Avoiding Calamity with Bears

Yes, bear stories, undoubtedly a favourite topic in the Yukon and one that gets people talking. As I write here, there is a black bear poking around on our property.

I have never had a true calamity involving a bear in my 30 years of hiking and living in the Yukon.

Recently, I tripped and fell while hiking and broke my nose. This was my personal worst calamity in the wild and it taught me how, suddenly, without warning, an accident can happen. It reminded me that I should always be prepared and have a plan based on what I have learned over the years.

As I write, with the bear roaming around in close proximity to our home, I stay in the house and safely review information on bear encounters. As I peruse the many online sources and some of my books, I always keep the question in mind: “How should I respond during a bear encounter?”

Sometimes human interactions with bears have tragic consequences.  

Luckily for me, I have yet to meet an aggressive bear. One did act like it wanted me to go away, however.

Most bears I have encountered have remained indifferent upon seeing me, and some fled even faster than I could have.

On one occasion in Haines, fishing the Chilkat River in close proximity to my vehicle, I saw how fast bears can run. One moment a bear was calmly fishing in the river, and then it was suddenly making a beeline for the woods.

I have read bears can run 50 km per hour: three times as fast as the average human.

On another occasion at the Chilkat River I experienced how fast a bear can suddenly be upon you. Surprise encounter? No surprise there, because I was cooking moose meat. Luckily, I was cooking on the tailgate of our truck, and so I jumped into the truck and notified the other people in the area.

Over the years I have created a mental list of what not to do, because it seems that in all of my bear encounters I did something that I could have avoided. In my experience, besides bears being bears – that is, a large potentially dangerous animal living in the wild – they like to use paths or bush roads to travel on and sometimes feed along highways and in people’s yards.

A few years ago I encountered a black bear sow and cub while I was cycling the 37 Mile Creek Road. Cycling is faster, and possibly quieter, than hiking. If I had been making noise, the bear probably would have fled before I saw her.

Now, however, as I quickly approached on my bike, it was too late for her to avoid an encounter. I was suddenly 20 feet away from her, too close for comfort. Her cub fled to the right and she stood up and, indeed, growled and drooled, swaying on her back legs.

Through experience, I have learned to stand my ground. Initially, I had the urge to run; what stopped me was the knowledge that my friend, who was right behind me, had not seen the bear.

As in most calamities, things happen in split seconds. I figured if I ran, the bear would attack my friend. All in that same instant, I called out to her and had my bear spray unlocked and pointed it straight at the bear. I also talked to the bear, rather loudly. Once my friend became aware of the bear, she got off her bike and held it up to appear large. After a seemingly endless standoff, the bear climbed a tree and we retreated. However, being on our way home, we had to pass the tree she had climbed and we gave her a wide berth on the left side, knowing that the cub had gone to the right.

As I live in the bush, and bears are my neighbours, they do wander near or into our yard. Our yard is relatively open, however, the bears I have seen here never come out into the open. They stay under the cover of trees and bushes (or behind human things, such as buildings or woodpiles).

Even though I can look into the forest in every direction for at least 50 metres and it seems as if there isn’t anywhere to hide, we rarely see one of the visiting bears close up. Only once did we have a bear that found our dry compost and we could get a close look at it. He – or maybe she – was beautiful, with a shiny black coat. The bear came back a few times, but after a few days peacefully moved on.

Today, I will strap on my bear spray and prepare to clear out the little poplars that endlessly, and abundantly, come up in the open spaces in our yard.

I also speak to animals, as if they can understand me – and I believe they do. In the same way, I know dogs can sense fear if a person is afraid of them. In case of unexpected animal encounters, I talk to the animals in such a way that we can both respect each other – or at least that is my intention.

Keep safe!

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