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Bear Safety: How You Can Stay Safe & Aware While Trekking the Backwoods

Black Bear

Discover the Bear Necessities: My Tips On How You Can Be Bear-Safe in The Forests Of North America.

In This Safety Article You Will Discover:

  • How to Be “Bear Aware” in North America
  • What To Do In The Event of a Bear Encounter
  • How To Avoid Bear Encounters
  • Tips & Tactics for Keeping Bears at Bay

I remember it well. Two friends and I were riding mountain bikes down a logging road in Deep Bay, on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Side-by-side, we rounded a sharp corner overgrown with blackberry bushes and there it was — a black bear cub sitting in the middle of the road. My friends and I slammed on our brakes and the cub swung its head around to look at us. A moment passed, and the bear was gone, scampering off into the woods. We jumped back on our bikes and rode off, worrying that momma bear would be fast on its heels.

This is not an unusual story; many of us have been there before. When trekking around the woods in Canada and the USA, bears are a fact of life — you’re entering their turf, and you should be prepared to see their colours. But there is just as much advice floating around about bear safety as there are stories about encounters, and sifting through garbage to find the gold is not an easy prospect. Was what my friends and I did the “right” thing? We got away unscathed, and it was neither the first nor has been the last time I’ve come nose-to-snout with a black bear (see the above photo, taken while I was on a fishing trip in 2009).

What is the protocol, and exactly how much of a threat are these creatures?

Bear Facts

Jo-Ann Leichew, program delivery specialist at Bear Aware, a Kamloops, British Columbia-based organization that offers bear education to the public, has a lot to say about the often-complicated matter of bears.

“The amount of bear encounters that are non-incidents, far, far outweigh those that are,” she says of the danger bears present to outdoorspeople. “If I were to write a book on bears that simply ran away, it would be a long boring book about essentially nothing.”
There seems to be two versions of bears the general public sees: the friendly cartoon Yogi, and the ferocious man-eater. The truth about what these animals are really like lies somewhere in between.

“Bears are focused on eating,” Leichew says. “In fact, that’s really all they do. In the spring, they are trying to regain all the weight they lost during hibernation, and in the summer and fall, they are trying to fatten up for the hibernation. Their whole life is devoted to gaining weight. If a bear is forced to run, or fight, it risks losing that weight.”

So, possibly the oldest adage about bears is true: they don’t want to encounter you more than you don’t want to encounter them.

“If people only knew how many bears were running away from them at any given time while in the woods,” Leichew laughs, “or how often a bear was up in the tree they just walked under…”

The trick is to keep them on the run. When hiking, don’t slap on your iPod and tread lightly. Make noise — conversation with your partner, hang pots and pans off your pack, or just sing if you want — to alert bears to your presence, and give them a chance to get away (a chance they’ll virtually always take).

“Don’t wear coconut sunscreen — go scent-free,” Leichew also advises. If you think you smell good — cherry lip balm, papaya shampoo — so might a bear. That goes for your pack too — seal up food containers tightly.

If you think you smell good — cherry lip balm, papaya shampoo — so might a bear.
Problems come up when people surprise bears, and this usually happens because they’re just not paying attention to the clues of a bear’s presence. A sudden encounter often results in the bear having to defend its food source, or feeling cornered — the worst possible situation.

“Watch for bear signs — scat, tracks, cubs. We don’t give up the trail enough, that’s where people go wrong. Let [the bear] have it! Often times, Leichew continues, bears will be giving us warnings in the forms of these signs, warnings we need to be paying attention to. If you don’t, a bear could perceive this as aggression. Leichew even considers berry patches bad mojo — berries mean bears, hungry ones at that. And keep your nose up — the smell of rotten flesh is a scent to be wary of. It’s bear attractor number-one.

If you see bear signs — or a bear — just go somewhere else. That’s a bear’s territory now. And of course, respect area closures; they’re in place for a good reason.

Black Bear Cubs

Cubs are one of the worst situations — momma bear will often be very protective.

How to Deal With Close Encounters

OK — so you’re scent-free, making a bloody racket, been scouting for bear signs like Davy Crockett and you still run headlong into a big bruin. What do you do?

“Don’t panic,” Leichew says. “That’s the first thing I tell people. Take a deep breath, do not approach the bear, and do not run. Identify yourself as a human by slowly putting up your hands and talking in a low, gentle voice… and don’t look it in the eyes — that’s a direct challenge.”

Leichew said that if you back off in this manner, “99.9 per cent of the time” that will be the end of it — one more chapter in her book about nothing/ But if not, and the bear approaches you further, still continue doing what you’re doing. If you’re of big enough stature (this won’t work for children) you may be able to “shoo” the bear away if it becomes really persistent, especially if it’s a smaller bear.

“There’s a hierarchy with bears,” Leichew says. This relates mostly to the size — big males (boars) are at the top, then females (sows) and cubs, and after that, a bear’s rank is directly proportionate to its stature. Because of this, small bears are often easier to shake loose. Older bruins, especially large grizzlies, can be a different matter though. As one would expect, a large, dominant boar is much more likely to become aggressive than its younger counterpart.

“I would never be aggressive with a large grizzly, or even a big black bear,” Leichew says. “We used to separate [bear tactics] in terms of species, now we separate in terms of behaviour.” The old adage, ‘fight a black bear, play dead with a grizzly,’ is simply outdated.

“There are two types of behaviour: predatory and defensive,” Leichew says, indicating predatory behaviour means you must fight, defensive bahaviour warrants a slow backing away, as mentioned earlier. So how do you tell the difference?

Well, it’s not easy. But there are some rules of thumb — first off, always assume a bear is on the defensive, and back away. When it becomes clearly predatory is when the bear actually begins its attack. Then you fight back, and you fight back hard. Bear spray, bear bangers and air horns, available at most outdoor equipment retailers, are useful in this situation. This might seem like too little, too late, but doing otherwise you risk aggravating a previously defensive bear into becoming an attacker.

“Think like a bear,” Leichew says. “If you run, it’ll think you’re a deer and chase you; if you play dead, it may wonder how it killed you.” She feels this is one of the most important things — to try and see the situation from the bear’s point of view. You may know you’re not a threat, or not interested in its food, but the bear does not. The onus to prove your innocence is completely on you.

Finally, Leichew advised to check with locals for bear information before heading out into the woods. Bears act differently in different regions.

For example, in Banff, Alberta, they’ve been know to chase after backpacks, as they’ve been conditioned to know that inside the bags lie good eats.

It may seem at times that you’re taking your life in your hands by going for a hike or bike in the backwoods, but that’s not the case in reality. For examples sake, taking two provinces in Canada with high bear populations — British Columbia has recorded 16 bear-related fatalities in a 37-year period, from the1960s to the late 1990s (nine of which were in a single year); and from 1974 to 1995, Alberta recorded only 10 such incidents. When you apply this to the tens of thousands of outdoorspeople that take to the hills each year, you can see that the odds are overwhelmingly in your favour. However, having bears on the brain while heading out in the backcountry is always sound practice. Keep your head up, your wits sharp and give bears a wide berth.

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About the author: David Webb is a Vancouver, BC-based travel writer, photographer and magazine editor.

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