Bill Doskoch: Media, BPS*, Film, Minutiae

Curated knowlege, trenchant insights & witty bon mots

A front-row seat to life and death in Homer, Alaska

On the weekend, a Homer, Alaska couple got to see a young grizzly kill a moose – in their driveway (here's the full Homer Tribune story). Being the early 21st century, they videotaped the drama and posted it to YouTube.

Some personal bear encounters:

In 1977, when working a forestry gig near Rock Lake, Alta., I woke up one morning and exited the tent to find a steaming* clump of bear turd about three feet from where my head had been!

* Trust me: That's fresh!

Rock Lake is about 60 kilometres east of Jasper National Park but right up against the boundaries of Willmore Wilderness Park, and Rock Lake is where Jasper helpfully dropped off its problem black bears. The Fish and Wildlife guys had a culvert trap for catching bears at Rock Lake. One bear did find himself in the trap. Some old trapper who lived in the area took it upon himself to tease the caged bear. The bear growled a little, then a lot, and then freaked out, roaring and swatting the grate where the guy had his face pressed. The claws stuck out through the grating. You wouldn't think a guy in his 70s could do an Olympic-quality backflip, but this guy could!

Next summer, I was working for an initial attack crew (for fighting forest fires). We were staying in a small cabin just east of the Smoky River. I woke up one morning, sat up, yawned, stretched, opened my eyes, looked out the adjacent window — and saw a black bear about a foot from my face.

Then I closed my eyes, opened them again — and it was gone! None of the other guys saw it.

We went out for the day's work and came back to find the cabin door swinging in the breeze. I valiantly volunteered to stay in the truck and radio for help if the other guys got mauled while they investigated. :)

In 1980, my boss shot and killed a bear lurking around his home outside Burns Lake, B.C. He had two kids and didn't want to take any chances.

1984 was the big one. I was supervising a tree planting crew. We were working about 80 kilometres east of Peace River, Alta. and about 24 kilometres south of the nearest road. Torrential rains meant the only way to get in and out quickly would be by helicopter.

The area we were planting had actually been logged about 15 years before. It was a mixed-wood forest, meaning there there poplar trees along with the spruce trees that had been logged. The upshot was the boundaries were very indistinct.

My planters were mainly city kids without much of a sense of direction. I managed to intercept a few before they got hopelessly lost, but I thought for this job, I should try and re-establish the boundaries of the cutblock with fluorescent survey flagging.

As I was recreating the boundary, I saw a bear about 100 to 150 metres away. The bear popped up to look at me (they smell better than they see).

I yelled a big, booming “fuck off!” to let the bear know where I was.

The bear started running towards me, and it was moving.

“This is not good,” I thought to myself.

I looked for a tree to climb. There was a spruce tree with a branch about a centimetre thick about 2.5 metres up. It broke off in my hand. I stared at the broken branch I clutched. I felt like Wile E. Coyote.

As the bear came in on final approach, the words that went through my mind were, “Oh, Oh: I'm going to get my ass kicked.”

The bear stopped about 2.5 to three metres away. What I remember from that moment was how ferocious the bear's mouth looked. I really wanted to stare at it. I found it strangely fascinating.

That urge aside, I stood as still as I ever have in my life. For some reason, it stuck in my mind that to look a pissed-off wild creature in the eye is to challenge them, so I somewhat absurdly looked off to the side and may have even very quietly whistled to myself (or at least inside my head).

I had the experience of actually thinking I was off to the side watching myself and the bear.

Fortunately, the bear moved off. As it returned to where I first saw it, I then saw the cub.

Had the bear attacked me, I would have been in deep shit. For one thing, the crew was at least two kilometres away and I don't think anyone had any idea where I was.

Once they found me, getting me out of there would have been problematic too, given the isolation and access problems.

In a worst-case scenario, I could have been killed, not just mauled. But I can honestly say I wasn't shrieking “Oh my God, I'm going to die!” in my own mind. Or out loud, for that matter.

Fortunately, the situation ended well. Shaken, I walked back to camp, where I impressed myself by not taking a swig from the bottle of whisky I had stashed. I further impressed myself by going out and finishing the boundary re-establishment job.*

* Nor did I wet myself as a result of the encounter! Bonus!

To this day, however, I'm not comfortable about solo trips into the bush in bear country. I know one woman from forestry school who transferred into agriculture after getting charged by two bears and one moose in a matter of a few weeks.

Had I stayed in forestry (I worked one more summer after that but was already transitioning out), I would have seriously considered packing a firearm, either a large-calibre handgun or compact shotgun, when out on jobs like that.

We did have a shotgun in camp, and I did shoot into the ground to scare one bear away from the camp

The bottom line is that bears are swift, powerful predators. For the most part, they stay away from humans. I would advise treating them with respect, although feel free to not do so — at your peril.

Here's some basic bear advice from Parks Canada. Read along and see what I did wrong! :)

Bear attacks are uncommon

Bear attacks are uncommon. Wild animals generally prefer to avoid people and bears are no exception. Most encounters between bears
and people occur when the bear's natural avoidance behaviour shifts to aggression because of the following factors:

  1. You surprise them.
  2. They are protecting young or food.
  3. They follow food and food-like odours to you.
  4. Your dog provokes an attack.
  5. The bear you encounter is habituated to people and has lost its natural fear.

The following guidelines to safety in bear habitat are just that guidelines. Bear behaviour is hard to predict because they are complex animals. Each bear is an individual with the potential to react differently in different situations. The information that follows will give you some basics on how to avoid an encounter in the first place and guidance on how to react should one occur.

Parks Canada recommends carrying bear spray with you at all times on the trail.

Bear Spray

Research indicates that bear spray can be effective with some bears when used properly. If you plan to carry it, be aware that wind, spray distance, rain, freezing temperatures and product shelf life can all influence its effectiveness. Familiarize yourself with the proper use of bear spray (including the manufacturer's specific instructions) and keep it readily accessible. However, the best way to live safely with bears is to avoid contact with them.

Top of Page 1. The best thing to do is… AVOID an encounter

Bears are extremely sensitive to the stress of human activity. You can actually help protect these animals by avoiding encounters with them.

Make noise!

Watch for fresh bear sign.
Keep your dog on a leash at all times.
Travel in groups.
Never approach a bear. (Always maintain a distance of at least 100 metres).

  • Make noise! Let bears know you're there. Call out, clap hands, sing or talk loudly especially near streams, dense vegetation and berry patches, on windy days, and in areas of low visibility. (Some research shows that bear bells are not enough).
  • Watch for fresh bear sign. Tracks, droppings, diggings, torn-up logs, turned-over rocks are all signs that a bear has been in the area. Leave the area if the signs are fresh.
  • Keep your dog on a leash at all times or leave it at home. Dogs can provoke defensive behaviour in bears.
  • Travel in groups if possible and never let children wander.
  • Use officially marked paths and trails and travel during daylight hours.
  • If you come across large dead animals, leave the area immediately and report it to Park Wardens.
  • Dispose of fish offal in fast moving streams or the deep part of a lake, never along stream sides or lake shores.

Top of Page 2. Handling an ENCOUNTER

Stay calm
Get your bear spray ready
Speak to the bear
Back away slowly, NEVER run

  • Stay calm and don't alarm the bear with screams or sudden movements. Your calm behaviour can reassure it. Bears may bluff their way out of an encounter by charging and then turning away at the last second. Bears may also react defensively by woofing, growling, snapping their jaws, and laying their ears back. It's difficult but important to REMAIN CALM if a bear reacts to you this way. A scream or sudden movement may trigger an attack.
  • Speak to the bear. Let the bear hear your voice – talk calmly and firmly. This lets the bear know you are human and not a prey animal. If a bear rears on its hind legs and waves its nose about, it is trying to identify you.
  • Back away slowly, never run! Running may trigger a pursuit and bears can run as fast as a racehorse, both uphill and downhill.
  • Make yourself less vulnerablepick up small children and stay in a group.
  • Don't drop your pack. It can provide protection.
  • Always leave the bear an escape route.

Visitor Centre staff can provide information on current bear activity, closures, warnings and safety advice.

Top of Page 3. Handling an ATTACK

Most encounters with bears end without injury. If a bear actually makes contact, you may increase your chances of survival by following these guidelines. In general, there are 2 kinds of attack:

DEFENSIVE

  • What is the bear's behaviour?
    The bear is feeding, protecting its young and/or unaware of your presence. It attacks because it sees you as a threat. This is the most COMMON type of attack.
  • Use bear spray.
  • If the bear makes contact with you: PLAY DEAD!

PLAY DEAD. Lie on your stomach with legs apart and position your arms so that your hands are crossed behind your neck. This position makes you less vulnerable to being flipped over and protects your face, the back of your head and neck. Remain still until you are sure the bear has left the area.

These defensive attacks are generally less than two minutes in duration. If the attack continues, it may mean the attack has shifted from defensive to predatory – FIGHT BACK!

PREDATORY

  • Try to escape into a building, car or up a tree.
  • If you can't escape, DONT PLAY DEAD.
  • Use bear spray and fight back!

FIGHT BACK! Intimidate that bear: shout; hit it with a branch or rock, do whatever it takes to let the bear know you are not easy prey. This kind of attack is very rare but it is serious because it usually means the bear is looking for food and preying on you.

Bottom line? It is very difficult to predict the best strategy to use in the event of a bear attack. That is why it is so important to put thought and energy into avoiding an encounter in the first place.

Thu, May 10 2007 » Main Page, Minutiae