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THOMPSON: How not to be eaten by a bear

October 11, 2021 - 12:00 PM



It’s Fall and one of my favourite animals - bears - are busy foraging for food.

Recently, I answered about 20 questions in a piece by The New York Times on whether I might “survive a run in with a bear?” Turned out I know enough about bears - I got them all right - to probably not die from a bear attack.

Of course, I grew up with bears in Florida…and on vacations in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina…all black bears. I came very close to some…just 15 feet from one trotting (yes, bears trot) down the middle of the road as I was checking my mail box.

There are lots more bears in British Columbia…black, brown and grizzly…than anywhere I’ve ever lived. I haven’t seen a grizzly here…and I’m not all that disappointed really. I have a low threshold of death…and even in my youth I could not run, climb or swim faster than a grizzly. Of course, if you’re in a group, theoretically, I guess you only have to be the second slowest runner, climber or swimmer.

Bears in cartoons or the stuffed ones our children play with seem not just benign…but, well, like good playmates. They are not. But maybe they are not as dangerous as most people think either.

Indeed, between getting struck by lightning, eaten by a shark, dying from a poisonous snake bite and being killed by a bear…being a bear’s dinner is the least likely. On average, there are only about 40 bear attacks a year worldwide, with about 10 in North America, and with only one or two resulting in death. Of course, if you’re that one or two…statistics are irrelevant.

About 30 people die each year from lightning in North America…and of nearly 8,000 venomous snake bites a year, about five are fatal…and last year 33 shark encounters in American waters resulted in three deaths.

So, you’re out hiking, the most likely way to encounter a bear, what should you do? Well, contrary to what far too many might think, you don’t maneuver for a selfie, or try to pet the bear. Enjoy this powerful animal but stay away…make some noise so the bear knows you’re there…they usually run but keep an eye out for a safe place should you need it.

How close should you get to a bear? Some say 50 yards, but Yellowstone National Park officials advise 100 yards. When I was 18 years old and in top athletic condition, I could run a 100-yard-dash in just under 11 seconds. Today, it takes me just under 11 seconds to think about running. I don’t know…my guess is a charging bear can run like stink…Usain Bolt is the world’s fastest human…and even he would only be the world’s fastest bear food. So, I recommend staying 200 yards away and using zoom on the iPhone, thank you very much.

A recent worldwide study of 279 people attacked by bears, according to The New York Times, were “hiking (88), followed by picking berries or mushrooms or scavenging for antlers (64), camping (31), fishing (18) or jogging (17).” Scavenging for antlers? Really…I’m sorry, you’re just asking for it.

One of the “Would You Survive a Run-In with a Bear?” test questions asked what size group should you go hiking with…a multiple-choice question that offered one, two, three or “the more, the better.” Oh, hell, yeah! I’m thinking a complete marching band…with instruments and uniforms…and perhaps led by a tasty drum major.

You should know that of the three types of bears in Canada…black, brown and polar…brown bears - which include grizzlies - are the most aggressive. Anecdotally, the most aggressive bear is always the one chasing you…regardless of colour.

You should make noise as you’re hiking. The louder, the better. Keep up a lively conversation with your hiking partners (or with yourself). You can live down the reputation for talking to yourself…besides only the bear will know. The Times reports that “You can sing, clap loudly or blow a whistle, or let out a loud whoop,” as well. I’m guessing whooping is involved when the bear catches you…also, as well.

Small bells strapped to the wrist or your backpack may be too faint to scare bears from a distance, but they do allow the bear to track you down with greater ease…which reminds me of the classic Canadian joke: “What’s the difference between brown bear scat and black bear scat? The brown bear scat has bells in it.”

Should you be attacked, between relying on bear spray and a loaded weapon, the bear spray users have historically had fewer deaths and injuries. Trying to reason with the bear results by far in the most injuries and deaths.

If you think climbing a tree is going to save you…think again. I’ve seen a black bear in Florida climb a 50-foot pine tree faster than a utility pole climber with those spike-thingees on their legs.

The Times’ test said, “Bears often make bluff, or fake, charges meant to intimidate you. They will charge, then stop short or veer to one side while they are still many yards away.” Great. A bluffing contest with a bear. I lost bluffing a straight-flush once and barely recovered from that. Some life experience advice: DO NOT BLUFF WITH BEARS!

Again the Times’ article advised that “An old bear saying goes: ‘If it’s black, fight back. If it’s brown, lie down.’” I’m thinking the old bear saying was started by an old bear who liked to eat people. I’m not fighting a bear…not brown…not black…are you kidding? You think they square off and follow Marquess of Queensberry rules?

Well, I convinced myself…no hiking this Fall…not here…and not in Florida. As far as sighting bears…that’s why I have National Geographic.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.

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