An Interview with a Bear Guide: Part 1
Updated: May 28, 2020
With over two decades of military experience and seven seasons of bear guiding experience, Lance Bassett is Emerald Air Service’s expert bear guide and naturalist in the field. We wanted to sit down with Lance and ask him a few questions about bear viewing. This interview touches on the topics of bear tracking and safety precautions.
1. How long have you been a bear guide?
The 2020 season will be my 8th year of guiding.
2. Do you go out and find bears during your expeditions?
We do go out and find bears, but a lot of the time, if you just sit and be patient, things will happen. Bear viewing in a natural environment is not a Disney trip, a zoo, or a fenced-in game preserve. This is wild Alaska where anything can and does happen. We go to the areas where bears congregate, usually around a food source, whether it is a sedge meadow or a salmon stream. However, because bear viewing is so dynamic and unpredictable due to time of season, weather, or time of day, bears may not be in the “normal” areas and we may have to go find them.
3. How do you track bears?
There are a few different ways to track a bear. First and foremost are their tracks, and you can differentiate tracks from one bear to another if you know what to look for. Other ways to track bear are looking for disturbed brush and grass in the sedge meadows and bear trails.
4. How successful are you in finding bears?
We are very successful at finding bears. At Emerald Air Service, we are usually on the ground for 5+ hours, giving us ample time to enjoy ourselves without being pushed to find bear. We have a lot more time to sit and wait patiently, and this is the best way to view bear.
5. What kind of safety precautions keep you and your groups safe while guiding?
We use a lot of safety precautions while out in the field. Before we load up the plane, I will go through a safety briefing, explaining the do’s and don’ts. The number one rule is “Listen to your guide.” Others are, (1) “Never run,” (2) “Never eat while walking,” and (3) “Keep in a group.” The biggest thing is to be aware of your surroundings and never put yourself in a dangerous situation. You never want to crowd a bear, and always give the bear space and an exit. There are numerous other safety items and training as well. I carry a first aid kit, CPR mask, two-way radio, satellite phone, aerial signal flares, fire starter, flashlight, extra clothes, space blankets, tarp, extra food, and that is just in my backpack. We carry more items on the plane. I am also CPR and wilderness first aid qualified.
6. How close can/do you get to bears?
According to park rules and regulations, we cannot approach a bear closer than 50 yards, however, bears do not follow these rules and will go wherever they want, sometimes just a few yards or feet from us. These encounters are very rare and most of the time I will start my “escalation of force” well before this happens. Each encounter is different and requires a different approach and expertise. Sometimes the best and safest thing to do is just sit, keep quiet, keep still, and enjoy the incredible experience. Most of the time, I will be behind our guests so they have the best view, but I will get between the bear and our guests if the bear starts to approach us. It’s funny in a way, I have more of these situations with cubs than mature bear. They are just so curious and wonder what they are.
7. What sets Emerald Air Service’s bear guides apart from other bear viewing operators?
Basically “bear etiquette”—the bears come first. At Emerald Air Service, we follow our simple philosophy, that this is the bears’ world and we are only guests in it for a short period of time, and need to behave that way. Our goal is to not disturb any bear while in the field. If we do, then we did something wrong. In addition to bear viewing, we also strive to educate our guests’ on everything bears—from behavior, lifecycle, reproduction, taxonomy, seasonal diet, to denning, etc.—not just go out and see a bear. There is also all the other flora and fauna, geology, and history of the area that are incredible.
As mentioned earlier, there is bear etiquette. When out in bear country, we use proven techniques that have been passed down from guide to guide at Emerald Air Service.