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Not Just Another Grisly Bear Tale

By John Locke - Posted on 08 August 1996

Book Review of "Bear Encounter Survival Guide," by James Gary Shelton. Appears in Alaska Magazine, November 1996.

You come around a bend to see a sow brown bear, with two large cubs. The sow stands on her hind legs, sniffing--she has caught your scent. You holler at her, and start backing away, hoping the cubs will leave, but they follow the mother, who is now coming your way. What should you do now?

Traditional bear wisdom suggests that you play dead, since they are brown bears--if they were black, then you should fight back. But according to James "Gary" Shelton, in his recent Bear Encounter Survival Guide, that is just what you should not do.

"We are presently preserving and protecting bears in such a way that there are going to be more of them, and more of them that do not fear man," Shelton writes. "Thus you can expect more predatory attacks in the future."

Shelton suggests that regardless of the kind of bear, you must determine its intent: is it predatory, hunting you for food, or is it defensive-aggressive, attacking you because you are a threat?

Shelton has combined information from various bear books, numerous interviews, nearly 30 years of personal experience, living, hunting, and observing bears in western British Columbia, and running a bear hazard training course. He describes bear biology and behavior, not as a biologist, but as a seasoned observer. He evaluates firearms and pepper sprays as defenses against bears, basing his arguments on tests he has conducted.

"There are three possible levels of defense: firearms, bear spray, and unarmed. . . . The chance of coming through [a worst-case-scenario attack] without serious injury or death is as follows: firearms 95%, spray 70%, unarmed 45%."

Shelton presents his ideas and accounts without pretense, without sensationalism. Instead of merely a collection of bear stories, Bear Encounter Survival Guide is a how-to book, interlacing basic bear biology and observed behaviors with accounts of bear encounters and actions. He emphasizes tales where the potential victims evaded injury, and evaluates their actions. The few gruesome stories he includes only serve to reinforce his points. The prose drags in a couple of places near the end, where the author details his opinions on bear management, but overall, his clear, no-nonsense writing makes for gripping reading.

Whether you agree with his ideas of bear management or not, James "Gary" Shelton's Bear Encounter Survival Guide is a must-read for all who visit the Alaskan backcountry, even if it's only the backyard.