I grew up with bears. Winnie, Paddington, The Berenstains, Yogi, even Grizzly Adams. Bears are cute; they just run away. I’ve seen a dozen bears along Japan’s mountain trails and even the big ones flee at first sight. I’ve never met anyone attacked by a bear. All that stuff in America and Russia must be sensationally reported bad luck.
I run trails year round. I’m more concerned with my heart rate and electrolyte balance than bears. I’m focus on technique, hills and descents, protein and power gels, blisters and saving 10 grams cutting the labels off my clothes. Bears? I’m more likely to fall prey to The North Face marketing than those wild animals.
Every morning I head for the hills around Minakami, Gunma, with a good friend. I get faster; he burns weight so his tattoos retract back to their original shapes. We do 10K in the morning, then another run in the afternoon. Every week or two, I do a long three-hour run. Usually miles from anywhere, usually out of phone range. Never giving a second thought to bears, even when we see them.
This particular day was my long run day, 25K along exposed alpine ridges. Everything was set until the rainy season clouds dropped down to 800 meters. As my run was all above 1,700 meters, I changed my plan to a quick run below cloud-level instead; much safer and easier.
We ran well in the morning coolness and, at the 5K mark, we came across a commotion halfway up a rock face beside the road.
“Cool, a monkey!” I figured. I quite like monkeys.
“It’s a bear,” my tattooed friend announced as we watched it tumble down the escarpment onto the road. I reckoned I’d just watch calmly as it ran away. The next bit is a collage of blurred images, distorted sounds, jumpy sequences and false memories. Some bits are clear, some missing.
The bear didn’t run away. It leered back and forth, smelling us in the air. I was about 15 meters away, while my friend kept running. Whatever goes through a bear’s mind had it locked onto me, and it started coming, at first slowly, then real fast.
It didn’t take long to realize it had purpose in its stride as it changed from a discombobulated furry lump into a launching streak of muscle, sinew, teeth and instinct. I ran like a schoolgirl. But the bear ran faster. It gained on me so fast, that when I looked back, I realized I couldn’t outrun it. I needed another plan.
I’d previously defused dog confrontations from Mongolia to Kurdistan by standing over them and shouting loudly. The dogs backed away after some prodigious staring down. Dogs and bears must be related, the genetic variation minimal. But this bear didn’t even notice. Then I remember clearly the realization I had to fight.
Imagine a guy in a fur coat with a set of steak knives. The bear would lurch up on its hind legs and lunge forward, using its arms to grapple towards its foe’s mouth (me being the foe). Misrepresented in popular culture, bears are not slow, uncoordinated and dumbly driven. They are fast, precise and intent. This one made a low snarling noise, rolled its eyes and went for it.
The big surprise, though, was how I actually could fight it. I’m no Jackie Chan, but I wasn’t completely overwhelmed. Its balance on its hind legs was bad, and blow for blow it actually felt pretty equal. But it was better armed. Every time it lunged, I blocked with my left arm and punched with my right, aiming for its eyes but getting hurt. I could knock it down but it would get up and lunge again.
I don’t remember being scared, just incredibly driven knowing whatever I did had real consequences. It was savage. Humans fight with some kind of reason or pathological rage you can judge. Bears don’t. I remember wanting it to end, knowing I was getting more and more hurt. At best, I could land blows and make loud noises. The bear could maul, slice and disembowel.
I went down with the bear still coming at me. A distinct claw wound suggests I had a leg knocked from under me. I remember a feeling of intense vulnerability, being out-gunned, knowing I was hurt. I tried for a head-sized rock and managed to get back on my feet, but the bear kept lunging. I recall my hand going into its mouth and feeling a row of teeth. I was getting more damaged, while the bear seemed unaffected.
Bears fight to keep their genes in the game. Those contributing their genes to greater beardom do so by being smarter, faster, and better fighters than other bears. My chance at hedging a role in the Darwinian process is based on a slightly used primate brain, Petzl helmet standards, medical insurance and luck. The way things were going, my own genetic contribution was getting less and less certain.
What happened next sounds unlikely, but extreme situations increase the probability of extreme results. Where the large brain had failed and the rock remained out of reach, something else stepped in. Friend of soldiers and overdose victims, breakfast of champions, millennium falcon of the hormone world. Adrenaline.
With my chewed and slashed arms, I blocked the bear aside, grabbed the ruff of fur behind its head and threw it onto its back. It tumbled off the trail over the rock face down towards the water. I like to think I hurled it off a cliff with one arm, and though it was less elegant than that, the effect was the same. The bear was gone.
Although it seemed like an eternity, all of this took place over maybe a minute. In that time my tattooed friend had circled back, and in a moment of true heroism, pulled a sharpened survey pole from the trackside and come to help, arriving just as I flung the bear. Had the bear not gone over the edge, the primal frenzy of blood, fur and violence would have been spectacular, no doubt. Tattooed people do things like that.
But it wasn’t so. We were on the trail several kilometers from the car with a really disgruntled bear roundabouts. We rode the adrenaline wave and used our experience as outdoor guides to execute a plan. I ran alone with my shirt staunching the blood from wounds in my wrists, hands and fingers. My friend sprinted to get an ambulance. We agreed that if I collapsed, I’d try to do so on the road so he’d find me, hopefully before the bear.
Those 10 minutes of running alone, bleeding, buzzing, not knowing my injuries through the misty mountains of Japan was lucidly sublime. I felt vividly alive. Too scared to look at the damage, stop or look back, I shouted to myself to keep it together and went through a detailed plan of what needed to happen:
Get to the car, stay out of shock, keep my breathing regular, try detecting injuries I couldn’t see, don’t inhale vomit or saliva, don’t pass out, keep pressure on open wounds, keep assessing if I’m losing consciousness or if the adrenaline is fading, keep checking injuries, listen for the car, listen for the bear, separate my voice inside my head from my voice outside…
It was surreal and it worked. My friend screamed at me to stay lucid in the car. We were high as kites, even telling the ambulance crew what to do. Hospital was bright, confusing and efficient. Injections, IVs, skin staples, bandages, pink uniforms. It was bang-up stuff. My fancy gear was removed, the meaningless expensive fabrics cut.
The bear factor raised an eyebrow, but otherwise bigger things were going on behind other doors. The doctor said I was lucky. Most bear attacks are much worse, to the face with a lot biting. A nurse we knew came out after hearing a guy with tattoos was yelling orders in the emergency ward.
The adrenaline high lasted many retellings of the tale, then the descent into a boring reality of hospital visits, insurance and immobility crept in. Everyone lost interest except my parents who fretted. Eventually it all became annoying, and I ended up lying about the bandages. I said it was a skateboard accident just to forgo telling the story again.
The extent of my injuries was a lost finger tip, tendon and nerve damage to one wrist, mauled bicep and shoulder, clawed out nipple, an assortment of slashes, gouges, cuts, rips, teeth marks and bruises and gravel rash to both knees.
My altimeter watch had excelled in its unadvertised function as a bear shield, only suffering a small break to the band. My shirt failed to preserve my nipple but bizarrely sustained only microscopic damage to the weave. The fastening device on my shoes remained intact, even outsmarting the emergency nurses. My wicking shorts absorbed the blood from my legs. Each company will be receiving a luridly opportunistic e-mail extolling their products in exchange for replacements. Shock finally emerged a few days later at the hospital when I passed out in the treatment room.
A week after I was attacked, a road worker was mauled. Locals say it was the same animal, and maybe had an attitude from earlier human dealings. The road worker’s injuries were much worse. A hunting team was sent out and killed two Asiatic black bears in the area. The female weighed more than 100 kg. and was 150 cm. tall. The cub was male and a bit larger. Evidently unpredictability is part of the species profile.
The team dispatched was mostly old guys from small villages, not trigger-drunk yahoos bristling with firepower. They wore mountain tabi and special badges. These guys have cohabited with bears for millennia, and they settle things sanely. They all have stories of people killed and maimed, yet have no intentions of blasting every bear to extinction to prevent it.
Later, my tattooed friend and I were presented with a bag of bear steaks and bones for soup. I personally was given a paw and a replacement nipple in a weird display of mountain humor. No doubt bear barbecues took place that night, skins were dried, gall bladders and sexual organs finding their way into questionable concoctions. Recipes for kuma-niku include boiling vigorously with ginger, garlic and shoyu for an hour or two, then pouring off the broth before eating. Or make a soup with san-sai and miso, using slivers of meat. Either way, the strong flavor is apparently not to everyone’s liking.
The ethics of the whole thing are beyond my grasp – this isn’t Shibuya, it is Japanese mountain culture.
The Bear Truth
Have I stopped trail running? No way. But I did learn a few things I’ll share. If you want bear facts, read the sidebar by bear expert Oscar C. Huygens. These are my personal observations.
Japanese bears can attack. Not always, not often, but under the right circumstance…whatever that might be. Japan’s mountains are filled with walkers, runners, climbers, farmers and photographers year ’round, but attacks are rare.
Bear bells are cheap and easy, even if they do nothing. Minakami locals can’t seem to agree if they do anything or not and rarely use them. But every school kid has to wear one.
Anything short of a berretta seems a little paltry, but apparently spray can work and it’s better than nothing, though you’ll still have to be within arms reach to use it.
Running? Not unless you are very, very fast. You may end up in a bear fight anyway.
Intimidation? Check that off the list. Read the story.
If it has to be fists, you will get hurt. Bears seem to go in with both paws to get a hold, then start biting. They rise onto their hind legs, which have dubious balance. This is your only real window of advantage. Keep knocking those paws away, across the bear’s body. It ain’t much, but it’s something.
Going for the bear’s eyes, underbelly or nose involves a considerable divide between theory and practice, as they are well protected behind teeth and claws.
Bear hurling, while not an advocated technique, has reportedly worked with bears before, so if the situation arises, it is worth remembering. Doubtful to be an Olympic event anytime soon.
The fetal position? I’d like to talk with someone who has actually done this.
Expect injuries such as but not limited to gashes, punctures, deep bruising, infection, possibly bone damage, blood loss and facial damage. The story is debatably worth the scars.
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Explaining and Avoiding Bear Attacks
With Japanese Black Bear Biologist and Expert Oscar C. Huygens
Unlike North American bears, no systematic analysis of bear attacks has been done in Japan and, except for individual reports, our scientific understanding of these attacks is far from complete. Therefore, current recommendations to avoid such attacks in Japan are based mostly on findings in North America.
• Asiatic black bears (found in Honshu and Shikoku) are more aggressive than American black bears. Brown bears on Hokkaido may be more aggressive yet, and more dangerous because they are much larger.
• Attacks may be on the increase. One possible, yet unproven, explanation is reduced hunting pressure, itself the result of a fast aging and dwindling population of hunters, is causing bears to lose their fear of humans.
• There are two types of attacks: predatory and non-predatory. A predatory attack implies the bear’s intention is to kill and consume its victim. Such attacks are extremely rare but do occur in Japan with both species. Playing dead in such circumstances is not a good idea. On the contrary, pick up a rock or anything that may serve as a weapon before the bear gets too close. Try to remain standing and tall (bending down or kneeling once contact has been made is dangerous), but if you have fallen over, go for the eyes and the nostrils. Don’t give up.
• Non-predatory attacks are usually the result of sudden encounters and most of these can be avoided. The surprised bear, thinking it is threatened, defends itself by counter-attacking. In such a situation, the more you fight back, the more the bear may feel threatened, causing it to increase the intensity of its attack. In this case, perhaps the best advice is to keep your ground as long as you can remain standing but to lie still while protecting your neck, face and abdomen if you are pushed over.
•Avoid sudden encounters by moving in larger groups, making noise, attaching a bell to your walking stick (better than your backpack as it will jingle more), and avoiding or making extra noise in areas where bears might congregate each season, such as bamboo thickets during spring, berry patches and fruit-bearing trees such as wild cherries during summer, and groves with lots of oak, beech and walnuts in the fall and early spring.
•Note jogging is not a natural activity, and joggers and trail runners are at more risk in predator country. Runners often concentrate on their effort and are less in tune with their surroundings and, by moving fast, they increase their likelihood of running into a bear. If you are running toward the bear, you are a potential threat, and this may trigger a defensive attack. If you are running away from it, you may be a fleeing prey, which may trigger a chase reflex. Thus, joggers should be extra careful and make noise in areas with reduced visibility.
I have, for instance, avoided at least one sudden encounter running downhill on switch backs in a bamboo thicket by hitting each tree I could two or three times with a stick as I ran by it. Maybe not the peaceful running a trail runner may prefer, but the alternative can be even less pleasant.
•Further reading: “Bear Attacks, Their Causes and Avoidance” by Stephen Herrero (or its Japanese translation).
Oscar is a bear biologist and leads bear-watching tours in Central Japan every summer. His tours are described at www.withoscar.com/viewbears or you can contact him directly.