Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Points North: Aware of Bears, But Not Afraid

Sometimes you ask a question and get an unexpected answer. Looking for information about trout fishing in the Canadian Rockies, I emailed a friend of a friend who lives in Alberta. His prompt response included great information about specific streams and where to fish them. That was to be expected.

Was what unexpected was his comment, “All streams in area have grizzly bears–always carry bear spray.”

Hmm, all the streams where I live have bears, too. And I never carry bear spray. Then again, the bears where I live are black bears. When out in the woods, I rarely think about them.

If you spend much time in wild country, you will occasionally encounter the critters that live there. Those who partake in quiet, solitary activities, such as trout fishing, are even more likely to do so. Over the years, I’ve happened upon moose, wolves, deer and a very occasional bear along trout streams and shady forest trails. While a surprise encounter is often startling, rarely is it threatening, because the critter runs off as soon as it is aware of your presence.

While I consider a close encounter with a wild animal a bonus to my outdoor day, some folks dread such an occurrence. The fear of bears, mountain lions, wolves or other wild animals is a phobia that’s really no different than being afraid of snakes or high places. Since most people seem to fear unseen animals they think are lurking in the forest, you might even say it is a fear of the unknown.

When I was a boy, my father used to tell me to not be afraid of the woods, because he knew a young imagination can run wild. Despite his reassurances, I used to become uneasy when he was out of sight, say fishing another pool on a brook trout creek, even though I knew he wasn’t far away. Eventually, my zeal for fishing and hunting overcame any fear of the woods. I began to seek out places where I was unlikely to see other people, because the hunting and fishing was better there.

It is one thing to be unafraid in the forest and quite another to be unaware. Folks who are accustomed to pavement and mowed lawns usually are oblivious to their surroundings when they get into the wild, because they are used to the blatant external stimuli of the civilized world. Nature, in contrast, is more subtle. You can walk right by an animal and not even see it. You probably don’t want to do that with an animal like a bear.

I don’t fear the creatures living in the northwoods, but I try to avoid unexpected encounters with some of them. Moose, for instance, are unpredictable and may not run away when you happen upon them at close range. Wolves, on the other hand, may attack your dog. However, moose and wolves are likely to head the other direction if they know you are in the vicinity. Fortunately, most people inadvertently announce their presence in the woods in so many ways every creature from chickadees to black bears know they are coming and get out of the way.

Of course, this is what happens most of the time, but not all of the time. Occasionally, you step around a corner and there is Mr. Moose. Sometimes your dog finds them for you. When my old dog, Abby, was in her prime, I sometimes went crashing through the woods to find out why she was barking excitedly 100 yards away. I discovered her bark meant, “Come quick, I’ve cornered a moose!” Upon making that discovery, I’d grab her by the collar and make a quick exit.

To my knowledge, none of my dogs has ever had a direct encounter with a wolf. Once in awhile we’ll happen upon fresh wolf tracks in the snow and make an immediate decision to go another direction. Also, sometimes dog behavior will signal that a large animal is nearby. Again, we immediately go somewhere else. As for bears, well, black bears and dogs don’t mix. In my experience, a bear heads for parts unknown as soon as it knows a dog is nearby. The same may not be true for grizzly bears. In his email, my friend in Canada noted that an unleashed dog may end up being chased by the bear and lead the grizzly to you. Hmm, maybe carrying bear spray isn’t a bad idea.

He also said grizzlies are everywhere in this part of the Canadian Rockies, although you are less likely to see them in places populated with people. This observation did not sit well with Vikki, who would rather not see one of the big bears, even if she is safely inside the truck. She doesn’t fear the creatures near our northwoods home, but she does have this thing about grizzlies. A couple of years ago, while walking through the rain forest to a Vancouver Island beach, she was convinced there were grizzlies in the vicinity, because she had read a sign in the parking lot with a warning about bears. It turned out the warning referred to black bears.

On this trip, she’s adamant about having her own can of bear spray. That’s fine. I’ll probably carry one, too. Why not carry a gun? Well, I don’t want the hassle of bringing a firearm to Canada nor the inconvenience of carrying it with me while I fish. Thousands of people venture into grizzly country daily and the vast majority are unarmed. If I encounter a bear, I’ll give it the right of way and make an immediate change in my plans. If the encounter goes sour, I’ll use the pepper spray.

Truth be told, I’m excited to go fishing in a place still wild enough to contain grizzly bears, as well as all wildlife species native to the Rockies. Buying a couple of cans of bear spray is a small price to pay for the experience of being there. I can hardly wait.

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