Secrets in Bear Country

When bears attack.

We all know the danger is out there, but the reality of it actually happening is usually far from our thoughts. Fact is, grizzly bears do attack. They attack anyone or anything they feel threatened by. Spend enough time in the backcountry, and one day that threat might be you.

On September 25, 1992, Mark Matheny's number came up. The Gallatin Gateway resident suffered a violent attack and became another statistic in the book of grizzly maulings. But rather than just being a statistic, Matheny has made a career out of preventing future attacks and ensuring backcountry safety. As the president of Universal Defense Alternative Products (UDAP), Matheny designs and sells pepper spray for protection against bear attacks. You may recognize Matheny from his graphic post-attack picture that adorns many UDAP products.

Mark Matheny was attacked on a heavily used trail by a female grizzly bear while bow-hunting in the Gallatin National Forest. In less than half a minute, the grizzly charged and mauled Matheny two times. Luckily, Mark's hunting partner, Dr. Fred Bahnson, was carrying "Karate-in-a-Can," a four-ounce can of pepper spray used by law enforcement at the time. His point-blank blast sent the bear running and most likely saved Mark's life.

Matheny suffered extensive bite lacerations to the head and neck, and superficial bite lacerations to the right arm and left anterior chest. He remained conscious, but lost nearly a pint of blood. Matheny's wounds would have been much worse, if not fatal, if his hunting partner had not had the can of pepper spray.

"I was just thankful to be hiking down the trail out of there," remembers Matheny. "We were talking loud, singing all the songs we knew... then a couple hundred yards from the trailhead, I said to my hunting partner 'you should take a picture so people will know what can happen.'" Bahnson obliged, capturing on film Matheny's bloody, gouged-up face. Now, that photo is a company trademark and serves as a dramatic reality check: bear attacks can and do happen, and we humans tend not to fare so well when they do.

Today, Matheny is UDAP's most convincing salesman, taking what he learned from that grizzly bear in 1992 and enabling thousands of people to recreate in the backcountry with some sort of confidence. His products give people a reassuring defense from the surprise attack of a bear.

After the attack, Matheny was approached by a number of bear spray manufacturers with proposals to endorse their products. But he felt a strong loyalty to Missoula-based Counter Attack, the manufacturers of the pepper spray that saved his life. Matheny didn't just want to sell bear spray for Counter Attack; he wanted to improve it. Matheny wanted to develop holsters so you could shoot from the hip when needed. He wanted to educate backcountry enthusiasts on bear safety, bear behavior, and self-defense. But the company's pace was far slower than his enthusiasm. "I changed a few things, but not enough," says Matheny. Eventually he ventured off on his own.

Matheny mortgaged his home and property and started UDAP in 1994. By January of 1995, he'd developed his own formula and did $135,000 in sales. UDAP was twice as hot as any other bear spray on the market. Nowadays, it is still hotter than the nearest competitor and disperses the most active ingredients in the shortest amount of time.

Bear spray has been proven effective on black bears, grizzly bears, moose, and mountain lions. UDAP also makes bear spray holsters, pepper sprays to guard against human attacks, and law enforcement pepper products.

The #3P Jogger Fogger is UDAP's most popular all-around self-defense unit. It is designed to fit easily in the palm of your hand with a stretch-band to hold it securely in place. For bear sprays, Matheny says the chest holster is the most effective because it leaves your hands free while hiking, yet places the can right where you need it in the event of an attack.

True to his original goal, Matheny has spent a significant amount of time, money, and energy educating the public. To spread the word on preventive measures and safety, Matheny speaks at sports shows and seminars across the country. He visits schools, does radio shows, and appears in magazines and newspapers. He participates in state Fish & Game workshops and has been profiled on the Discovery Channel. Matheny teaches alertness in bear country, bear safety tips such as recognizing and avoiding bear habitat, the basics of bear behavior and body language, and how to handle encounters. Matheny also teaches how to properly deploy your bear spray when attacked.

UDAP, however, is not a free ticket to safe travel in the backcountry. It is merely one safety measure among many. Matheny urges people to read the entire label upon purchase. He likens bear spray to an avalanche beacon; neither is effective in the hands of someone who doesn't know how to use it. "Bear spray isn't brains in a can," Matheny cautions, "but it sure is insurance in a can. It allows people to go out and enjoy themselves in the beauty God created for us without all the fear."

There are other things to keep in mind as well, says Matheny. Before hitting the trail, familiarize yourself with how to operate the bear deterrent. If a bear is charging, begin spraying when it gets within 40 feet. Hopefully, it will run right into the fog. If a bear is coming at you along with a strong wind, you should probably wait until it is close before spraying to avoid blasting yourself instead. Carry your canister in a holster on your belt or chest, with the nozzle pointing away from you. Aim for the face or spray a cloud that the bear has to run through to get to you.

These days, there are more and more people using the backcountry, and that means more and more encounters with bears. "What's important is the effectiveness of your defense," says Matheny. "Firearms have proven 52% effective and bear spray 92% effective. We sell thousands of cans of bear spray every year, and we've gotten dozens of letters from people who have used it successfully. In many cases, it saved their lives."

UDAP bear spray has a three-year shelf life for peak performance. Matheny encourages you to know how old your can is before making any camping or hiking plans; what's in that can could very well save your life. Knowing exactly what you have and how to use it could be your best defense. However, according to Matheny, possessing backcountry savvy and carrying bear spray is merely half the battle. What remains is understanding the bear itself. "You must have a reverence for bears, a fear in a sense that they are powerful and they are definitely out there," he says. "The thing to remember is that they are just trying to survive, and we're invading their kitchens and living rooms."

UDAP recently came out with the Grizzly Grip, a new holster option for bear spray. The Grizzly Grip fastens to a ski pole or walking stick and allows you to keep the pepper spray securely close to hand. The Grizzly Grip works well for hiking, walking, and cross-country skiing.