People become experts on dangerous creatures for many reasons.
Dave Smith did it for his fellow man — or, rather, little girls.
They weren’t even his own children: The youngsters that inspired Smith were Skye and Emma Fuller, the daughters of a good friend.
Smith will give a talk about black bears and grizzly bears — and the behavioral differences between them — Friday evening at Ridgway’s Sherbino Theater.
For six winters, Smith was the winter caretaker at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel, a sprawling lodge deep in Yellowstone National Park. It was particularly lonely the first season Smith worked there, in 1975, “when the winter population was four,” Smith recalled. “There was another winter caretaker up in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, about 18 miles to the north. His youngest girl, Skye, couldn’t even walk when I first met his family.”
Soon, however, Skye could walk, “and it became a classic case of, if you can walk, you can be on skis,” Smith said. Crosscountry adventures took Smith and the Fuller family to Geyser Basin. Fed by perennially warm streams and replete with vegetation, even in winter, “that was where the ungulates stayed,” and where, potentially, problematic encounters with the humans that also frequented such spots could begin.
“When the grizzlies got out of their dens, they made a regular circuit of these places,” Smith explained. “Back then, guns weren’t permitted in Yellowstone, and bear spray hadn’t been invented. I spent a lot of time hiking with the Fullers, and I wanted to avoid problems with bears — it became my philosophy. It was such a responsibility to be out with little kids that weren’t mine. You’re compelled to be careful.”
Smith started watching bears, and learning to avoid surprising them. He’s summed up his years of observation and caution in two books: “Don’t Get Eaten” and “Backcountry Bear Basics: The Definitive Guide to Avoiding Unpleasant Encounters.”
He’ll share his knowledge of the two ursine species he’s seen the most of — grizzlies (which do not reside in Colorado) and black bears — at the Sherbino Friday night.
“The good news for the active recreationist hiker/mountain biker/person who trail runs is, black bears are not mini-grizzlies,” Smith said. For starters, unlike grizzlies, black bears are less inclined to behave aggressively when startled. “People focus on the physical difference between the two species, but the more important thing is the behavioral differences,” Smith said. Grizzlies’ ancestors “evolved on the plains of Asia,” where one could see vast distances, “and where your best defense was a good offense,” which is why grizzly bears to this day are known for charging (and bluff-charging) in an attempt to intimidate rivals.
By contrast, “black bears are denizens of the forest,” Smith said. “If you startle one, in all likelihood it’s likely to vanish into the trees or climb up a tree.”
Smith researched black bear attacks on humans in preparation for this interview.
“You have hardly any records in Colorado” of this happening, he said. “Your biggest danger with black bears is predatory attacks,” and in the vast majority of cases in this state, “these attacks involved bears going into tents or entering campers that weren’t sufficiently secured.”
In other words, the attacks began with a bear doing what it does: snuffling around for food, not targeting a human.
“A number of instances involve a bear going into a tent at night, and sometimes these attacks involve children,” Smith said. “At first, it will sniff the tent. Then, if nothing bad happens, it will make a cautious approach, and will touch the wall of the tent with its paw or its nose. If nothing bad happens then, it will put its head down and take a bite of whatever it is at the edge of the tent.” Therefore, “If you have a big enough tent, put your gear on the outside edge, put the adults next to the gear, and put your children in the middle. With Skye and Emma, if I said, ‘Bear,’ they’d know to grab onto my legs.
“And in cases where a couple is married, the wife should put the husband at the outside edge of the tent,” Smith added with a hearty chortle. “Joking.”
He is surprisingly wary of places where recreationists have recently stayed, such as Forest Service campgrounds. “You don’t know if a bear has gotten food there the night before, and is returning the night you’re there to check things out,” Smith said. “So I’m always a little leery of those places. The best you can do is to keep a camping site clean” and store food away from your tent.
Smith is also cautious about the efficacy of bear spray; studies have shown that it’s surprisingly ineffective on black bears, which tend to return to where they were about 30 minutes after you sprayed them. “Bear spray does buy you some time” to make a getaway though, Smith said. Learn more at his talk, “Facts and Fallacies About Bears.”. The doors of the Sherbino open at 7 p.m. and Smith’s presentation begins at 7:30 p.m. Entry is by donation (you can reserve a seat for $15 at sherbino.org).