At the age of 5 I wanted to be a bear, in particular a polar bear. At the age of 10 I wanted to meet a bear, mostly just to get a hug. At the age of 27 I couldn’t think of anything worse than to hiking in a country full of bears.
When I decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in 2015 I wasn’t scared about the treacherous trail or the deathly desert, I was terrified about meeting a bear. The first night on the trail I barely ate any food or went to the bathroom in fear it would attract a furry friend. I woke up every night for nearly 5 months convinced there was a bear outside my tent ready to eat me. Some nights there were bears but they would be quite happy munching on grubs and rummaging for berries until I’d yell at them to leave me in peace. Slowly over the months I became accustomed to dealing with black bears if I came across one but every time I would leave the encounter heart racing and fear of being in the woods alone. From this experience I became comfortable with the idea that they were somewhere in the woods, minding their own business and not out to kill me.
Over time I played with the idea of maybe hiking the Continental Divide Trail which is another 1 of the 3 biggest trails in America. It journeys through the likes of Glacier National Park; a place frequented by Grizzly bears. But I just couldn’t bring myself to hike a trail that not only had black bears (which were bad enough) but the likelihood I would come across a Grizzly bear too. A friend reached out hoping to widen my understanding of Grizzly bears and I could be put at ease about them, by making me watch the movie ‘Grizzly Man’. If you haven’t seen this movie then I strongly advise not watching if you don’t want to be scared senseless about bears. This movie made things worse.
As the years passed, I still hadnt plucked up the courage to hike in Grizzly terrain until I finally moved to Canada. And not just any part of Canada but The Canadian Rockies, a perfect environment for Grizzly bears. When arriving in Canada I imagined I would see them everywhere, everyday, stalking me, rubbing their paws together, waiting to make me part of their evening meal. However this wasn’t the case. Where were all the Grizzly bears? They were so allusive I actually started to look for them. But don’t go out into the woods today without bear spray, apparently. I had hiked all the way through America without bear spray or any preventative measures to keep my food away from them. And I never had any problems but maybe this was my complacency. Out here in Canada it’s a different kettle of fish…..or flock of bears. When I first moved to Banff the shop fronts had posters plastered on the windows with ‘We sell bear spray!’ accompanied by a viscous angry looking Grizzly. I still don’t know whether this is just a money making enterprise to scare tourists into buying $40 worth of pepper spray for the one & only hike they might do whilst on holiday in the Rockies. But all I know is it’s a reassuring weight to have on my belt when I go for a run, hike or go fishing in the backcountry. Especially in Banff, where I was located, was a notorious Grizzly roaming named ‘The Boss’ who weighs nearly 1000lbs, has eaten 3 black bears, been hit by the train twice and father’s the majority of baby bears in the vicinity. He uses the railroad and highways as his main routes through the national park. Being so close to civilization I was sure I’d bump into him but alas, he was also as allusive.As the summer rolled round I still hadn’t seen any Grizzly bears. The black bears were a little more prevalent but they were usually gone within seconds to avoid the clicking cameras of the eager eyed tourists. I made the decision to finally put myself out there and hike the Great Divide Trail which is a 1200km “trail” that wiggles it’s way from the US border to the top of the Canadian Rockies following the divide between British Columbia & Alberta. Standing at the start line for the trail, a million & one scenarios ran through my brain of how to deal with the big furry tractor situation. I set off into the wilderness into what looked like prime bear territory; big flowery meadows, dark towering forests and rivers just waiting for a bear to come looking for fish. I shouted “Hey Bear!” every five minutes all day, all the way until I pitched the tent for the night. And this didn’t eb for the next few days whilst following giant animal tracks and plenty of bear poop.
We ambled along the Great Divide for two months with very little bear encounters and if we did come across one it soon dashed off into the forests, never to be seen again. I started to feel saddened I hadn’t even seen the rear end of a Grizzly romping off into the distance. On our final night on the trail we stumbled across another hiker called Rob from Montana. He had been hiking the whole trail solo so I was intrigued how being alone had altered the experience. Rob encountered 15 Grizzly bears, numerous black bears and even wolves. Hiking in a pair, myself and Joe obviously made a lot more noise. I was later informed that most bears will hear, see or smell you, stand up, have a look and decide to quietly slink away. So most of the time we were completely unaware there was bear standing on the other side of a tree.
The longer I live in Canada the more intrigued I am by them rather than feeling fear. Don’t get me wrong, they’re incredibly powerful creatures who, given the chance, would swipe me around the head and carry me off into the bushes. I’m in awe of them and feel privileged to be living alongside these beautiful fuzzy animals. But it doesn’t come without its challenges. The towns, villages & cities dotted around Canada have to try their best to coexist with these wild beasts. Some humans believe that bears are as bad as rats and need to be controlled. But who lived here first? Bears & humans have lived on the same lands for thousands of years either living in harmony or killing each other. Mostly us killing the bears.
I recently read a brilliant book written by Jake MacDonald called “Grizzlyville”. It discusses not only the bad bits about bears but the good too. And how we as humans interact & influence their behaviours. A bear will treat us just as it would meeting another bear. It has to weigh up its options; what is this creature and am I strong enough to win in a fight?. As soon as a bear discovers we are a great provider of food and that we’re not a threat or nearly as powerful, they’ll make their move. But essentially bears want nothing to do with us. They want to live quietly & in peace like a grumpy old grandad wanting to read the newspaper in the garden on a Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately bears don’t understand our boundaries, smaller bears are pushed closer to civilization by larger more dominant bears and we push those smaller bears back towards the bullies. And the bears that really bother us are the ones who have become habituated by food we’ve given, trash we’ve left behind or come too close to them. Unfortunately if a bear becomes habituated they are “destroyed” like evidence in a murder case. In some cases the authorities attempt to relocate the problem bear but in most scenarios that bear will make its way home or its dumped in a location filled with more dominant bears who destroy it for us. This is a devastating process and I find it extremely hard to stand back and watch tourists getting too close trying to snap a selfie. My blood starts to boil and I usually turn into the Batman equivalent for bears. I very impolitely shout from a distance for said tourist to back off. More education is needed for people travelling through these areas that these animals are not the cuddly teddy bears you see in the movies and should be treated with respect. If you come in contact with that bear in one way or another it most likely means dire consequences for that bear….or you.
A recent news story caught my eye this summr on that exact subject. One bear managed to break into a car filled with tantalising smelling meat and the other attacked a dog which managed to free itself from its leash. In both cases it was the bear who was found at fault. It was just the animals natural instincts. Now they would learn that humans weren’t a threat and they could do this again with no consequence. And sadly it didn’t end well for these two bears.
But it’s not all tales of woe, I highly recommend reading ‘Grizzlyville’ and learn about some of the wonderful tales all about the good nature of bears. My morning commute usually involves slowing down for bears crossing the road, herding bears away from guests at work and sometimes accidentally stepping in bear poop. I’ve come to love and appreciate living with these wonderful creatures. Bumping into a subdued Gloucester cow in a field just won’t cut it for me anymore.
And so my parting gift is a little list of some dos and don’ts to ensure we can do our part but also how to hike, run, ski or even tree climb in a bears environment;
1. Give wildlife the space & respect they deserve. When you see the signs telling you how many bus lengths away from a moose you need to be, they know what they’re talking about.
2. Don’t be a selfie snob. Sure, take a picture from the safety of you vehicle but don’t assume the bears want to have any part of it.
3. Don’t feed the wildlife! Not only does it mean the animal becomes dependent on human resources ultimately dooming them but they might just eat you too. If you’re camping out in the backcountry ensure you store your food in appropriate bear proof containers and hang them well away from your camp. If you’re going to be hiking in the backcountry often then I highly recommend the Ursack.
4. Make noise. Wild animals like to know when you’re coming. They’re just like me or you, they don’t like to be surprised whilst happily eating their breakfast. Making noise gives them a chance to figure out who we are and move away. And I don’t mean bear bells either. I don’t know about you, but my experience is that I can’t even hear bear bells until that person is right next to me, ringing that darn annoying bell in my face. So assume the bear won’t notice either. There is also the theory that bear bells are known as dinner bells. Humans make that jingling sound whilst leaving a trail of snacks and wrappers behind so the bears associate the ringing with food. If you’re in a group, talk to each other or if you’re hiking alone just let the bear know you’re there now & then with a quick “Hey Bear!” Or something of your choosing. I personally like singing Disney songs but I’m not sure if this might irritate them even more.
5. Carry bear spray & know how to use it. On the rare occasion someone might startle a bear or even unintentionally provoke it, bear spray could save their life. Bear spray is only effective from less than 20ft for up to 8 seconds. So you have to be quite up close & personal before you can even deploy the spray. Creating a wall of spray in front of the bears face could deter it enough to leave you alone. But, if you ensure you follow all the other steps you shouldn’t ever have to use it.6. If you see a baby bear know that momma bear is just around the corner. Keep your distance and change your route immediately. Sometimes I’ve had to turn around and find another way or even wait it out until the coast is clear. On one occasion I attempted to go rock climbing when a baby bear shot up a tree in front of me and the momma bear sat stubbornly in the middle of the trail, huffing & puffing and refused to move. That signalled the end of my rock climbing mission that day.7. Watch a bear safety video. Some of these are super cheesy but there’s a couple in particular that are my favourites. Not only because it’s completely ridiculous but it ultimately covers the key points about human & bear interactions. https://youtu.be/5vdJCOZyVFw8.
And if you’re still worried, hike with a friend. Travelling in pairs or groups is safer and makes you more comfortable too to just enjoy yourself, the outdoors and the wildlife that comes with it.To those of you who are deterred from rambling in bear country just like I used to be, then just follow the few simple rules, accept that you’re in their home & they’re not all out to eat you. And so that concludes my bear blog which I hope you’ve enjoyed this little read.