We’re often asked how many bear encounters we’ve had. One would think a lot yet in spite of spending the last ten plus years in the woods the answer to this question is actually surprisingly few. We’ve seen lots of signs and do so nearly every trip, we’ve spotted bears in the distance and this happens perhaps a couple times per year, and have we’ve had only one face to face encounter. Not bad considering.
In this report we’ll show that will a little knowledge and understanding on how a bear works, one can lessen their chance of an encounter. But should one happen we’ll show how to increase your odds of survival.
Below is a alphabetical list of bear terms, signs and safety tips.
Bears and smell:
While their hearing and eye site are pretty average, their sense of smell is amazing. With that in mind pack everything well so there is no odour.
Bear prints and tracks:
It’s almost certain that you’ll spot bear prints while hiking. The trail you are on is likely a superhighway for wildlife, bears included. Seeing such evidence is not always cause for alarm – bears get around and signs are everywhere. Given their territory, it’s not usual for them to travel many dozens of kilometres a day and chances are that since the tracks you see were made, the bear is likely far away. Regardless one should always be on guard anyway.
When it come to tracks and prints, fresh ones will be more defined and old ones flatter with more rounded edges. See the photos below to get an idea how a print looks in different soil conditions.
Bears with cubs:
Mama bears can be extra aggressive and you do not want to mess with one. If you see a sow with cubs try to leave the area without being spotted. Then thank your lucky stars.
Bears will eat nearly anything. Often seen as a meat eaters, they actually consume more plant material than anything else. With that in mind, when in areas where any berries grow be extra cautious. In particular, (in Southern Alberta), bears seem to love Buffalo Berries and Black Currants, plants that tend to grow quite abundantly here. BTW, humans can eat these too, but I doubt you’ll like them. Yuck! You can see the berries mentioned in the pictures below.
In addition to bears you may encounter other wild animals and some of these can be just as dangerous, if not more so. Just in other ways. Here’s a list of ones most often seen.
After bears, one thinks of cougars (mountain lions) as being the biggest threat. They are quite rare however and tend to shy away from human encounters. Only in extreme circumstances, like say being cornered, could they attack and even then it’s unlikely. In our travels we’ve only seen a couple cougar tracks and never the animal.
Perhaps surprising to some, a moose may be a bigger threat than any other creature mentioned in this article. During rutting season, or if with calf, or if threatened, a moose may charge and stomp you into the ground. Their huge size and amazing speed means you’ll have little chance if they decide you are a threat. Your best solution to this is to have no encounter and avoid areas where the animals congregate. Moist meadows and bogs and the like (bad places for hiking anyway). If they charge, take refuge behind a large tree or rock and try to always keep it between you and the animal. In time the moose may tire and leave. We have never had a moose encounter although we have seen many.
Other ungulates as well, Elk in particular come to mind, can also attack if threatened or cornered. They are smaller than Moose but can inflict just as much damage. Typically however, they will run away when they see you.
We have seen many Coyotes in our travels but never once saw one act aggressively. They always left the area on seeing us. That’s not to say that one may act viciously if in close quarters and threatened. They also might eye up your dog as a potential meal.
We have seen wolf tracks but never the animal itself. They are quite timid and will go to great lengths to avoid human contact. Again, if in extreme circumstances they could cause harm.
In Kananaskis there are wild horses, but they are quick to run if spotted. It’s doubtful one needs to worry much about these.
Many charges are actually bluffs and the bear may just want to scare you away. If the bear does this, act calm (probably the hardest thing in the world to do) and slowly leave the area.
Both your speed and quietness can put you at risk for sudden bear encounters. Slow down through grown over areas and when approaching blind corners. And make noise, look ahead and always be alert.
Dead animals and carcasses:
If you come across a animal carcass it would be best to leave the area immediately. It’s quite possible a bear or other carnivore has made this kill or at least knows about the dead animal and may be in the area. Keep an eye open when retreating. If the wind is right you may smell the carcass before arriving at it. Use this fair warning to your advantage.
If you surprise a bear and encounter is imminent, play dead. Lie on your stomach with your legs apart; protect your face, the back of your head and neck with your arms; remain quiet; and if wearing a pack, leave it on for protection. The bear will leave you alone once it believes that the threat has passed.
Bear will tear apart fallen and rotten logs in search for bugs and ants. They’ll also dig into river banks and in alpine meadows and avalanche gullies in their quest for roots and shoots. Fresh diggings will be obvious and one should be extra cautious in these areas. You’ll often see claw marks which will help you identify if a bear made the mess.
Dogs may anger a bear, inciting an attack. The dog may also end up running back to you with the bear in hot pursuit. Make sure your pooch is always in your control. 100% in your control.
You will not outrun a bear and don’t even try. Stay calm (hard to do, I know). Give the bear space and back away slowly talking in a soft voice. Do not approach the bear or make direct eye contact, he’ll see that as a threat. If you cannot leave the area, wait until the bear moves out of the way and ensure that it has an escape route.
Bears are curious and if one stands on its hind legs, it is most likely trying to catch your scent and not necessarily showing a sign of aggression. As mentioned back away slooooowly and talk in a soft voice.
A bear may display aggressive behaviour and may swing its head from side to side; it may snort, moan or make other noises; it may display its teeth or claws; it could paw at the ground; try to make eye contact; pant; or it may lay its ears back. These behaviours typically indicate that the animal is stressed and is acting defensively and asking for more space. Give it that space and follow the retreat instructions given above.
In the one face to face encounter we had (a small black bear) it reacted somewhat odd and and seemed totally disinterested in us. Not aggressive, not submissive, just “meh” like we didn’t even exist. In this case, we simply went on our way quietly.
Most of the bears you’ll see will be black bears. Grizzlies are rare and we’ve only seen signs of a few in our entire time trekking around the mountains. Some say worry more about the grizzlies, but I think all bears should be shown the same deep respect.
Bears can be found anywhere, from ridge tops to valley bottoms (we’ve seen them in both places). Geographical features will influence their route, much as they do yours.
While I have no way to confirm it I have been told this by a couple hunters now. Some bears have learned to associate the sound of a gun with food. It’s like a bear dinner bell and they’ll head to the area in search of a possible meal, meaning the hunter’s fresh kill.
This is a different scenario than a defensive attack and is the most serious. This happens when a bear stalks or moves purposely toward you. In this situation playing dead is not advised and instead one needs to act aggressively and should fight the animal with any means at their disposal. Hit them with fists, sticks, rocks, make lots of noise and let it know you mean business. This type of attack is extremely rare but the rules in handling it are important to remember!
You may see a lot of bear poop on a trail. Again, it’s not always cause for alarm, unless it’s soft and moist looking. This means it’s fresh and cautiously leaving the area is probably a good idea. See the photos below for example of fresh bear poo. You’ll often see berries mixed in as in the photos mentioned.
Bear bells do not work. The sound is just not loud enough to warn the animal you are approaching. Instead sing, talk out loud, whistle, do anything that will be loud enough to warn of your approach. This tip is more important in areas of heavy brush.
I have been told bear bangers work good. They make a loud gun type noise that is sure to scare a bear off. I have never used one.
Taking to a tree:
Bears can climb trees. If you take to a tree, they may follow and with their claws could easily drag you down.
Time of day:
Any time is bear time. With that said however they are usually least active at midday. Often that’s nap time for them, especially when temperatures are higher. It’s still no reason however to let your guard down. Be extra cautions at dawn and dusk, their most active periods.
Travel in bear country:
If you can hike in groups and this is the best defence against bear encounters. A bear may be willing to challenge a singe person, rarely will they do so with two people. And if more than that, they’ll be sure to turn tail and run. They don’t like it when the odds are against them. Smart animals.
This by no means the definitive guide, but it is good advice and if to follow it, it’ll go a long way in decreasing your chances of any trouble happening. Like anything you do in life make sure all your risks are calculated and well thought out, like we do. Learn how a bear lives and thinks and you’ll have few problems.
The photo of the grizzly are complements of and copyright John Sharpe of www.sharpeshots.com.
If you wish more information, by all means contact us!
Location: Various places in Kananaskis, the Crowsnest Pass and BC.