Lessons from my summer: bear safety

This summer I spent a lot of time north of Toronto, around Algonquin Park, as well as a few days up at Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS). Both areas are frequented by black bears, and this summer was a good opportunity to brush up on my bear safety. Hopefully I can share some of what I learned with you. The Friends of Algonquin Park have a great online resource on not only how to avoid bears, but what to do if you encounter one, and this post is largely based on it.

Avoiding Black Bears

Black bear safety is as much about reacting properly when you encounter a bear as it is avoiding them when possible. Black bears are intelligent scavengers, and can make connections between people and food. It seems obvious, but don’t feed them! This not only endangers your life, but those of others, as it changes bear behaviour for the worse. Second, keep your food out of reach. For example, if you drove to a camp site, keep your food in your trunk. If that is not an option, hang your food at least 4 metres from the ground. Bears will readily eat and go through garbage, and are attracted to its smell. Keep campsites clean by burning away any excess food scraps, cleaning used dishes away from your campsite, and keeping garbage out of reach (for example, suspended like your food).


(Illustration by Mike Clelland) 

If You Encounter a Bear

Bears are intelligent animals and react differently depending on various factors, including how you present yourself. Because of this, proper actions depend on how the bear is reacting to you. There are 4 typical bear behaviours, each with its own recommended response:

1. Fleeing bear

No worries here, this bear is scared and running away. It is common for bears to hear and smell you before you’re aware of them.

2. Habituated bear

Remember that part about changing bear behaviour? Habituated bears have become comfortable around humans because of human contact and the potential for food. If the bear doesn’t see you walk away quietly away from the bear. If it is aware of you, talk in a calm, low tone, wave your arms (there is some debate as to if this is a good or bad idea, do your own research here), and move away from the bear. If the bear is right next to you, you can stand still and give it ample space to pass

An aside on these habituated bears – my family has a small municipal landfill less than an hour from our cottage, near Algonquin Park. Before an electric fence was installed, it was common to find up to a dozen bears on any given summer’s day. These bears were so used to humans they would walk right next to you if you were unaware of them and sift through the garbage. You could tell the locals apart from the cottagers by their responses – the locals were totally unfazed and went about their business while the bears went about theirs.

3. Defensive bear

This is rare, but can be found if a bear is threatened by you, or sees you as a food source. The bear will show obvious signs of its feelings, making vocalizations, sounds with its teeth, swatting the ground, lowering its head, drawing back its ears, and/or faking a charge. Do not run away. If you are with a group, stay together. Slowly back away while providing the bear space to leave. Make loud noises – whistle, yell, blow an air horn if you can. Bear spray can be effective here.

4. Predatory bear

Even more rarely, bears will attack humans. These bears will not make themselves obvious as a defensive bear would. Predatory bears may quietly stalk their prey. This is time to be scared, but as always, there are actions to take to maximize your safety. Never run away on foot, the bear my chase you. It’s time to fight. Seriously. Remember last year’s The Revenant? Luckily, fighting a black bear is far from a battle with a grizzly. This is the time to vent all your frustration from that C you got in that class where you totally deserved that A. Yell, throw rocks, hit it with sticks, and make as much noise as possible. If the bear comes in contact with you, do not play dead. Fight back, aiming for the bears face, particularly its eyes. If you have a backpack on, keep it on, and protect your face and neck with your hands and arms.

Luckily for me, I did not see any black bears while on foot this summer. While black bears can be a scary sight while alone outdoors, in the majority of cases they pose no threat to humans. If you’re in bear country remember it’s their land you’re visiting – no the other way around. Treat the bears with caution and follow this guide and maybe you’ll get to share some tips of your own.

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