When I first started working with grizzly bears people would ask me if I was still scared of bears, as if being scared of bears is the natural state of being and that I was working to train myself out of it. I used to answer that I had a healthy respect for bears, but maybe not scared so much. That’s how I’ve always felt with bears. As a biologist, I’ve seen bears do amazing things. I’ve marveled at their raw strength and power as they ran down a beach. I’ve giggled at them playing in the grass or chasing gophers through an alpine meadow. I’ve stared as a mother taught her cubs how to fish for clams, and I obeyed when a mother with two small cubs gave me a harsh huff and told me to back up. Some of those moments made me nervous, but I can’t say that I’m always scared.
One of the things I love about bears is witnessing how smart they are. Bears are capable of making decisions by weighing stimulus and thinking about what to do next. I feel blessed that I’ve been able to witness how gentle, curious, interesting, and dexterous these animals really can be. Last week, I was reminded that a grizzly bear can also be an intimidating and strong force to face in the wilderness.
Last week, three volunteers and I were putting up remote cameras. It was my first full day in the field and I was excited. The weather was rainy and cloudy and the trail was almost empty, which was great. On the way down, we spotted fresh bear scat and tracks traveling in the opposite direction to us. We all got very excited and I started checking the remote cameras we’d put up in the morning to see if we got a picture of who were sharing the trail with. The last camera I checked, about 1Km from the trailhead, got a great photo a lovely grizzly bear! I was so excited, I literally did a little dance! This is what I am out here for, this is what I’m trying to capture in my data collection. It was so satisfying!
As we continued down the trail, I was almost skipping with joy. Then, we saw another grizzly walking down the trail towards us and we all stopped. When the bear saw us, he stopped too. There’s a split second in every bear encounter where you look at the bear and the bear looks at you and you’re both wondering what to do next. We took a couple steps back. The bear ran towards us for 4 steps. We all reached for our bear spray and got it ready.
And in that moment I felt scared.
Three things went through my mind:
1. Oh my gosh. This is happening.
2. I have three volunteers with me. Nothing can happen to them!
3. A grizzly has never attacked a group of 4, thank goodness we’re in a group of 4!
I started talking to the bear immediately in a soft, gentle tone: “It’s ok bear. Calm down. Everything is going to be ok.” I was saying it just as much for me and my volunteers as I was for him.
I wouldn’t call it a bluff charge because the bear still stayed about 25m away from us and really only ran for a few steps, but anytime a grizzly is walking or running towards you it’s a little disconcerting to say the least. We stood our ground, and he stopped. He stood on his hind legs to get a better look at us. It was then that I could see he was just a small bear and was probably just as unnerved as we were. We backed up and he walked towards us, but never closed the distance between us. He tried to walk down to the creek, but couldn’t find an easy way down. As he walked in the same direction as us, he was acting more submissive than aggressive – his head was down, he wasn’t making eye contact, he was smelling the ground, and his shoulders were slumped.
After a few meters of this, I realized that all the bear wanted to do was walk on the trail and we were in the way. Without turning our backs on the bear, we walked backwards into a clearing near the trail. We walked in about 10m and waited for the bear to pass by, talking to him the whole time. He walked by on the trail, pausing at the clearing to make sure we were staying there and walked on. Once he passed, we gave him a wide birth and walked back on to the trail.
I have never had so much adrenaline course through my system in my life. It was exciting, exhilarating, awesome, inspiring, and yes, scary. It was only once he stopped running towards us that I could appreciate how cute he was!
Every time I run into a bear, I learn something new about them and me.
- Have your bear spray handy
Your bear spray is not accessible if it’s in your backpack, or even attached to the outside of your pack. In that crucial moment, I was frustrated at how I was already fumbling to get my bear spray out of the hip holster and take the safety off.
- Before making a decision, stop and assess what’s actually going on
When a bear is running towards you, it will take every ounce of energy you have not to turn and run away screaming. That’s totally normal. It might also be normal to just start spraying your bear spray before the bear is close enough for it to be effective. Just stop. Breathe and try to stay calm. Wait to see what the bear will do. Leave all the decision of how the encounter will turn out up to the bear – chances are the bear doesn’t really want to deal with you either and is looking for a way out.
- Pay attention to details
With that extra adrenaline in your veins, your sense are heightened. Use that physiology to your advantage. Watch the bear closely. Is it being aggressive or is it just trying to get by? Is it trying to stare you down, or is it just looking at the ground trying to figure what to do? Look at the surroundings. Does the bear have an easy escape route or are you standing on the easiest escape route? If it’s easier for you to get out of the way, then get out of the way.
- Talk to the bear the whole time
You don’t have to call out “Yo bear” in a big voice, the bear already knows you’re there. But talk to it in a low, calm voice. If the bear isn’t making eye contact with you, it will listen to you to hear what you are doing and how you are moving. By talking to the bear as we walked into the clearing and stayed there, he knew we had moved off the trail and left it open for him to pass by.
- Use the strengths of the people around you
It will be an automatic reaction to come closer together in a situation like this, which is great. One of my volunteers was great at saying things right out of a bear-safety video: “Stand your ground” when the bear ran towards us, “let’s back up slowly” when it stopped. Another volunteer spotted the clearing for us to move into. I never took my eyes off the bear and talked to it the whole time. By working together we kept ourselves and the bear safe.
We’re in their home
People play in the woods of the Canadian Rockies all the time and it’s easy to forget that we’re actually playing in a bear’s home. Be respectful of that. We ran into a bear that was just on his way to a feeding patch or an afternoon nap spot or just walking around his house to check it out. All he wants is to be able to do that without dealing with any kind of disturbance. His reality though is that he gets disturbed all the time – by a highway, railway, people on trails, airplanes flying over head. As we appreciate our wilderness, we have to remember that it’s recreation to us but for a bear it’s just a day living life.
That little bear taught me a lot. He reminded me that a grizzly bear is cute, snuggly, and smart… but he can also be intimidating and imposing if he wants to be.
The thought of getting mauled by a bear is terrifying, but the thought of running into on the trail is exhilarating.
It’s going to be a FUN summer!