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Bears I Have Known and Loved
Daniel A. R. Perry
First of all, I don’t want to trivialize the dangers that bears present. Bears can be dangerous and you need to practice all the safety precautions that go with traveling in bear country when you go camping.
For example, years ago I had a summer job with the Canadian National Railway doing track maintenance. After a long haul, without any time off, they gave us four days off and a train pass. I jumped on a freight and headed for Jasper, Alberta. I arrived at about 1:00 A.M. during a downpour. I wanted a campsite and I had been told there was a ‘free camp’, a bit of bush that a bunch of hippies had made home, just outside of town. There were a couple of guys standing on the platform in the deluge, looking as lost as I was. They thought the camp was just down the tracks. We started to hike into the night. As luck would have it people came off a dark, little side road onto the tracks. They were headed to the camp, and were glad to guide us there. As we approached we heard dogs barking. ‘Yup, they are just doing their job.’ ‘What job is that?’, I asked. ‘Chasing the bears out of the camp.’, was the answer. Bears were a big problem. We headed into the forest which was dark as pitch. I found a flat piece of ground, stomped down the coarse sage grass and laid out my bivy sack. I crawled into it and slept like the proverbial log. The next morning I stuck my head out of the sack into the clear, fresh, mountain air. I was overwhelmed by one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. I woke to spectacular mountains with their peaks aflame in the orange, morning sun while the clouds of the night’s storm broke and swirled in blues and purples through the valley. I also discovered I had laid out my bivy just a couple of feet from the bank of the Athabasca River. A few steps further while I was stomping down the grass in the dead of night, and I could have tumbled down the bank into the river. Later that morning I found the guys I had hiked into the camp with. I asked how they had slept. They hadn’t. Just after they had settled in and were dozing off, their tent started to shake violently. They had a bear pawing at it. They started yelling and the dogs came chasing the bear away, but it kept coming back through the night. I had slept right through the commotion. So what was the big attraction about their tent in particular? They eventually figured out that one of the guys had a package of sunflower seeds in his pants pocket. The savory smell of those sunflower seeds was all it took to make Bruno want to join them in the tent. So, lesson number one – do not bring food into your tent. I am not particularly concerned about bear encounters, having had many, but I do not like to even drink a mug of soup in my tent. I am sure those lingering aromas smell fabulous to a bear. And bears are not the only creature that might invite themselves in for a visit. When I was in high school, during the summer months, my Dad used to drop me off with a few friends at the end of some remote logging road to camp and fish for a week. Once, I came back to my camp to find groundhogs, of all things, in my tent forging for the food I had carelessly left in there. One thing that people tend not to think about is toothpaste. Don’t bring your toothpaste into your tent. To a bear that minty freshness might be just the thing she is looking for. So when you are in bear country, how you deal with your food is probably your number one concern. Don’t leave scraps around your camp. Burn your food waste and make sure it is good and burnt including any chicken bones or beef bones from those first night out meals. They have to be burned beyond recognition. It is never a good idea to bring cans into the bush. If you do, burn or scrub those free of any food smells. Make sure you crush them up and pack them out. We don’t want our back country to be littered with cans. If you spill food on your clothes, and this tends to be a problem when you have kids on your trip, make sure those clothes don’t come into the tent until they are rinsed off. Clean your dishes and billy cans as soon as you are finished with them. After you wash your dishes, take the dishwater well away from any water source and your camp to discard it. It probably smells like a delicious soup to a bear. When you clean fish you have caught, do it well away from your camp. And then of course, hang your food. At the beginning of a big trip when you have a lot of provisions hanging your food is a pain, but it has got to be done. The weight of a lot of food tends to bind the rope on the branch and the food bag gets stuck six feet or so off the ground. That is easy pickings for a bear. Use a branch or a paddle and have someone push while the other person hauls on the rope. You’ll get your food up. Make sure the bag is well away from the trunk of the tree and away from any sturdy branches. Bears are great climbers. Some people think that recreation barrels, also and erroneously called bear barrels, like the ones they sell at Grub ‘n’ Gear http://www.grub-n-gear.ca/, will keep bears out of your food. Don’t be fooled. Bears will rip into those like they are made of tissue paper. However they are handy, water proof, float and keep all kinds of other creatures out of your food. I love my barrels, but you have to hang those too. Not many portable containers will keep a bear out of your food. There is a beautiful, weekend, getaway lake just north of Toronto. Last summer a bear made a career out of going from campsite to campsite raiding ‘pik-ka-nik’ baskets, as Yogi would say. Word got out and when people went up there they took these aluminum coolers that could be padlocked shut. The bear soon learned to destroy these very expensive coolers by prying up and folding over one corner of the lid and emptying the contents. We never saw him, but we kept ‘bear bangers’ in our pockets all the while we were at this lake. I have heard that if you are traveling by kayak or canoe one alternative to hanging food is to place your food out on a rock or small island well away from shore. However, I am skeptical. I was out on the Fingerboards of the French River delta on a three week trip. One late afternoon we set up camp on a beautiful, little island. I decided to not hang the food. I didn’t see the place as bear habitat. We were on water. The area is mile after mile of tiny, long, slender islands of pink granite with a few wind swept pines doting each of them and a bit of sparse vegetation. I figured there wasn’t enough land mass to make for good bear habitat. Goes to show what I know. After setting up our camp my friend and I grabbed our rods to fish along the shore. He walked one way down the shore line and I went the other. After a few minutes my friend yelled to me, ‘Hey Dan, there is a bear on the other island!’ Sure enough there was, and it struck me – what little grew on the islands was mostly blueberry bushes, and bears love blueberries. The bear and the two of us, watched each other for a few minutes and I said, ‘I guess we had better hang up our food, but he knows we are here, so he isn’t going to be a problem for now.’ Just as I said that he slipped into the water and swam straight for us. Once again, goes to show what I know. As he came across the water I threw the food pack into the canoe and my wife paddled it off shore. I wish I had had time to get my camera. The bear came right into camp and sniffed around everything. We stayed back and let him examine it all. Eventually he decided there was nothing interesting at our campsite and left. He headed out across the island. Then I could get my camera and I went after him. I immediately lost him because the island was all undulating granite and he was traveling along the dips and valleys. I stood on a rise and suddenly he went over an other rise, so I headed off after him again. That was when I figured out that I could track him by his smell. Have you heard the expression, ‘You smell like an old bear.’? It took on a new meaning for me. Boy, if you think your dog stinks when it is wet, that is nothing. This guy made my eyes water. I realized I could track him by stench alone. The air would freshen and my head would clear if I got off track, and foul right up as I closed in. I eventually got a few pictures. But my point is, bears swim. They swim very well, and they like the water, so food stashed on islands and rocks out on a lake is probably not very safe. And when you still have a week to go on your trip and a bear eats your food, it can be a real drag. Most of the bears people encounter are Black Bears. The Brown Bear has become quite rare and lives in remote areas, so people don’t encounter them nearly as often as Black Bears. Apart from the Polar Bear, which is a real predator, the Brown Bear is the dangerous one. So when you are in the woods and you see a brown bear, don’t worry – it is most likely a Black Bear. Yes, Black Bears come in brown and black. Unless you are in the back country of western Canada, Alaska or remote parts of Europe and Asia, you are dealing with a Black Bear, even if it has brown, tan or cinnamon fur. For the most part bears get a bad rap. According to Stephen Herrero in his Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, 23 people were killed by black bears from 1900 to 1980. That is not many especially when you consider that a huge portion of the population worked in the woods in the early nineteen hundreds. Lets put this in perspective. In the 1980s and 1990s the US averaged 17 fatal dog attacks per year, so that would be about 1360 fatal attacks by domestic dogs in the same time period. In the US each year about 50-100 people die from bee stings (Yahoo Answers). About 40,000 people die in car crashes each year in the United States. (NHTSA). If you have read my article, ‘You Need to Go Camping’ you understand that I am pretty passionate about camping. Often when I talk to people about camping they say things like, ‘ No way!’ I’m not going anywhere where I’m going to get eaten by a bear!’ The fact is, you are in far greater danger of a fatal dog attack in populated areas, not to mention a car crash, getting creamed by a crazy cyclist careening down a sidewalk, a lighting strikes while you golf and a plethora of other very real dangers. It is strange how people typically react when they do encounter a bear in the wild for the first time. A few years ago my wife and I paddled down the Spanish River with our son and an other couple. While we were preparing for the trip at one point Frank, who had never been in the bush said, ‘There aren’t any bears where we are going, right?’ I said, ‘Are you kidding! The place is crawling with bears.’ Looking nervous he said, ‘So what do we do? Pack some heat?’ A few days into the trip, early one morning we were sitting around the camp fire chatting while we finished our coffee. It was a beautiful morning, with dewy cobwebs sparkling in the sun, and a mist over the river. Suddenly Kelly, Frank’s partner, jumped to her feet and said, ‘Oh my gawd! A bear!’ Sure enough a bear was wading across the river straight for us. Everyone jumped up – and this is so typical of people – ran toward the bear, as if to greet it, and welcome it into our camp. The bear paused and then started to wade against the current going up stream. It kept looking back over its shoulder with a very worried expression on its face. Struggling against the river current to get away from us, it looked timid and vulnerable. We all felt bad that we had scared it. After going for about one hundred feet up river it turned again to the river bank on our side of the river. Frank, who had been worried about a bear encounter, took off into the woods after it to get a better look. He came back ten minutes later disappointed at not having found a trace of of the bruin. When a friend of mine, who had never seen a wild bear, was portaging crossing the old railway tracks in Algonquin Provincial Park ( http://www.algonquinpark.on.ca/ ) he looked out from under his canoe to check for trains, and found a big bear walking along the rail as if it was doing some sort of circus act. It made him laugh, and he said his first impulse was to whistle and call, ‘Here boy!’, like you would to a big friendly dog. Somehow the anticipation along with the mystique of a bear makes the idea of encountering a bear more stressful then actually meeting up with one. When you actually see one they are somehow disarming. When you think about it, that quality in itself is not a good thing. You need to be alert around a bear, even if it presents only a minor threat. The need to be alert is not something unusual. We need to be particularly alert when dealing with many things in life, such as traffic lights, lane changes, crosswalks and getting on and off escalators. Once again, I am not out to trivialize any danger a Black Bear might present, but for the most part bears are shy and stay well away from people. Once I was portaging up a steep hill with a canoe on my shoulders. The peak of the hill was treeless and covered with blueberry bushes. Amongst the blueberry bushes were about a dozen bears, many of them sitting on their butts looking a little foolish. I stopped and slowly backed down the hill until I was just below the peak and out of their sight. Ever so gently I put down the canoe. I waited for my wife, who was coming up behind me. She had the pack with the camera in it. We got the camera out and snuck back up to the peak. In spite of this taking just a few moments, there was not a single bear in sight. That is so typical of bears – one inkling of a human being present and they clear out. The French River bear was not typical. That is why I thought he would not be a problem once he saw us. However, there are quite a number of remote cabins on the delta, so that bear had probably become used to people. There was only one time that I was vaguely concerned about a bear, and not for my own safety. My wife and I had been on a four week trip. The end of the trip was a long way from our starting point, so we had a couple of friends come up from the city to pick us up. The rendezvous place was at a campsite they could drive to. It was out on a point of land; a peninsula. They were going to be arriving late in the afternoon, so we went fishing. When we paddled back to the camp there was a bear cub standing on the end of the peninsula. We came around the point and our friends were on the beach in front of the camp. For the cub to get out on the point it had to pass through our camp. The question was, where was Momma bear? Again, Black Bears, even females with cubs, are not tremendously dangerous, but you don’t want to completely ignore the risk. Fortunately, we never did see her. In my most dramatic encounter, I never saw the bear. It was a scorching hot day. I was portaging through a canyon carrying a heavy canoe pack with a tumpline across my forehead, so I had my head down. Suddenly the world exploded. With a rumble, the soft ground shook. Sticks, moss and earth showered me. My wife, who was right behind me, said, ‘I guess we scared up a deer.’ ‘I don’t think so.’, I stammered. With our hearts pounding we stepped off the trail, and not more than eight feet away there was a cool, mossy bowl in the ground with great claw marks dug in it. Poor Bruno had, no doubt, been snoozing away the noonday heat in that cool hollow until we had rudely come stumbling along to disturb his siesta. Once again, in typical bear style, he fled. That is the most a bear has ever frightened me, but stepping on a cat’s tail in the dark has the same effect. The next time you are invited to go back country, don’t let the fear of a possible bear encounter stop you. I am going to say it one more time. I am not here to trivialize the danger that bears present. There is a risk factor associated with them, just as there is with a lot of things we encounter – even things that we typically deal with everyday. So pay attention to the bear safety articles on the web and in magazines that go into more depth than I have here. You should know what they say, but as you read them and familiarize yourself with what they say, don’t let them fill you with an unreasonable fear of bears. Take the precautions that have been mentioned in this article, and in the other bear safety articles that you read, and you will be fine. Life has too many limiting factors and real dangers. You don’t need to magnify minor ones to limit and inhibit you even further. Doing so will only rob you of the wonderful experiences that life has to offer. Go ahead, go camping. Bears in the woods are not the big threat some people would have you believe. Don’t let them hold you back.
Dan Perry is an avid camper, and loves to go on long, remote canoe trips. He believes that the preservation of the planets wild places is essential for everyone’s spiritual well being and mental health http://EzineArticles.com/?expert=Daniel_A.R._Perry. Without them we are in danger of loosing sight of what a baseline, ‘normal’ state of mind is. Dan is the President of Grub ‘n’ Gear, http://www.grub-n-gear.ca an on line community that provides resources for wilderness campers.
Bears I Have Known and Loved