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Bears in Canada - How to Avoid a Bear Attack
Most Canadian adventures will inevitably take you through bear country. Knowing how to avoid a bear attack is the best way to keep safe in the great outdoors.
There's different advice to follow when dealing with the three types of bears in Canada (black bear, grizzly & polar bear) but most people quickly forget them when they actually encounter a bear in the back-country.
The two general rules that have kept me safe in the Canadian Rockies for the past 20 years are:
- Use common sense and always give notice of your location - Make noise every 100 meters or so and especially when rounding a corner or coming up to thick bush. Black bears & grizzly bears avoid human contact and alerting them before a human intrusion gives them enough time to retreat, most times without us even knowing they were there. Polar bears, being the largest land carnivore, aren't scared of puny humans.
- Use common sense and don't attract bears. Black bears, grizzly bears and polar bears have excellent sense of smell and can sniff out food from over a kilometer away. Don't attract bears to you with tempting smells.
I am not a bear expert, ecologist or even an adventure guide. I'm just a regular weekend warrior who loves hiking in Canada and have seen all three types of bears (black, grizzly & polar) in their natural territory. Bears can be found across all of Canada except for the southern prairies, southern Ontario & Prince Edward Island.
The two rules mentioned above are what I use all the time when hiking, camping & boating (yes, bears can swim). Giving these intelligent creatures the room and respect that they deserve has prevented me from getting into a bear attack. However, if such an unfortunate escalation happens, knowing how to survive a bear attack is vital knowledge in the back-country.
Know your Canadian bears
Black Bears are the smallest of the bears in Canada and are more scavengers than hunters. They are opportunistic when it comes to food (and garbage). They lack the massive shoulder hump of muscle that characterizes the grizzly Bear.
Black bears in Canada can be black, brown or white-ish in colour. They are not endangered and estimates put their numbers at around 600,000 in North America. The white Spirit bear, or Kermode bear, is actually a black bear and can not mate with the grizzly or polar bear.
When encountering a black bear, do not be intimidated and do not show fear. Make yourself look as big as possible and make lots of noise to show that you will not cower. Even if it charges, stand your ground. I treat black bears as if they were a wild dog. Hold your ground and never run away.
|Black bears are the most common. They are more scavengers than hunters.||Black bears can be brown in color too and should be treated the same.||Spirit bears of BC. Photo courtesy of Doug Neasloss & Spirit Bears Adventures.|
Grizzly Bears have a MASSIVE shoulder hump and a large, circular face. They are solitary creatures and require large territories for each adult.
When encountering a grizzly bear, do not come across as a threat. Speak quietly, walk backwards slowly and do not make eye-contact. Do not run! Give them plenty of room and try to convince them that you do not threaten them in anyway. These are large powerful animals and they know their strength.
Grizzly Bear in Banff, Alberta.|
Photo courtesy of Marion Oakes.
Polar Bears are the largest land carnivore on the planet. They are supreme hunters and can smell prey over a mile away. They are found along the coast of the Arctic Ocean & the Hudson Bay and on the rest of the Canadian Arctic islands.
Polar bears are formidable hunters so always walk with bear spray, bear bangers or a firearm. Do not run or show fear but be prepared to defend yourself.
|A polar bear in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada||Polar bears siblings playing near the Hudson's Bay.|
How to Avoid a Bear Attack
Here are a few tips to prevent an altercation:
- Never trap a bear. Always give them plenty of room so they can keep clear. I give a high-pitch whistle every 100 meters which, I've been told by oncoming hikers, can be heard up to 500 meters away, much further than tiny bear-bells.
- Give them time to acknowledge that a human is near and they will retreat.
- Don't attract a bear. Stay aware and alert at all times. This may be hard to do when it's pitch black at night when they have the advantage, but black bears & grizzly bears don't usually hunt people, they hunt for the food that you're carrying. Seal all food in airtight bags & containers. When camping, place the food bag well away from the tent.
- Don't wear scents and odours from cooking on your clothes or tent. You may not look like a delicious pasta dinner but to a bear, you may smell like one.
- When encountering berry patches, fishing holes or dead animal carcasses be very careful as this may be their feeding area. Be vigilant near rivers (where they catch fish), roadside openings (where they graze on fresh vegetation) and berry patches (where they devour fresh crops). A hungry bear may protect its food source from intruders.
- Stay away from mothers & cubs. The maternal instinct is strong and she may protect her family. Do not come across as a threat. Try praying at this point!
What did these guys do wrong? Screamed & yelled at a grizzly, acted in a threatening way, ran away like prey.
Black bears - I've seen hundreds of bears in Alberta, BC & Northern Ontario. In Waterton Lakes National Park, we've come across a baby black bear cub near Red Rock Canyon! We didn't see the mother but we immediately stopped and slowly backed away. We didn't want the mother to think we were a threat to her family.
The closest we've come to a black bear is in Wells Gray Provincial Park in central BC. In April, these hungry bears come out of hibernation and forage the fresh vegetation along the roadside. They were oblivious to our presence (in the car) as they ate the fresh dandelions.
Grizzly bears - In Kananaskis, we were starting to hike towards Elbow Lake when a grizzly crossed the road. Thankfully, the area was open and there was plenty of room for it to move along undisturbed. We left and hiked to Carnarvon Lake which was 30 minutes away.
Polar bears - I respect the Native people of the Arctic who have lived with these intelligent hunters for millennia. On my scenic polar bear trip to Churchill, Manitoba, I felt absolutely secure in the well armoured Tundra Buggy with trained guides with shotguns.
Bears are smart creatures and we are guests in their wilderness home. Giving them the room and respect that they deserve will help avoid a bear attack.
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