncommon for those who venture into the backcountry, and sometimes the outcome is disastrous. For example, two people have been killed by mountain lions in recorded Colorado history; many more have been attacked. The first fatality was in January of 1991, when an 18-year-old student was killed while running near Idaho Springs. More recently, a 10-year-old boy was killed in July 1997 in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Mountain biking and trail running are becoming popular means by which to access and enjoy the backcountry. Nobody likes surprises, and wild animals dislike them, too.

The majority of bear and mountain lion maulings occur when an individual surprises them. Therefore, it's vital to do everything possible to avoid these surprise meetings while in the backcountry.

Off-road bicycle travel is of particular concern. A mountain bike zooming downhill is moving at a high speed and is relatively quiet, providing a greater potential for a close encounter with a wild animal than does hiking or running.

The cyclist also often rides in dense vegetation, creating blind corners. This, coupled with speed, allows the cyclist to easily surprise and crowd an animal.

While exercising in the backcountry, keep your head up, be alert to your surroundings, and travel at a speed that gives you time to observe and evaluate what is ahead of you.

Attach a noisemaker such as small bells to your bicycle or to a fanny pack. Better yet, travel in a group.

Also, runners and cyclists often run in the early morning or late evening when wild animals are more active. All or any of the above may contribute to an encroachment into a bear's critical space, and a resulting serious encounter.

If you do encounter a bear or mountain lion there are a few key points to remember the most important of which, is don't panic or run or ride wildly or scream. Running or other sudden movements might cause the bear to charge.

The first thing to do is nothing make no sudden moves or sounds. Stand still. Be quiet. The take a few seconds to carefully assess the situation. And then plot your next move. Look for a climbable tree in the immediate area.

As long as you stay cool-headed and under control, you have an excellent chance of leaving this encounter with only vivid memories, not injuries. Aggressive behavior by the animal is your cue that he is probably warning you to get out of its turf. You should oblige.

It's usually best to back away slowly, talking quietly in a low voice. Avoid sudden movements. Do not turn your back on the animal.

Act non-threatening and avoid direct eye contact with the animal. Slowly move your arms up and down (like doing jumping jacks without jumping) as you retreat.

If the animal charges you do not panic. Many charges are actually bluff charges.

Any bear or mountain lion that moves toward you should be considered aggressive. Drop something like your bike, fanny pack, extra clothing or water bottle to distract the animal. Do not drop anything with food in it. You do not want to give the attacker a food reward for chasing you.

If you decide to go for the tree you spotted, make sure you can reach the tree and get 15 feet up the tree before the animal gets there. Running toward the tree could easily prompt the animal to run after you. Remember bears and mountain lions can sprint at over 35 mph.

If you have pepper spray use it. If you do not have any or cannot reach a tree, play dead. This tells the animal you are not a threat.

Although experts in the past recommend playing dead by curling up in a ball position, now most prefer lying flat on your stomach with hands clasped behind your neck. Remain silent. If the animal roughs you up a bit, do not fight back, and remain flat and silent. Easier said than done!

Do not look at the animal. If the animal moves away, continue to play dead for a few minutes, then cautiously look around to make sure it is gone. If so, quickly move out of the area. If the animal is still nearby, hold your position and remain silent.

If the animal continues to maul you while you are playing dead, give up the game and use whatever physical resistance you can muster as a last resort. It is your last hope.

Mountain lion and bear country generally includes places where athletes seek as retreats from the noise and pavement of the city. As you share this country with wild animals remember that you are a visitor, a guest, and that your time there requires planning. This is the home of some of the most powerful animals in North America, a symbol of wildness that must be understood, appreciated, and respected.

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