Trouble bruin: How to avoid bear scares when enjoying Alberta’s outdoors

Professional outdoorsmen share their knowledge on how to handle a bear encounter

As the snow melts and the weather warms up, Calgarians and bears alike are coming out of hibernation to enjoy spring in the mountains. 

With a greater emphasis on outdoor activity during COVID-19, more people are exploring the Rockies.

According to Alberta Environment and Parks, 134,474 reservations have been made for provincial campsites as of May 3. There are no numbers for May 2020 as campsites were shut down. However, only 61,722 reservations were made as of May 3 in 2019.

With more pressure on areas with wildlife, the potential for an increased number of critter encounters is higher.

While it’s one thing to enjoy a foraging fawn or a chattering chipmunk, it’s completely another running into a recently woken bear starting its snack season.

Bears are active during the day, and can be found on Crownland, mountains, and wooded areas.

Brian Phaneuf and Robb Brouwer have tips to stay safe.

Common mistakes: Brian Phaneuf – wilderness instructor

Phaneuf is an executive officer at Remote Areas Emergency Medicine and Survival. He is an instructor of Wilderness Medicine, Wilderness First Aid, Survival and provides emergency medical care in remote areas.

He’s no stranger to bear encounters.  

Once, Phaneuf was asleep in a hammock and woken up by a huffing black bear. 

“She just brushed underneath it and carried on her merry way. Never bothered me, and I wasn’t going to bother her. I usually run into them once or twice every year,” he said.   

Grizzly spotted on May 1 in Indian Graves, Kananaskis area. (Chelsea Jordan)

Phaneuf listed two common mistakes people make that can attract bears: cooking in tents and being too quiet.

“Then your whole camp area starts smelling like leftover food,” he said.

“The other thing is taking the bears for granted and not making noise when you’re out and about in the wilderness.”

If you’re going to hike in the mountains, be sure to bring the proper gear with you. Start with bear spray and bells, Phaneuf said. Bear spray should be easily accessible, such as in a chest harness.

Phaneuf said a colleague and renowned bear expert rode a bike with his bear spray in his backpack. He was knocked off his bike by a bear, but luckily was left alone.

Make some noise

As bears prefer to avoid people, Phaneuf said to make as much noise as possible.

“Accompany the tinkling of the bells with loud talking, singing, and whistling just to let them know you’re coming. They usually will avoid you,” he said.

Bear spray and bells are available at most outdoor outfitters and it’s recommended to get the largest bear spray.

Phaneuf warns people against climbing trees if they feel they’re about to be charged by a bear. Bears climb trees too. Plus, they can run up to 60 kilometres an hour.

“As far as playing dead, it’ll work against a black bear that has just been disturbed with her cubs. It’s not 100 per cent,” he said.

Robb Brouwer – Survival classes on hold

Brouwer is an archery instructor and founded Bear Paw Bushcraft. He teaches bushcraft survival and knowledge such as making fires, shelters, and ropes out of natural materials, among other crafts. He also teaches how to identify plants and use them for food or medicine. 

Bear tracks, found April 29 near Nordegg. (Angela Quibell)

Due to Coronavirus, Brouwer’s classes are on hold. It’s unfortunate, because demand for outdoor training is high with people wanting to get out doors.

“I’ve turned away probably 30 or 40 people that have called me up and wanted classes done,” he said.

“It seemed like a big panic.” 

Brouwer lives in Kananaskis Country, and has run into black bears while hiking. Luckily, the bears have always left him alone. 

He encourages others to refrain from running away from any bears they may cross, as bears will outrun anyone.

“What you want to do is stand still and talk kind of calmly to the bear. When bears stand up on their hind legs, it’s more they’re curious. They’re trying to smell you. A lot of people see a bear standing as a sign of aggression. Slowly back up, keep eye contact with the bear to make sure you can always see what that bear is doing,” Brouwer said.

Careful with the dogs

Lastly, Brouwer encourages people to be careful with their dogs on walks in the mountains, and always hike with a buddy. Remember to make sure you know how to use your bear spray and that it’s not expired.

Most importantly, never come between a bear and her cub, and avoid foul smells that might be from a bear’s dinner.

“If you’re out hiking and you smell something funky, turn around and walk the other way. That means a dead animal is somewhere close,” he said.

“You probably ran into a bear kill.” 

As information is abundant, Brouwer recommended taking bear awareness courses online with the Alberta Hunter Education Instructors Association. 

“There’s a lot of different things you need to be aware of when you’re out in bear country,” he said.

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