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Bear spray gone bad
When casualness and weapons intersect, mishaps abound.
By Brielle Schaeffer, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: August 8, 2012
Most backcountry adventurers and mountain town residents have bear stories. Those come with the territory.
At least as entertaining, however, is the subgenre of bear spray stories, specifically those stories that involve bear spray in the absence of bears.
Because running into a bruin is always possible in Jackson Hole, bear spray is a necessary part of the outdoor recreator’s equipment.
The spray, an aerosol mixture of oil-based capsaicinoids, causes extreme irritation in mammals, including bears and humans.
Capsaicinoids are derived from plants like chili peppers.
To use the spray most effectively, it’s best to bounce it off the ground at the charging bear so when the particles rise, they hit the animal’s face, said Mike Keating, assistant manager of Teton Mountaineering, who orders all the bear spray for the store.
“The most common mistake people make when firing the bear spray is to shoot it at chest level,” he said.
A typical question Keating gets at work is “Do I really need bear spray?”
“It’s like someone asking, ‘Should I use my seatbelt [or] my helmet when I climb?’” he said. “I don’t really go in the backcountry without it.”
But bear spray is a weapon, Keating said. It should be handled much the same way as a loaded gun. Spray canisters have a safety clip to deter errant blasts.
“People are sometimes too casual with the way they handle it,” he said.
When casualness and weapons intersect, mishaps abound. Witness the following bear spray tales.
If the wind is blowing toward your spouse, don’t test your bear spray.
That’s a lesson Bob Skaggs learned the hard way when he inadvertently sprayed his wife, Grand Teton National Park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs, while practicing with the canister.
Jackie Skaggs was in the camper van fixing sandwiches when he tried the spray, she said.
“Right after he sprayed it, a gust of wind came from the side,” Skaggs said. “I got the cloud of pepper spray in the van and came out choking. Of course, then you can imagine there were some words that were shared: ‘What are you doing? What did you do that for?’”
The spray caught in her throat, and immediately her eyes started stinging, she said.
“It’s hard to swallow that irritation away,” Skaggs said. “You get a little bit of an understanding of what it must be like for a bear that encounters a full blast.”
Grand Teton National Park is home to many bear spray fiascos.
Just this summer, a visitor left a bear spray canister on the dashboard of a car. The heat caused the aerosol can to blow up.
“It exploded enough it cracked the windshield,” Skaggs said.
Bear spray contaminating a vehicle is a common tale.
“If it leaks in your car, it’s a very expensive detailing job that needs to be done,” Keating said.
Last fall, in the Colter Bay Visitor Center, a park visitor sat down on the trigger of a canister.
“The safety was off, and that allowed it to slightly discharge,” Skaggs said, “but it was enough to be picked up ... in the air intake system and filtered through the whole building.”
Several staff members started feeling the effect of the spray, she said.
“To make sure no one had a serious physical reaction to the pepper spray in the air system, we evacuated everyone until we could make the pepper spray inert,” Skaggs said. “It was an unusual situation that caused a temporary closure of the Colter Bay Visitor Center.”
Skaggs has also heard anecdotes of people who used bear spray like bug repellent or sunscreen, she said.
“Remember: You don’t spray this on your clothing, you don’t spray this on your tent,” Skaggs said. “You use this when a bear is approaching you and you feel threatened and use it as a deterrent.”
Jim Olson, of Victor, Idaho, had an intimate experience with someone else’s discarded bear spray while hiking in the Wind River Range.
“I was being a good Samaritan, and I picked up garbage,” he said. “It was a bear spray canister, and I was just walking along with it in my hand to go back to my pack, and I noticed that it had dripped all over my shorts. That wasn’t cool.”
To try to ameliorate the situation, Olson jumped in a lake, took his shorts off and tried to rinse them out.
“All that did, since there is oil in the bear spray, is it spread the bear spray throughout the entire underwear of my shorts,” he said.
Johanna Love, Jackson Hole News&Guide features editor, had a similar mishap with bear spray that made her legs uncomfortable for days.
When returning home from a hike, she somehow dropped the bear spray can out of the truck.
“It hit a rock, punctured and began to spew,” Love said. “A couple hours later, I took a shower and thought I had washed off all the bear spray and decided while I was in the shower to shave my legs.”
After the shower, her legs were burning, she said.
“It took me a little while to figure out why,” Love said. “It felt worse than a bad sunburn.”
The moral of the story, at least for Love, is to not put vanity before safety.
“The bears won’t care if you’re hiking down the trail with hairy legs,” she said. “Bear spray is not to be trifled with.”
Last summer at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Aerial Tram operator Mike Dynia saw a kid set off his bear spray in one of the big red boxes.
The blast created a panic and mandatory refunds for customers affected.
“We had to opened up the tram doors and windows to air out,” Dynia said. “Memorable day.”
Jackson musician Justin Smith had an inside adventure with bear spray when his friend was horsing around during a weekly jam session at their house.
Fellow musician and then-roommate Andy Peterson “was goofing off with the spray and accidentally sprayed it,” Smith said. “It went on the grill of a Fender bass amp.
“We had to totally air out the entire house. I made the mistake of washing off my face. That made it go into my eyes, and it was so painful.”
That night, Smith slept outside.
“I remember moaning,” he said. “It was awful.”
After that, whenever he, Peterson and friend and musician John Pansewicz would play, they were reminded of the incident.
“Every time we’d jam, we’d all be sneezing throughout the rehearsal because the bass amp would spew little fragments back into the air,” he said.
It was no joke, Smith said.
But now the amp is all aired out. Smith still has it.
Careful storage of bear spray is key.
State Rep. Jim Roscoe, D-Wilson, wondered why his head hurt whenever he wore a cap from his drawer of hats, gloves and bear spray.
“I kept putting these hats on and going for a run, and all of a sudden my head would start to burn,” he said. “I thought it was just salt in the wound. ... It got so bad you couldn’t wear the hats at all. Then I realized the bear spray was leaking and getting on the hats.”
Now he keeps his hats and spray separate.
The politician actually sprayed a bear in his backyard once. It worked, but not as he intended.
Roscoe heard the bear one night digging through his garbage can. Its legs were spread out and it was sitting down, he said.
“Classic position,” Roscoe said.
Either the noise Roscoe made or the spray itself was enough to scare the bear away.
“I could see this arch of fluid, and the bear actually jumped up, threw the can away and ran out of the way of the spray,” Roscoe said. “It was so fast, it was unbelievable.”
When Jackson Hole News&Guide co-editor Angus M. Thuermer Jr. lent his friend Norm Larson his bike and trailer to haul out an elk south of Wilson, he warned Larson about the bike’s instability when towing.
“This bike will buck you off,” Thuermer warned. “It feels unsteady going downhill. Whatever you do, don’t tap on the front brakes.”
After Larson packed his elk into the trailer, he started down the trail on the bike — and ended up getting bucked off. He went over the handlebars, broke his collarbone, scapula and a rib, tore the top off his bear spray and knocked himself out, Thuermer said.
When Larson came to, he felt an excruciating burning sensation and heard the hiss of a deployed bear spray can. He reached for the spray before realizing he had broken bones. The pain was so bad, he passed out again.
When he came to, he chucked the spray into the woods with his good arm. Two horsemen found him, hauled the elk and bike out and drove him home.
“I can’t believe you even tried to ride this thing,” one said of the bicycle.
The bike was fine, Thuermer said. He got it back.