Stephen Colbert may be a bearophobe (in truthiness, I made that word up), but not this girl. Tripping in Canada’s backcountry means dense forests, glassy lakes, fresh air and well… bears. In my neck of the woods, we have a healthy black bear population. Every trip means a potential meet-up with a bear, but our travels have always taken us to more frequently visited parks where our local bears have a familiarity with visitors of the two-legged persuasion and are not as easily taken unaware. Actually, they’ll more likely come over and say, “Hi, got any snacks?”. You always have to be bear aware, but when human season rolls around, I picture mama bears explaining to their babes that humans can be dangerous and cubs should stay clear… unless of course there is a choice cooler to be stolen in the night. Then be very careful and quiet and don’t forget to grab the marshmallows.
The month of May will find my little family fairly far north in a magical national park that sees far fewer visitors than our usual go-to spots. We will be hiking Ontario’s Coastal Hiking Trail in Pukaskwa and it is no stroll in the park. This wilderness trail sees only a handful of permits issued per year. Laid out along the very north-eastern edge of Lake Superior, the park’s black bears are wild and free and not nearly as versed in the art of grifting visitors out of their spoils as their neighbours to the south. The dense bear population doesn’t have much experience with us humans and if the trip reports of past guests are accurate, these ursi seem to be hidden around just about every corner. While I take the accounts with a grain of salt, vigilant adherence to sound bear-country practice must be taken seriously. You can be sure that with our two boys along for the ride, we will not be lax in our bear avoidance tactics.
While Pukaskwa kindly provides what they call “bear lockers” at backcountry sites to store food and scented delights (sunscreen, bug spray, toothpaste etc.), you should always come prepared to hang such items for any number of unforeseen glitches to well laid plans. Murphy likes to play havoc with the ill prepared. As a camper in the front or backcountry, caching your food is a must and should never be overlooked no matter how tired you are come nightfall, or how certain you are that there are no marauders with their sights on your sundries.
There are a wide assortment of bear avoidance products and tactics that you should consider, from bear bells and bangers to bear vaults and canisters. The best defense is always cautious avoidance and respectful distance. Cook meals at least 100 metres from your campsite, preferably downwind from your tent and for goodness sake, don’t even consider taking a midnight snack into your sleeping bag for later. Are you bringing along your kiddies? Check their pockets for concealed leftovers… you can trust yourself, but we both know that junior has a tendency to hide cookies under his bed. Sing loud and sing proud while on the trail. All the noise and commotion will alert bears to your presence. Also, if you’re used to visiting the loo solo you can throw modesty out the window, because in bear country no kid of mine is going into the woods by themselves and I’m sure not going to either!
Despite all your best efforts, sometimes you just happen to wander into the wrong place at the wrong time. In these cases, knowing how to react to an encounter is essential. A meet up with a bear doesn’t have to mean a dust-up with one. When given the opportunity to skedaddle, black bears would rather get out of dodge than up in your face. Give them an out, and they’ll take it. For specifics on how to react during an encounter, check out the defensive strategies here. And how about bear spray? Folks tend to have definite opinions on this one. If you feel the situation demands carrying bear spray, absolutely positively READ THE INSTRUCTIONS and familiarize yourself with its use and limitations before you go out.
So look out Pukaskwa and look out bears, we are coming in all of our bell ringing, stinking, rock’n’roll belting, whistle toting, food caching glory. Get ready for us, because we are most definitely ready for you!