PAT NEAL: The bears are awake

“WHERE CAN I see a bear?” the frantic tourist asked. This is a common question among the seasonal visitors to the emerald green playground we call home. And not a particularly easy one to answer.

Bears seem to be about the No. 1 critter that tourists want to see. Ironically, people are about the last thing bears want to see.

There could be many reasons for this.

In my experience in the trenches of the tourist industry, people invariably start screaming, “Bear!” when they see one.

This scares the bear and sends them skedaddling before you can even get a good look at them. That’s because bears are generally a lot smarter than most other creatures.

They don’t stand around after they get yelled at. Bears have a lot of emotional baggage left over from hunting season. It’s a grudge the bears are not likely to forget.

As the old saying goes, if a pine needle falls in the forest, an eagle sees it, a deer hears it and a bear smells it.

Meanwhile, humans are nearly blind unless the light is right. Our ears have been deafened by technology. And we have a crummy sense of smell from living in a polluted environment. Bears have an incredible sense of smell with a nose said to be seven times more sensitive than a bloodhound’s. They can be stinky, too.

The scent of a bear is not too unlike that of a horse with a musky tang. Unless they have been rolling in an elk carcass. Which some suggest might be in an effort to find a mate. Which would be another case of don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

Smelling the near presence of a bear in the woods gives you a feeling like you are never truly alone, but chances are, you probably won’t see them. Our bears are shy.

Bear attacks are practically unheard of except for a couple of bear hunters that got chewed up. We suspect they had it coming.

Right now, the bears are fresh out of hibernation. They’re grazing on grass and on the hunt for elk calves, deer fawns and bird nests. Among other things. Bears are omnivores, which means they can eat anything that isn’t nailed down.

Scientists tell us that bears do not attain a state of true hibernation like our iconic Olympic marmots or members of Congress.

Bears reach a state of torpor that some of us humans might attain while watching golf on TV. Every once in a while, you might wake up for a beer commercial before you doze back off. That is not hibernation.

Bears are extremely intelligent. People like to argue whether bears are smarter than wolves or cougars, and I think they are. Our Olympic timberwolves were bountyhunted into extermination with poison, snares and traps 90 years ago. The bears are still here, case closed.

As for cougars, they are awesome predators, but no one has ever reported them breaking into a vehicle.

Bears, on the other hand, are experts at breaking into anything. The old joke being they seldom break out through the same hole they broke into.

I once found a cabin where a bear broke in through the door and went out through the roof. I watched a small bear about the size of a German shepherd break into a microbus at the Whiskey Bend trailhead. I tried to say something, but the little bear growled and it wasn’t my van.

Forget about bears being smarter than wolves or cougars. They may be smarter than people.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via