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The Outsider: Sharing our backcountry with the bears

Outsider Sept 30
Grizzly bear interactions are becoming more frequent in the Sea to Sky backcountry as the species expands its territory.

If you’ve lived in Whistler or the Sea to Sky for a few years, you likely have a story or two involving our largest, cutest and arguably most intimidating local wildlife, Ursus americanus, commonly known as the black bear. 

No one forgets the first time they see a bear, whether a child on a camping trip or a wide-eyed seasonal worker stepping off the bus in Whistler Village. But after a few years, encounters around town start to become more commonplace. You see them grazing on the ski runs in the bike park, wandering the Valley Trail, and regrettably, sniffing around homes where the occupants don’t manage their garbage, recycling or barbecues properly. 

I won’t go into the best practices of living with bears inside the urban confines of Whistler’s municipality, as there is more than enough great information on the Get Bear Smart Society website (http://www.bearsmart.com/bear-smart-whistler/). All that information applies to visitors as well, who may not be educated on the importance of keeping your distance from bears, and not prioritizing one’s Instagram feed over the bear’s safety and livelihood.

Having a bear encounter in the backcountry can be a different experience altogether. In many cases, the lack of habituation will mean that bears keep their distance and will bolt in the opposite direction if they are startled. But there are exceptions, and the particular situation you are in can make a lot of difference.

My partner Frances and I had one of these exceptional encounters in early September 2020 in Cape Scott Provincial Park on the northern tip of Vancouver Island. The trail out to the Cape is well travelled and sees hundreds of people on a busy summer weekend. 

But from our campsite at Nels Bight, the hiking trail out to the Cape’s lighthouse is another eight kilometres or so, and sees far less traffic. 

We were rounding a corner, our sightlines blocked by thick, high vegetation, when Frances, walking in front of me on the narrow trail, locked eyes with what looked like a juvenile black bear. The distance between them wasn’t more than two to three metres. We had (not intentionally) been quiet as we hiked, so the encounter startled all of us, the bear included.

Just as we realized the situation that we were in (standing on a narrow trail with very little room, very close to hulking wildlife) and began to yell and make noise to scare him off, he came bounding towards us. Frances screamed and tried her best to get out of the way as the bear shot past us, his fur rubbing against the back of Frances’ legs as he did so, and disappeared around the corner. Rather than run in the opposite direction from us towards the beach, the bear must have seen the forest as the safest option, even if that meant charging straight in the direction of two humans. 

We were on high alert for the rest of the trip, and even saw what could have been the same bear (this time from a safe distance) on the hike back to the campsite.

A camping encounter with a bear in the middle of the night is something I’m glad I haven’t experienced, but local Whistler photographer Abby Cooper did a few weeks ago while on an overnight camping trip in the Squamish backcountry.

“I woke up in my tent to the sound of teeth clacking and a bunch of rustling on the gravel surface near our tent,” she recalled. “We heard it come closer, then—as if out of the movies—it started making these loud breathing sounds with a couple of snorts.

“(My partner Jarrett and I) froze absolutely still, hearts beating out of our chests. It was sniffing around our backpacks in the vestibule, we’d taken every precaution of cooking some distance away from our camp, changing our clothes and hanging our food even further away. We had bear spray and a Leatherman, so our last resort if it tried to enter the tent would be to cut our way out of the tent and use the bear spray on it outside.”

Their silence and relative calmness meant the bear slowly decided to move on, as it considered the tent’s occupants not to be a threat. 

At first light the couple broke camp quickly and hightailed it back to their vehicle, making loud sounds along the way to make sure there was no return visit.

The nature of that interaction and obvious paw prints found the next morning confirmed it was indeed a grizzly that paid Cooper and her partner a visit that night. While they were more than diligent with having bear spray and managing attractants, the interaction reminded her of another precaution hikers take in her home range of the Rocky Mountains when backcountry camping in the fall.

“In Banff, (the rangers) won’t let you go camping this time of year unless you’re a group of four or more,” said Cooper. “We don’t have as much interaction with grizzlies here on the coast, and that can make us complacent.”

While you’re statistically more likely to be killed by a lightning strike than killed by a bear, fatal encounters do happen. As of Sept. 2, 2021, hunting blog Field & Stream reported six bear fatalities so far this year in North America, three of those being in Alberta.

With the Sea to Sky’s backcountry areas seeing a rising grizzly population, it’s time to take bear safety seriously. Manage your food and attractants wisely. Pack the bear spray. And consider travelling with a couple of extra buddies, especially in the fall months. 

Bears want to simply enjoy their lives in the wilderness, so if we choose to enter their territory, it’s up to us to cohabitate with them the best we can.

Vince Shuley would be OK if he didn’t see any more bears in 2021. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider email vince.shuley@gmail.com or Instagram @whis_vince.