Bear Strategies for your Tatshenshini & Alsek rafting trip

matilda the bear

Matilda the bear eating flowers. Photo by Steve Merrow.

Tatshenshini Bear Overview

This river system has both Black and Brown bears. Brown bears living more than 100 miles from the coast are known as Grizzlys, and Brown bears living within 100 miles of the coast are known simply as Brown bears or Coastal Brown bears. Brown bears are bigger, dominate the riparian zone where food is more abundant, and are therefore more likely to be seen by river groups than Black bears. While bear sightings are common, negative encounters are certainly not. The pioneer guides on these rivers did an outstanding job of keeping bears wild by keeping food protected and camps clean. Thankfully bears here do not associate rafting groups and campsites with food. A journey down these rivers means continuing that legacy with responsible practices that will keep your group safe, future groups safe, and bears wild.

Bears are a major part of trips down both the Alsek and Tatshenshini Rivers. If you are prepared as a group, seeing bears is a major highlight to the experience. Reality TV shows and movies have created this narrative of bears as bloodthirsty monsters roaming the forest looking for carnage. This is far from the truth. Bears, like humans, are out looking for the easiest meal they can find without the drama.

Best practices for bear proofing camp

All food and trash should be stored on the rafts in bear resistant boxes and coolers unless you are actively cooking. Cold water temperatures mask the smell of food, and the movement of the boats in the water makes it an uneasy target for an exploring bear. As of 2022, there have been no instances of a bear climbing into a raft on either river. Canadian or United States Park Services may require groups to carry an electric fence with them so check on that before departing. Don’t be surprised if certain meals like salmon or steak attract a bear to your camp. On many occasions a bear has shown up on the opposite side of the river, sniffing for the location of cooking salmon. Never leave food, trash, or smelly items unattended in camp.

Burning “smelly” trash on the Tatshenshini and Alsek rivers is an accepted practice. Plastic wrappers that have held food, food scraps, or anything that carries a strong smell should be burned to completion. Although unusual, this prevents groups from attracting bears anymore than they need to. Throwing an apple in a massive river like the Alsek might not seem like a big deal, but it can end up in an eddy at another campsite that bears start to associate with food. The little things really do make a difference in a place this pristine.

If you arrive at a campsite and a bear is there, choose another campsite. If a bear walks into the campsite, attempt to scare it away. If you are unable to scare the bear away, pack up and leave the campsite.

Bears tend to avoid large groups of people. Consider keeping tents in close proximity each night. Keep airhorns and bear spray out and ready for use. The entire group should have specific language and strategies for encounters with bears while in camp. For instance, if someone sees a bear in camp they can yell, “BEAR IN CAMP!” That lets everyone know the situation. People should group together, start making lots of noise by yelling, banging pans together, or blowing an air horn. This should be enough to scare any overly curious bear from camp. If a bear wanders into your camp in the evening, alert the group with the same call. Everyone should remain in their tents and start making lots of noise to scare away the bear.

Bear Preventative Tools

The goal of any close bear encounter is to make sure the bear can see you and hear you. Issues tend to arise when bears are startled and feel threatened. If you see a bear, inform everyone in the group and cluster yourselves together. If the bear is too close for your comfort, start making noise so the bear can see the location and size of the group. Air Horns are typically a good way of scaring bears away on a hike or in camp. Combined with shouting, an air horn is a great first choice. Anyone making a solo trip to the groover should take an air horn and bear spray. Each trip should have multiple cans of bear spray on the trip. Read the directions carefully before bringing bear spray into the field. Firearms are not allowed in the Canadian side of the park and are therefore not an option for either river. If you get into an unlikely situation where a bear charges you, stand your ground and keep shouting. Do not run.

Bear Food Storage

All food and trash should be stored on the rafts in bear proof boxes and coolers unless you are actively cooking. Cold water temperatures mask the smell of food, and the movement of the boats in the water makes it an uneasy target for an exploring bear. As of 2022, there have been no instances of a bear climbing into a raft on either river. Canadian or United States Park Services may have other requirements, but this system works well. Don’t be surprised if certain meals like salmon or steak attract a bear to your camp. On many occasions a bear has shown up on the opposite side of the river, sniffing for the location of cooking salmon. Never leave food, trash, or smelly items unattended in camp.

Burning “smelly” trash on the Tatshenshini and Alsek rivers is an accepted practice. Plastic wrappers that have held food, food scraps, or anything that carries a strong smell should be burned to completion. Although unusual, this prevents groups from attracting bears anymore than they need to. Throwing an apple in a massive river like the Alsek might not seem like a big deal, but it can end up in an eddy at another campsite that bears start to associate with food. The little things really do make a difference in a place this pristine.

Bear Camp Strategies

The foundational rules for campsites are these. If you arrive at a campsite and a bear is there, choose another campsite. If a bear walks into the campsite, attempt to scare it away. If you are unable to scare the bear away, pack up and leave the campsite.

Bears tend to avoid large groups of people. Consider keeping tents in close proximity each night. Keep airhorns and bear spray out and ready for use.

The entire group should have specific language and strategies for encounters with bears while in camp. For instance, if someone sees a bear in camp they can yell, “BEAR IN CAMP!” That lets everyone know the situation. People should group together, start making lots of noise by yelling, banging pans together, or blowing an air horn. This should be enough to scare any overly curious bear from camp. If a bear wanders into your camp in the evening, alert the group with the same call. Everyone should remain in their tents and start making lots of noise to scare away the bear.

Bear Hiking

Hiking in groups with bear spray and an air horn should be standard throughout the trip. Many hikes will twist through dense forests where hearing and visibility is reduced for humans and bears. Calling out “HEY BEAR!!!” every few minutes where visibility is limited will help prevent sneaking up on a bear. Shops do sell bear bells, but they tend to be less effective than a nice yell and quite annoying.