“All bushes can’t be bears.”
I’ve encountered a lot of black bears on my northern canoe trips. The majority have been habituated bears, ones that have gotten used to stealing food from a particular campsite and return to the scene of the crime continually. I’ve also met up with a few defensive bears that are either being territorial or is a momma bear protecting her cub. They snorted, flapped their lips and gums, thrusted their front paws into the ground, and even did a bluff charge towards me. I’ve also encountered a predacious bear twice. This is a bear you definitely don’t want to deal with. It’s terrifying. The bear stalks you, and then waits for the opportunistic moment when you’re vulnerable and quickly comes in for the kill. Have a look at this video captured by Jan Zacharias and Tristan Glen (Hybris Adventures on YouTube) while canoe tripping in remote northern Labrador. This is a predatory bear.
Habituated bears can be a real nuisance to deal with but generally are not aggressive. I’ll make sure to properly store my food and keep a clean campsite, and if one enters my camp and won’t leave, I either leave myself or stand my ground, and make lots of noise. Check this video out on Chris Prouse’s YouTube channel. This is a (big) habituated bear.
A defensive bear is more of a threat. I slowly back away, looking for an escape route, but don’t turn and run. This may trigger an attack. Or I may make myself larger by holding up my paddle and being loud and assertive, but never aggressive.
The most effective way to deal with a predacious bear, however, is to be loud, make yourself look bigger, dominant, unafraid. Also, definitely have a can of bear spray at the ready and be prepared to fight like your life depends on it—because it does.
It’s been proven time and time again that bear spray is the most effective defensive items against bears. The contents are essentially a potent formula of pepper spray. It’s been verified that bear spray is more effective than a gun, with studies showing it stopping 92 per cent of aggressive bears whereas guns only worked 67 per cent of the time.
I prefer a 10.2 oz can of Counter Assault Bear Deterrent with a holster (you need to have the bear spray at the ready). It contains capsaicin and related capsaicinoids, the maximum allowed by law. It sprays to up 40 ft. and empties in approximately eight seconds. There’s also a glow-in-the-dark safety wedge with tie string. Pretty handy thing to have.
Another great choice is Frontiersman Xtra Bear Attack Deterrent with Belt Holster and Glow-in-the-Dark safety wedge. With its incredible range of 10.5 metres over seven seconds, bears can be deterred from a safer distance without harming the bear or environment. The maximum strength formula can be found at Canadian Tire, MEC and Cabela's.
Remember, bear spray has an expiry date—usually three or four years. I target practise with an old can. It’s good to know how to use it prior to using it. Also, bear spray is legal is Canada and is sold in most outdoor stores. However, there are some regulations you have to abide with when buying it. You have to be over 18 years of age. It’s considered a weapon. It’s only sold by authorized vendors and they in turn need to manage the sales records of who has bought it. I think the biggest advantage of packing along bear spray is that it lessens your anxiety over having a bear encounter. I’ve never had to use my can of bear spray, and I’m out on trip over 60 nights a season on average. But it feels darn good to have it ready if I ever needed it.
What also lessens arkoudaphobia (fear of bears) is that the odds of ever encountering a predatory black bear are pretty darn low.
Algonquin is one of the busiest parks in the province of Ontario. It sees over 900,000 visits a year, nearly one-quarter of which are backcountry users. There have been two fatal predacious black bear attacks in the park since it opened in 1893. In 1978 three boyhood friends—Billy Rhindress, George Halfkenny and his younger brother Mark—were killed and partially consumed by a predacious male bear while out on a day fishing trip at a trout stream on the east side of the park. The second one happened on Opeongo's Bates Island in 1991. Raymond Jakubauskas and Carola Frehe met a horrible fate by a healthy eight-year-old male bear weighing 310 pounds (140 kilograms). Carola was the first to be attacked and then the bear turned on Raymond when he attempted to drive the bear off with a paddle. It's believed both died quickly from single blows to the head, a tactic used by bears when preying on moose calves. Three fatal attacks occurred elsewhere in Ontario: 2020, 2019 and 2005. In all of North America, a total of 32 have been recorded since 2000.
In summary: you’re more likely to die in a car accident on the drive north then to be killed by a predacious bear in the backcountry. So, strap on your bear spray and enjoy your trip.
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