Sunday, July 05, 2015

Wisdom on bears

About 7.30 in the morning I spot a bear fifty metres ahead of me. I must be downwind; it appears not to notice me as it emerges from the dense forest flanking the railway bed, saunters across my path, and slips back into the dark green shadows thick with deadfall. I halt immediately. Here's the thing with following a railway bed: there are two directions. You either go forward or you go back.

I've been waiting for this. I'm constantly seeing signs of animals, and indeed the animals themselves. There are deer prints all over the place, and a few days ago one strolled right through my camp, looking at me unperturbed from just metres away as I made my breakfast. On the trail I saw coyote scats, judging by all the undigested rabbit fur in it. There was a beautifully clear print of a mountain lion in the mud as I filled my water bladder at the river, and my uncertainty about other prints being cougar or bear was removed upon discovery of a big splat of bear poo fresh enough to still attract flies.

There is received wisdom on avoiding bears. One piece of advice is to wear a bear bell. This is simply a bell. You wear it like a cow. It goes "tinkle tinkle" and protects you from bears. You see, spooking a bear is something you don't want to do, because when they're spooked they can charge. It's usually a bluff because you've frightened them, but rather than putting your hands on your hips and saying, "oh, come on, now!" it's rather better to avoid the interaction to begin with. It's particularly easy to startle a bear in dense forest of thick green shadows. And sows with cubs aren't bluffing.

I do not have a bear bell.

Other advice, if you are on the receiving end of a charge, is to raise your arms above your head and bellow with all your bloody might to frighten it away. The frightened bear. You are trying to appear bigger than it. Than the bear. Bears stand on their hind legs at about eight feet.

This is why you have to hang your food so high in a tree when you make camp. (NEVER keep your food in your tent beside you, because when a bear comes inside in the middle of the night it will not make the distinction.) The dimensions for hanging your food are: ten feet in the air (so the bear doesn't simply pull it down) and six feet out from the trunk along the first branch, suspended by three feet of rope (so it doesn't simply climb the tree and pluck it like a sack of apples; black bears are exceptional climbers). So, the perfect tree has, as it's lowest branch, a stout projection at ninety degrees.

This perfect tree does not exist, by the way.

Grizzly bears can't climb trees but they are bigger (yes, bigger) so you have to hang it higher. And disregard that other stuff about bluffing, because grizzlies are territorial. The best thing to do is climb a tree.

This morning it's a black bear. With no choice but to press on, I pick up two stones to clack together and make a sharp sound that carries well ahead of me and walk cautiously forward. The bear is either disinterested in me or unaware and already gone.

I'm not in grizzly country. I don't think I would do this trek in grizzly country. This is what I tell the hunter I meet that evening who says to me, as I walk into a public campsite with a long branch I am using as a walking staff, "Is that all you carry with you? A stick?"

"You know, you're wrong," he says. "Last year my friends and I saw a grizzly with three cubs just on the other side of this lake. About two hundred metres from us. It stood up and looked at us, then behind it at her cubs, then at us again."

I wish he hadn't told me this story.

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