Outdoors Advent Calendar #6: Bears & Being Bear-Aware

Teddy bears are a staple of Christmas tree decorations and are often represented at the bottom of the tree, waiting to be picked up by a child in the morning. For Day 6 of the 2017 Outdoors Advent Calendar, I’m discussing the original teddy bear, wild bears, and how to be bear-aware if you are going to be traveling through bear country with kids. It could come in very handy if you are Yosemite or Yellowstone-bound next summer.

This article is part of the Outdoors Advent Calendar 2017 series, in which I open up a new Advent Calendar door with a story on the outdoors and nature for kids every day until Xmas. 

Bears and Christmas

How come bears and Christmas are associated? Bears are big wild animals and in the winter season, are likely to be hibernating. It only took a botched hunting trip for bears to become teddy bears in 1902. That year, Teddy Roosevelt went out on a bear hunt near Onward, Mississipi. After an unsuccessful hunt, his assistants finally found a black bear, injured it badly and tied it to a tree, saving “the kill” for the president. Theodore Roosevelt, in front of a bloody injured bear and dead hunting dogs, refused to shoot. The black bear was killed by knife by his assistants but Teddy’s gesture soon made the news and a candy store decided to make an stuffed cub bear as a toy in honor of the bear. They sent one to the White House for Roosevelt’s children, Roosevelt agreed to the bear being named Teddy and the rest is history, as far as Teddy bears are concerned.

Still, teddy bears and Christmas?

In 1902, President Roosevelt received a lot of teddy bears for Christmas and had great success hunting bear at the White House Christmas morning.  He started on the trail for the library, where the Christmas presents were assembled, and there he found three miniature bears waiting for him.  They were of three different varieties of the bruin type, in the jungle of Christmas remembrances.

One came from the sunny South, one from the northwest and one from New York, a black, a brown and a grizzly. These toys in size and appearance were excellent imitations of the living bear.  The one from the northwest was a mechanical or dancing bear, and his performances created much merriment among the members of the household.

Teddy bears became extremely popular toys for children and in 1907, the German teddy bear manufacturer Maragarete Steiff made 974,000 bears. They were soon shipped to Edwardian London where they became a prominent feature of the earliest Christmas displays in department stores such as the newly opened Selfridges. Ever since, teddy bear teas have become a Christmas tradition for families and with our girls, we’ve attended a great Teddy Bear tea at the Fairmont in San Francisco. They’re now slightly too old for teddy bear teas, but they’re certainly the right age to hike through bear territory, which brings me to the following item: how to be bear-aware.

How To Be Bear-Aware

In Australia, kids are taught to be “croc-aware.” In Alaska, they are taught to be “bear-aware.” What does that mean? Bear-awareness is a global education campaign to keep wild bears wild. It includes safety techniques as well as food storage, hiking and campsite set-up guidelines. Being bear-aware is the best way to prepare for bear encounters and make sure that bears do’t get hurt because of human interaction. Unfortunately, bears that have been in close contact with human food (or that are considered dangerous to humans) get displaced if they are lucky, shot if they’re not.

Bear Encounters

When we saw our first brown bear in the Yosemite Valley, we had just arrived at the campground with our car at 10pm and a group of people were flashing lights up a tree. Raising our head, we saw a bear cub, terrified by the crowd and hanging tight to the tree trunk. Fortunately, a park ranger quickly arrived, made space for the bear cub and the poor animal was reunited with his mother and sibling. They were hiding in the bushes nearby. That was our first bear encounter in California and it remains a vivid memory.

We had two other bear encounters in Yosemite National Park. The second one was an adult bear hiding under a picnic table at our campsite at night. It simply came up to us as we were sitting around the campsite about to share some cake, stole the cake and left. That night, it returned repeatedly at the campsite and severely banged up all kitchen items that smelled of food. The third time was when we left the window of our car rolled down at night and our friend found the bear sleeping in the front seat. All three times, no harm came to anyone but bear encounters in the wild can have very serious consequences.

In North America, there are three bear species that roam the land–black, brown-grizzly and polar bears. We’ve only ever seen black in California and brown-grizzli in Alaska but for a more precise idea of where bears live, this map is a good start.

Bear Viewing Tips

If you are going to travel through bear territory, remember the following tips by the National Park Service to keep yourself and your family out of harm’s way.

  • Respect a bear’s space. Binoculars and spotting scopes allow you to view bears without getting too close.
  • Never approach, crowd, pursue, or displace bears. If a bear changes its behavior because of your presence, you are too close! Also, check with the park you are visiting for viewing distance regulations, which may vary based on species and terrain. For example, Yellowstone National Park requires visitors to keep a distance of at least 100 yards (300 feet); Shenandoah National Park recommends 200 feet or more.
  • Stay in groups and minimize noise and movement. However, in areas of low visibility or when you’re out on the trail, reduce chances of surprise encounters by staying alert and talking calmly to identify yourself as a human, not another animal.
  • Stay on designated trails whenever possible.
  • Leave “orphaned” or sick bears alone. Young animals that appear alone usually have a mother waiting nearby. Never get between a mother and her cub.
  • Leave pets at home.
  • Give bears room to pass. Do NOT run from a bear.
  • Let bears eat their natural foods. Prevent bears from getting human food by learning about food storage requirements.
  • You are responsible for your safety and the safety of wildlife. If a bear approaches you, it is your responsibility to move away and maintain a safe distance.

More and more, people are bear-aware and that results in fewer bear-related incidents but it only takes one snack bar on a car back seat for a bear to peel your car inside out like an orange. Being bear-aware is a lot less risky.

Have you ever encountered bears during your travels?

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Laure Latham

Laure is an author, environmental advocate, blogger, open water swimmer and now mother. She's passionate about inspiring families to enjoy the outdoors with their children, learning to unplug and living a healthy lifestyle, giving kids life skills and exploring the world around us sharing Family Friendly, Fun Ideas for the whole family on Frog Mom.

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