Tackling Bear Safety

Interactions with bears are a proper concern when considering a journey into our backcountry. Knowing what situations might arise, how to deal with them and how to prevent a negative outcome is worth putting some thought into. Nahanni Wild has been working and traveling through wilderness for decades and we are happy to share some of the theory and techniques that we employ on our expeditions. 

We are fortunate to have to have this concern and it is a cause for celebration. Much of the world has lost its large apex predators. Often to referred to as a “capstone” species, their presence is enough to indicate the entire ecosystem below them is functioning. While we are on our Northern expeditions, like on the Nahanni, Keele and Mountain Rivers, both Grizzly and black bears are present and deserving of respect. This respect takes the form of many precautions; not only for our own safety but to ensure that these incredible creatures are able to roam unimpeded. 

Photo: Ian Mcallister

Photo: Ian Mcallister

Many of us have seen a “Be Bear Aware!” poster at some point, leading to arguments on the merits of playing dead versus fighting back while taking those first nervous steps into the backcountry. However, for the Nahanni Wild guide team the conversation begins much earlier. From choosing campsites and equipment, to working with our partners at Park’s Canada; a great deal of on the ground knowledge has already shaped your potential itinerary. After all, the best place to see these creatures is on the water, drifting slowly by as they continue on their way.

When you already have your camp set up there is a chance a bear might walk right into it. This can happen if the bear approaches from upwind and cannot smell its presence and you don’t catch sight of it and make it aware of your presence. A Nahanni Wild guide always maintains a healthy separation between our camp kitchen and tenting areas. Ensuring this space exists provides an important insulating barrier between the main attractants, the kitchen and its accompanying odours, and a group at rest.  While toothpaste and other personal effects can be bear attractants, this too is mitigated by storing these items in a secure container away from the tent. Ensure that attractants are always cleaned or disposed of properly each evening; look at it as putting your camp to bed! 

When leaving the camp, Nahanni Wild practices group travel.  Groups ensure our greatest defence against a bear, strength in numbers. A group presents a larger, intimidating challenge and the combined noise of group travelling makes sure they know you are coming. If you are confronted by a bear remember all the things you have in your favour since you properly prepared. Working as a team come together, ensure that the bear-spray is out, the safety is off and make yourself appear larger with backpacks or jackets raised over our heads. These techniques allow you to slowly remove yourself from an encounter and diffuse a situations to nothing more than a good story to be pulled out around the campfire. 

Bear spray is a tool of last resort and only comes into play if preventative measures aren’t sufficient. It is the last point of defence and should only be used if a bear is within 3 meters of you. Practice and understanding the capabilities of bear spray is essential. 

Should you find yourself alone many of the same principles apply. Make yourself larger, stay calm, speak calmly to the animal and make sure your bear-spray is accessible. Bears are known to bluff charge, do not run away as this could cause a pursuit. If you are unable to extricate yourself and if in particular there are cubs involved you might find yourself in the precarious position of having to play dead. Keep you backpack on, cover your neck and head with you arms, spread your legs to make it harder to flip you over. These sort of attacks last less than two minutes and the bear is likely to lose interest in you if it thinks you no longer pose a threat. If the attack continues fight back!

People do not exist as food to bear and in areas where the practices that where listed above are followed, it should be of some comfort that these animals maintain an active fear of people without any need for conditioning. While it might be tempting to just relax on a few of these techniques it has to be said that the maxim of taking care of the little things and the big things take care of themselves has never held so true as when it comes to our safety record. If there are more questions we recommend checking out Parks Canada’s website

With bear interactions occurring each summer we continue to head into the wilderness with a confidence borne out of decades of experience and a commitment to our practice being based on the best information available.

See you out there!