Hiking in Bear Country
We all breathed a collective sigh of relief when indoor and outdoor activities opened up after a long two years. Blaq Bear continues to take bookings for Norm’s Cabin, and is hard at work planning tours for the summer across the Algoma region as domestic tourism ramps up.
Ontario Parks opened their gates to campers, with another banner year expected as more and more Ontarians discover the great outdoors. Hiking and camping have boomed in popularity throughout the pandemic as people search for safe, outdoor activities close to home. Here in the Algoma region, we enjoy a wealth of spectacular hiking trails filled with fabulous views and challenging terrain. We are fortunate to have large expanses of undeveloped wilderness all around us. If you are out on the trails in the north, you may see wildlife – fox, rabbit, moose, wolf, coyote, or bear.
The bear is perhaps the most feared of the animals you may encounter here in the north. There are lots of misconceptions and myths about bears, and I’d like to offer three pieces of advice from the perspective of someone who regularly frequents the backcountry. For more expert advice, the Ministry of Natural Resources has excellent resources on the Bear Wise site.
My first piece of advice is to not let bears be a barrier. What I mean by this is do not let bears be THE reason you don’t get out on a trail. The vast majority of the time, bears are more afraid of you than you are of the bear. I learned this through first-hand experience. One evening, when there was a full moon, I walked directly into a bear thinking it was a shadow. The bear ran away. It didn’t attack me. It wanted to go about its business, and I wanted to get back to my cabin as quickly as possible. Now, I admit I was completely terrified during the experience, but I got through it unscathed. I’ve seen bears many times since then, and they always run away when they sense my presence.
Rather than let bears be a barrier, be prepared. Head out on the trail in a group (COVID-pandemic restrictions permitting), the noise you make talking with your friends is bound to keep the bear away. If heading out by yourself, bring a whistle. I always carry bear spray for protection as a last resort, however, I have never had to use it. Know what to do if you encounter a bear. The Ontario Bear Wise program suggests making noise, slowly backing away, and to not turn and run. Do not “play dead.” Being prepared will help you to overcome the fear, and will allow you to act rationally and calmly if you do happen to see a bear on your adventures.
My final piece of advice is to be aware. Be aware of your surroundings. Be aware that bears are more active in the early morning or evening, rather than midday. Be aware of signs of bear activity. Trees scratched with nails, bear scat, bear prints, or turned over rocks are a few signs of recent bear activity. Be aware of smells. Bears have a distinct wild and heavy smell. Recently, I walked on a trail filled with bear scat and prints. It did not force us to turn around, rather it was a sign for us to be aware, keep making noise, and to keep the dog close.
The reality is black bears are an important part of a healthy northern ecosystem. They are the largest land-based predator in the Algoma region, and benefit from a healthy supply of berries, nuts, fish, insect, and small game. Our role as humans is to let them go about their business without exposing them to human food – this habituation to human food and garbage is the most common reason for bear encounters. Black bears attacks on humans are very rare, and fatal bear attacks extremely so.
As Ontario reopens this summer, get out there and explore. Camp in a northern park, stay in a remote hike-in cabin for the very first time, try our mountain bike trails - explore all the outdoor adventure Sault Ste. Marie and the Algoma region has to offer. Don’t let your fear of bears be a barrier to that once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Leave no trace, respect the wildlife, be prepared, and you’ll be sure to end your adventure with amazing memories and tons of Instagram-worthy photos.