Be Bear Aware

Fall is my favourite season of the year. When bright leaves litter the trails, and a cool breeze passes through the valleys, there is nothing more I’d rather do than head out for a good long hike in the back-country. Though Canada’s beauty truly shines through in autumn, this time of year requires an added bit of caution when trekking in bear territory. Every Canadian nature-lover, whether veteran or rookie, should brush up on bear safety every once in a while, so before you venture out this fall, why not re-educate yourself a bit.

While unwanted bear encounters are rare, some variation of the “ursine” genus can be found from the island of Newfoundland, across Canada to Vancouver Island, and from the northern reaches of the Arctic, to the forests of Saskatchewan. It’s estimated that there are close to 1 million black bears, and around 60 thousand grizzly bears in North America. While there are many bear sightings each year, an absolutely miniscule percentage develop into an injurious encounter.

This should quell any irrational fear of the mythical, bloodthirsty, human-hunting bears of the wilderness. However, everyone should respect their space, and their habitat at all times. For the most part, it can be said that bears have no interest in humans, and this expectation should be respected – keep your distance.

Be Bear Aware

  • When hiking, biking or trail-running, be sure to make noise to reduce the chances of surprising a bear. If they hear you coming, they will usually leave the area.
  • Stay away from dead animals. Bears can smell food sources like this kilometers away.
  • Look out for bear signs: paw tracks, marked/torn-up trees, overturned rocks etc.
  • When possible, travel in groups of 3 or more.
  • Keep small children close by, and pets leashed.
  • When camping in the back-country, setup camp in an open, more visible area. Make sure that your sleeping quarters are at least 50m downwind from your cooking/washing area. Store all food and scented items in a bear-proof cache (strung up, or bear-proofed containers).
  • If you spot a bear in the distance, do not approach the bear, and make a wide detour around it’s area, or head in the opposite direction. Do not run, but slowly back away until out of sight.
tidal pools by Stuart O'Brien

During low-tide, bears love to search in tidal pools like these for food. Photo by Stuart O’Brien

Common bear behaviour in the fall

  • More commonly found near rivers, lakes and streams.
  • More defensive of food sources. If a bear is feeding, leave the area.
  • Increased chance of predacious attacks due to desperation and starvation.
  • Increased chance of bears venturing further, and into new areas in search of food sources.

The two major types of potentially dangerous bear encounters

Defensive encounter

  • The bear has likely been startled, or surprised by your presence. The bear may be defending a food source, or it’s young.
  • The bear may slowly approach you. It may make woofing, barking or snorting noises. Sometimes the bear will keep it’s head low, bobbing it up and down.
  • Black Bears will usually only false-charge. Retreat to safety if possible.
  • A defensive attack from a Grizzly bear is the only time when one should attempt to “play dead”.
  • Defensive attacks are usually just a presentation of dominance, and if you drop, laying belly down, with hands crossed behind the head and neck, the bear will likely stop attacking. It has proved it’s dominance, and may leave the area. Do not get up and leave until you are sure it is out of sight.

Predatory encounter

  • A very rare situation, the bear has likely stalked you, is following you, and is treating you as prey. His or her focus is transfixed on you.
  • Attempt to get to safety (car, building etc.) immediately.
  • If you perceive that a predacious attack is imminent, stand your ground, ready your bear spray or any deterrent possible (rocks, large sticks etc…).
  • If the bear begins acting aggressively, attempt to match the aggression and let the bear know that you will not be “easy prey”. Make yourself large and noisy. Stomp and clap at the bear in an attempt to scare it away.
  • Do not play dead! If the bear makes contact, be ready to fight for your life.

Remember, the chances of seeing a bear in the wild is rare – being attacked by a bear is exceptionally rare. That being said, always exercise caution when trekking in bear country (even black bear country). If you respect the bear’s habitat, and enter into their domain with knowledge of their behaviour, you can enjoy our beautiful wilderness to its fullest!

About Nature Canada’s guest blogger

Stuart O’Brien is a 25 year old business professional in Ottawa, and a graduate of Queen’s University.  He is born and raised in rural Ontario and grew up loving nature in many different ways.  He enjoys hiking, camping, canoeing and nature observations.