The few days at the ski slopes of Whistler, British Columbia were limned with suspenseful anticipation; the hope of a sighting of the common Ursus Americanus aka the American black bear.
An occurrence completely unimaginable in tropical Singapore – meeting a wild bear, by perfect chance. Each morning, as we trudged-clambered-hiked through the woods around Lost Lake and along Blackcomb Mountain, it was with the nervous anticipation that at any moment, around the bend, behind the bush, by the water … we might see a bear.
We had no luck with either a sighting or an encounter, but learned about being ‘bear smart‘ which in itself was fascinating, given that bears do not confine themselves to forests and a friend discovered one on her lawn in Coquitlam.
Whistler is prime black bear habitat and at the Information Kiosk, the lady mentioned this particular bear which people encountered in various locations – the golf course, hiking through the Interpretative Forest and even the Village, with its multitude of shops, restaurants and outdoor dining (which translates into human food, garbage, a buffet and bear feast, infinitely easier to access than fresh salmon and wild berries).
While black bears prefer forested habitat, they are constantly on the move in search of the most nutritious, high calorie food, which takes them to open spaces and areas occupied by humans. Given that they are curious and highly intelligent animals, can run at speeds of 15 metres or 50 feet per second (faster than an Olympic sprinter), easily smash logs to splinters, have good eyesight and an excellent sense of smell, are superb swimmers and agile climbers … meeting a bear on his territory demands an understanding of what to do if and when the meeting occurs.
- Stop. Assess the situation.
- Remain calm. Do not approach the bear, as in most cases, it will flee.
- If it is some distance away, maintain this distance respectfully, detour.
- Never go near one, especially to take a photograph.
- At close range, stand your ground, face the bear.
- Keep talking in a calm voice and back away slowly.
- If it approaches, keep your wits about you, because you will need them.
- If you chance upon a bear in the woods or in his territory, talk calmly and respectfully, to communicate you are no threat (especially if it is defending cubs or a food cache).
- If you chance upon a bear in urban territory, use a loud firm voice and speak as if addressing a misbehaving dog, saying NO ! repeatedly, removing your sunglasses and making direct eye contact. (This is both amusing and alarming).
- Less amusing and more alarming is the advice to stand your ground and face an intimidating beast that may be popping his jaws, swatting the ground, blowing, snorting and lunging or bluff charging – running toward you, then suddenly stopping and turning away. The experts say you are not likely to be hurt.
- Or you could carry bear spray and use it on persistent bears.
- If a black bear attacks you offensively, with full physical contact, fight back with any weapon you can find including rocks and branches. Whatever you do, DO NOT PLAY DEAD.
So, how close is too close ?
Bears defend their ‘personal space’ and this varies from animal to animal, and with the situation and circumstances. What one needs to keep in mind is that once you have entered this ‘space’, you have forced him to action – to either run away, or defend his space.
Bear Necessities to keep in mind
The main goal is to avoid surprising a bear, so make your presence known through noise.
Keep children and dogs close while hiking or on the trails, keep to daylight hours, watch for signs of recent bear activity – droppings, tracks, overturned rocks, fresh claw marks on trees etc., make a lot of noise in dense brush, near rushing water or food sources like berry bushes, immediately leave areas where there is an animal carcass or a smell or ravens circling overhead, pack all garbage, never bury food scraps, reduce odours, cook away from your tent or resting place, store food in animal-proof containers …
Never feed a bear, give them plenty of space, never approach them. Bears have a keen sense of smell and can detect aromas from a barbecue or a picnic from a considerable distance.
And then we saw The Revenant on the flight back to Singapore. It wasn’t a black bear in the film, but a grizzly, which are native to British Columbia, but not Whistler. Our earlier naive excitement regarding chance encounters gave way to a sheepish, embarrassed realisation of our complete and ignominious ignorance, our very urban lack of understanding of the wild and its denizens.
Information from the pamphlet prepared by the Get Bear Smart Society. Bear pictures from their website, shots of Lost Lake by A A Thomas.