My first encounter with a black bear was when I was 17 and on a high school canoe trip in a Canadian park. There were eight of us in the group, including a guide.
Our guide had spent a lot of time talking to us about what to do if we encountered a black bear. We were ready:
- The food packs were stored under over-turned canoes, with pots and pans on top.
- The slab of bacon was wrapped in layers of cheese cloth to repel flies, and then hung from a tree, far from our tents.
- Anything we cooked and didn’t eat was burned in the fire which was also a good distance from our tents. The pots and pans were immediately washed.
- No one was allowed to have food in the tent.
I didn’t question any of this and thought it was all part of the adventure. Some of the other guys in my group weren’t as respectful, but they soon would be.
It was early evening and we were enjoying that night’s fish fry of walleye accompanied by walleye and some walleye on the side. Suddenly, one of the guys pointed and said, “Look! There’s a bear!”
One guy ran into the tent. The guide said, “Don’t anyone move!” He looked at some pots and pans and our metal cook plates and said, “Find a stick, a rock anything and do what I do!” We all found rocks. All the sticks were by the bear.
The guide then stood up and started pounding a frying pan with a rock and shouting. We all did the same. The bear turned and trotted away like a scolded dog, but one of the guys decided to go after him with his pan and rock weapon. The guide had to tackle him. He said, “We won the war. You challenge him and you’ll lose the fight real fast.”
My heart still pounds recounting this story, and it was a sleepless night for most us. Our guide slept like a baby because he understood bear behavior.
Bear Behavior vs. Human Behavior
Today, I have a cabin in Michigan. Our house overlooks a river valley from a bluff of sand about 100 feet high. One day, I was doing some yard work and noticed a black bear coming up the hill toward our house. My daughter and my niece and their kids were sitting at a picnic table eating grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. I slowly walked over to the table and told my daughter to take the kids in the house. I didn’t want to alarm them. My niece looked at me and said, “Can I finish my sandwich first?” I said, “That’s fine, but the black bear coming up the hill will probably eat your sandwich and your hand before having one of your daughters for dessert.” Both moms and kids were quickly in the house.
My oldest son was in the garage with the dogs. I was a bit more direct and said, “There’s a bear coming up the hill. Get the dogs in the house now!” He did.
My youngest son and his friends were tossing a Frisbee in the front yard. I told them to get in the house, too. My son understood my tone and headed for the door. His friends soon followed.
As my wife and I walked toward the front door, I saw the bear come to the top of the ridge. We quickly got inside. We all watched from the windows as the dogs barked and ran around the house. I called the DNR, and they were there in four minutes. They saw the bear and hit their sirens. The bear quickly retreated.
We slowly came out of the house to thank the officers, but they looked around and quickly reprimanded us.
“This place is a bear magnet!” one officer said. “I’m surprised this is the first time you’ve seen him.”
He then walked around and called attention to the potato and corn chips my grandkids had left on the ground underneath their little picnic table. He saw the fish cleaning table by the side of the bluff and said, “Let me guess. You throw the fish guts and carcasses down the hill.” He then noticed some rib bones under the picnic table.
The rangers told us: Our actions were inviting animals, including bears, to come to our house. We immediately began to clean up but the ranger said, “That’s a step in the right direction but it’s going to be a while. You’ve trained this bear to think of this location as a source for food, and he’ll be back.”
My niece and her husband and daughters packed that night and left in the morning. The rest of us stayed another couple of days but spent most our time in town and eating in restaurants. It was a lesson learned that we still respect.
Don’t Let a Bear Sneak up on You
I’ve often gone on Canadian fishing trips, usually accompanied by my best friend. It was about noon once, and we were hungry and exhausted. We had done the usual 4 a.m. wake-up call and had put about eight hours in the boat. We were anxious to beach the boat and have something to eat.
We were sitting on a large slab of granite by the lakeshore eating our shore lunch: salami sandwiches on rye with mustard and cold water. We didn’t say much. We were too tired. I happened to glance around — mostly to admire the view – when I saw a black bear. It was approaching us in a stalking position with its head low to the ground. I guess the smell of salami in the air attracted him.
I told my friend “there’s a bear stalking us” and headed toward the boat. My friend was right behind me, and we got in and pushed off from shore. I fired up the motor and it started the first time. I backed us away from the shore. When I looked back toward shore, I was stunned to see the bear at the shoreline, pounding its paws on the ground and waving its head from side to side. I figured it covered close to 50 yards in seconds.
I swung the boat around and hit the gas until we were about 50 to 60 yards offshore. I still had my salami sandwich in my hand. The bear was finishing my friend’s sandwich, which he had hastily dropped to the ground. I’m still grateful that the motor had started on the first pull!
How to Stay Safe
The U.S. National Park Service offers great advice on bear encounters. Some of these, I learned the hard way.
- Never allow a bear to come closer than 50 yards to your location.
- If you see a bear, slowly and calmly walk away with your head looking over your shoulder frequently, but don’t run. That can trigger a bear to attack. I suspect our quick retreat in the boat from the shoreline is what triggered the bear to charge.
- If you’re tempted to climb a tree, remember that black bears are excellent tree climbers.
- If you’re tempted to jump in a lake, know that black bears can swim faster than you do.
- If you want to or have to scare off a bear, raise your arms in the air to make yourself appear larger; shout, scream or hit two sticks together or hit pots and pans together. A group will be more effective with this approach, as evidenced by my high school canoe adventure.
- Throw a rock or stick at the bear.
- If charged, use pepper spray if you have it. (Read the directions on the spray the first time you receive it. Some pepper sprays require you to remove a tab to allow them to spray. You want to know this before you really need it.)
- If needed, use a stick to defend yourself or if you’re so armed, a rifle or sidearm.
- Keep all food cleaned up and burned in a fire or buried. If you have garbage cans at a remote location like a summer cabin, keep the garbage in the garage with the doors closed or a good distance from the house.
- If camping, store all food in a rucksack or pack at least 50 yards from your camp. Suspending food in a pack by rope from a branch high above the ground might help, but it can still attract a bear, who may climb the tree in an effort to get to the food. Let him have it.
- Never keep any kind of food in your tent, even candy.
- If you have been cooking something aromatic like barbecue, bacon or ham, your clothes may be permeated with the aroma. Hang them in a tree to air out, or wash them in a lake or creek. Don’t hit the sleeping bag smelling like a smoked ham.
Hopefully, you never have one of these encounters. My heart still pounds when I think about mine.
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