Once, while hiking on a rocky beach in Glacier Bay, I noticed a bear approaching. It was unaware of me, so I walked to the edge of the forest and sat on a boulder in hopes it would pass undisturbed. The bear walked to where I’d been standing on the rocks, paused, and then ran into the woods without ever so much as looking at me.
It finally hit home just how terrible I smelled. If my XtraTuf soles could do that to a bear, my armpits might be a bigger threat to humankind than global warming. That night I rationalized that smelling awful, if properly harnessed, could be a super power. I imagined myself in the Marvel pantheon. Obviously, I’d have to be a villain. My backstory would depict a smelly kid, once teased mercilessly, who, against all odds, turned into a paunchy, spandex-wearing fiend bent on crop-dusting the world into the oblivion.
I find scent and what it communicates both fascinating and mysterious. Every breath we take is filled with an incredible amount of olfactory information, most of which we’re not consciously processing. It’s a popular, though perhaps outdated, belief that highly developed animals possess five senses. For humans, it’s thought our weakest sense is smell. For a bear, and many species of wildlife, smell is strongest.
I’ve had a handful of experiences with bears — both aggressive and not — in which talking and waving my arms failed to scare them away. What finally worked was a big whiff of my scent.
For instance, one spring my older brother Luke and I spent a couple minutes yelling at a swaggering, slobbering, jaw-popping bear on Admiralty Island. We’d been in the open and the bear, emerging from the edge of the woods, sought us out — which is rare behavior for Southeast bears. I hate to speculate, but since we were in Seymour Canal near where a mauling took place in 2007, I half-wonder if the bear had attacked someone before.
Luke and I had a long conversation with the bear — he was an adult male with a perfect pelt and spring hunting season was under way. I tried to explain that he was the sort of specimen a hunter would want for their wall and he needed to stay clear of the likes of us. The bear gradually calmed, then circled downwind. When our smell hit him, he looked like got the scare of his life and charged off into the forest.
My body odor was bad, but was it really that terrible? What did a 600-pound bear smell that would turn him from aggressive one moment to terrified the next?
We know smell can evoke emotional memories. I think it also elicits something deeper than memory. Call it some sort of instinctual fear, which, I think, we humans are also capable of experiencing.
Once, while hiking near the headwaters of Ekopuk Creek in the central Brooks Range, I came upon fresh sign left by a large grizzly. I studied the scat, then walked on and became inexplicably anxious. I’d encountered more than a dozen bears in seven days of travel and none of them had inspired such a feeling. Over the next hour my nerves became increasingly shot. Along a shore of a small lake, I glanced up a mountain and saw the bear charging down the slope at me. I can’t think of any sense other than smell that would have let me know long in advance that this was a more dangerous bear.
Smell, such as food or a sow in estrus, can elicit other equally intense responses in bears. I’ll never forget the story a Canadian man told me. He lived off the Alaska Highway in northern British Columbia. There was an old man staying in a small cabin on his property. One morning, while the old man was cooking bacon, the paw and arm of a large grizzly broke the window and reached wildly around inside. Luckily, the window was too small for the bear to fit through.
Urine is kind of like the duct-tape of the olfactory world. While camping in bear country I always pee around my tent before going to sleep. I came up with this great idea on my own and have done this for as long as I can remember. I try to run around the tent while going. Sometimes I make it. A friend pointed out the other day that — besides scaring away bears — your pee is one of the best tools you have in being found if you’re lost. In the woods and feeling turned around? Pee on your boots. It will make it much easier for search and rescue dogs to track you. Another person I know recommends peeing on your valuables to prevent theft and going a little in your pants before occasions like an important meeting or a first date with someone you want to impress. It’s all about pheromones, I was told. I can’t vouch for that but I will say a little stank can go a long way with a bear.
• Bjorn Dihle is a Juneau writer. His first book is Haunted Inside Passage: Ghosts, Legends and Mysteries of Southeast Alaska. You can contact or follow him at facebook.com/BjornDihleauthor.