IF YOU’VE WANDERED the aisles of sporting- goods stores in the northern Rockies, chances are you’ve seen Mark Matheny’s face. It’s the mask of blood staring at you from the counter display of Udap bear spray, which he manufactures. The photograph was taken 20 minutes after Matheny was attacked by a sow grizzly bear, which quit mauling him after his partner sprayed the bear twice with pepper spray. Since then, it’s been Matheny’s job to convince skeptical outdoorsmen that, in bear country, it’s wiser to pack heat in a canister than in a cartridge case.
“Pepper spray is the No. 1 survival tool in bear country,” says Matheny, who still has scars on his cheek where the bear ripped the muscle from his jawbone. “It should be like putting on your shoes. You strap your spray on every time you go out.” The biggest problem, he adds, is building confidence in the spray, especially among hunters.
Thanks to a study published in the April 2008 issue of the Journal of Wildlife Management by bear researcher Thomas Smith of Brigham Young University, those who market hot-pepper aerosols shouldn’t meet as much resistance in the future. Smith analyzed 600 Alaskan bear- human encounters from 1985 to 2006, of which 71 involved pepper spray and aggressive bears—mostly grizzlies.
The results? Bear spray, when properly used, halted aggressive bear behavior in 92 percent of the cases. Of the 175 people involved in the bear-spray encounters, only three were injured and none required hospitalization. Wind interfered with the spray in only five incidents, and in no case, stresses Smith, did it fail to reach the target. Twelve users reported irritation from the spray, but the irritation was minor in all but two instances. And in the 71 encounters when bear spray was used, not once did the can malfunction.
By comparison, Smith’s examination of the use of firearms in hundreds of bear encounters shows that bullets deterred a charge just two-thirds of the time, and that it takes an average of four shots to stop a bear. “A bear attack is a surprise encounter,” Smith says. “Most charges start from only a few yards away. A hunter with his rifle slung is nothing more than a hiker with a stick of steel on his back.”
I know what you’re asking yourself: “Is this really true?” As a test, I tacked a paper plate to a tree trunk 20 feet away and timed how long it took to make a single shot that hit the target’first with the firearm slung over my shoulder, safety on; then with it held in the ready position across my chest, safety off. It took me an average of 3 seconds to get off a bull’s-eye shot with my Mossberg pump slung. In the ready position, the time quickened to 1.23 seconds. My Tikka .30/06 fared worse’3.5 seconds slung, 1.46 seconds from the ready, and once I didn’t even get the safety off before pulling the trigger. It took me less than a second to deploy a wide and accurate blast of bear spray from a chest holster. These results, coupled with the fact that I was shooting at a stationary target, not a mouthful of teeth coming at me at 35 mph, convinced me that the best weapon in grizzly country comes in a can.
THREE WAYS TO AVOID A BEAR ATTACK
When a distant bear is aware of your presence, circle upwind to give it your scent, so it can identify you as a human. Gain high ground and place objects, like a jumble of logs, between you and the bear. Back slowly away.
Draw Your Weapon
At 50 to 70 yards, a surprised bear may show aggression. Draw your pepper spray and remove the trigger guard. Talk in low tones, avoid eye contact, and back slowly away. If the bear follows, drop your pack to distract it. Climb a tree if possible.
Spray and Pray
If the bear persists, give it a 1-second burst of spray at 40 feet. If the bear gets closer or charges, spray another 1-second burst at 15 feet. At 8 feet, empty the canister into the bear’s face.
**HOW TO CARRY PEPPER SPRAY
Matheny recommends carrying your primary canister in a chest holster over your jacket or waders’where it can be instantly clasped and is still within reach if the bear bowls you over’plus a backup can in a belt holster. In the event of a charge, it isn’t necessary to withdraw the canister from the holster before using it. Just flip back the trigger guard with your thumb and fire. Practice with an inert can until muscle memory makes the move to the holster automatic.
The study did document one circumstance in which spray is counterproductive. A few outdoorsmen sprayed tents to deter bears. Instead, the pepper residue attracted them. Consider bear spray to be a weapon, and save it for aggressive encounters.
REAL LIFE: “I’ve Been Bear-Sprayed”
To convince hunters and anglers of pepper spray’s effectiveness, Montana author and bear expert Mike Lapinski once voluntarily received a dose of bear spray in the face. Lapinski tells the story:
IN COLLEGE, I played football at Penn State. I got down in my three-point stance and told my friend that I’d hit him right in the belt buckle if he didn’t spray me. The first thing I noticed was the beautiful orange cloud from the spray. Then I was down. My first instinct was to rub my eyes, which made the pain worse. I was gasping, slobbering. I peed my pants. All I wanted to do was get as far away as I could. My friend wiped my face, which helped. For a year afterward, any time I even looked at bear spray or smelled hot pepper, I wanted to flinch.
—AS TOLD TO KEITH McCAFFERTY