If you spend enough time outdoors in Northern Michigan, you’ll eventually see a black bear (ursus americanus). These large bruins are typically shy and live in very dense woods and swamps, making them hard to find. However, problems can arise when they associate humans with food (garbage, food left outside when camping, etc), or when a sow (female) with cubs is surprised by a human.
Several years ago, I was fishing the lower Garden River near the Soo, Ontario for pink and king salmon. A few buddies and I had paid a tribal guide to fish on Garden River First Nation land. This allowed us to fish the river near the mouth, where we were likely to find larger numbers of fresh fish running up (rather than the upstream public stretches where the salmon were less fresh and less enthusiastic about taking flies. After fishing a run for an hour or so, and taking several nice fish from it, I waded to the bank to sit for a few minutes. I propped my rod against a bush, sat on the sand with my back to the dense underbrush and popped open a can of Guinness. Taking a long drink, I glanced down at the sand and saw a few large, fresh bear tracks next to me, along with some droppings. The sand displaced from the tracks was clearly visible, not having been rained on or walked over. The droppings looked like they may have been steaming. Feeling a bit of ice in my veins, I stood up and turned to face the brush. I realized that a bear intent on a salmon dinner could wander out anywhere along those banks, even if I happened to be sitting there. My pleasant sitting place no longer felt secure, so I picked up my rod and finished my beer knee-deep in the Garden River. I crushed my can, slipped it back into my vest and stripped off some line in preparation to another cast with a hand that shook just a little bit.
Though very rare, a surprise meeting of black bear and human can result in an actual attack, as was the case with 12-year-old Abby Wetherell in Wexford County, Michigan, earlier this month. The young lady was jogging on a trail near her grandparents’ home when she saw a bear. She began running faster, and the bear pursued her, knocking her down. When the bear turned to leave, Abby got back up and started running again. The bear knocked her down again, and was finally startled and chased off by a neighbor who heard Abby’s screams and came to investigate. Miss Wetherell was airlifted to Munson Medical Center (Traverse City) where she underwent surgery for a deep laceration on her thigh, and almost 100 stitches. She returned home within two days of the incident, a battered but very lucky young woman.
Chance encounters between black bears and humans do happen. It’s important to remember that bear attacks are extremely rare. Relaxing will be near impossible if you are confronted by a bruin who thinks that your presence equals a meal or threat. Late summer and early fall are typically times when bears are feeding voraciously, packing on fat for the long winter hibernation just around the corner. This increases the chance that you may see them near rivers with salmon, garbage dumps or campgrounds. However intimidating these creatures may seem, there are safety tips you can use to minimize your risk when you are hiking, camping or fishing in areas that are home to bears.
Click on the link to see the safety tips – and remember, there’s no substitute for common sense when dealing with a predator like a black bear. Tight lines!
Precautions with food
Never cook or store food in or near your tent.
Hang food and other items with strong odors (ie, toothpaste, bug repellent, soap, etc.) out of reach of bears. Hang items at least 10 ft above the ground – suspending your food pack on a line between two trees is even better. If no trees are available, store your food in airtight or bear-proof containers, away from your camp.
Change your clothing before you go to sleep; don’t wear what you cooked in to go to bed and be sure to store smelly clothing along with your food/smelly items.
Keep the area clean. Be sure to wash dishes, dispose of garbage, and wipe down tables.
Burn garbage completely in a hot fire and pack trash out – don’t bury it. This goes for fish offal and leftovers – NEVER clean a fish in camp, and burn all leftover/uneaten parts after dinner.
Don’t surprise bears. Make your presence known when hiking. Make noise by talking loudly, singing, or wearing a bell.
Travel with a group. Groups are noisier and easier for bears to detect.
Keep in mind that bears tend to be more active at dawn and dusk so plan your hikes accordingly.
Stay on marked trails and obey the regulations of the area you’re hiking/camping in.
If you’re hiking in bear country, keep an eye out for tracks, scat, digs, and trees that bears have rubbed.
Leave your dog at home – excess dog food can attract bears, as can the innate curiosity of these ursine predators.
If you encounter a bear
Remain calm and avoid sudden movements.
Give the bear plenty of room, allowing it to continue its activities undisturbed. If it changes its behavior, you’re too close so back away.
If you see a bear but the bear doesn’t see you, detour quickly and quietly.
If a bear spots you, try to get its attention while it is still farther away. You want it to know you’re human so talk in a normal voice and wave your arms.
Remember that a bear stands upright to get a better view. Standing isn’t a sign of aggression.
Throw something onto the ground (like your camera) if the bear pursues you, as it may be distracted by this and allow you to escape.
Never feed or throw food to a bear.
If a bear charges
Remember that many bears charge as a bluff. They may run, then veer off or stop abruptly. Stand your ground until the bear stops, then slowly back away.
DO NOT run from a bear. No matter how rotund they may seem, bears are apex predators, capable of speeds over 30mph. They can and do run down whitetailed deer. Running can trigger them to pursue you as prey, and that can end very badly. As the oldtimers say – running only ensures that you die tired.
Climb trees only as a last resort. Smaller black bears can climb trees, and will likely catch you before you can scale high enough to avoid attack.
If you have pepper spray, be sure that you have trained with it before you need to use it. Windy conditions can cause the spray to blow back in your face, blinding you temporarily.
If a bear attacks
Be loud, wave your arms, and stand your ground.
Fight back! Be aggressive and use any object you have.
If you are absolutely sure the bear attacking is a mother with cubs, play dead.
If you have pepper spray, use it. Begin spraying when the bear is within 40ft so it charges into the fog. Aim for the face and be sure you know the breeze/wind direction before you fire.