Camping in Northwestern Ontario
Camping is a large part of the Canadian experience. Camping is a great opportunity to get some fresh air, enjoy nature, and make lasting memories. However, with nature, comes wildlife. While wildlife is fantastic to view from a distance, precautions must be taken to insure you have a safe camping experience. Bears are fairly common in Northwestern Ontario. They are typically timid and keep to themselves. Most bears fear humans and will do their best to avoid them. However, food may lure bears to your campsite. The bears can do damage to your property, eat your food, and potentially be dangerous. There are steps that can be taken to assure your campsite stays bear free.
Northwestern Ontario is home to black bears. Black bears typically weigh between 125 and 660 pounds. They are about two to three and a half feet tall, and about four to seven when standing on their hind legs. They range in colour from black to blond, and their heads may be lighter than the rest of the body, particularly around the mouth.
Bear-safetying Your Campsite
Camping requires preparation and planning in order to make the most of your experience. Part of the preparation should include becoming familiar with the types of wildlife in the area and recognizing signs of danger. Bears are some of the largest mammals in Northwestern Ontario. Under certain circumstances, they can be aggressive and dangerous. Recognizing signs of bears will help you better prepare for the possibilities.
Since the main draw for bears is food, it’s important to keep food secure and out of access. The first step to doing this is to keep all food in a cooler with a lid that locks. Get a strong, thick rope and wrap it around the cooler and tie it well for extra protection. Use the rope to hang the cooler from the ground, at least about seven feet so it is out of reach to bears. The food should be hung at least 90 meters from where you are camping. It is a good idea to choose a tree that looks as though it hasn’t been used before for hanging food. Bears are creatures of habit, and they learn over time. For example, bears that live near dumps have been known to bite into cans that don’t even contain food- all because they have learned through dump-eating what cans look like and that they contain food. If food hangs in the same tree, eventually bears will learn to go to that tree to look for food.
Do not eat in your tent in order to avoid leaving the scent. This includes nuts, candy, mints, and toothpaste. Bears enjoy mint and for this reason it is best to put toothpaste in the cooler as well. Anything else with a strong scent such as deodorant should also be stored with food, as well as clothes you’ve eaten in or cooked with. They can be placed in bags and hung near the food. Leftover food that you don’t plan on finishing should be burned, buried far away or stored in the cooler as well. It is very important to clean up well after eating. Even small pieces of food on the ground will attract bears. Wash yours pots and pans well before and after using. Mice and other rodents may come into contact with them. They carry bacteria and may make you ill.
Keeping garbage out of the area is another good idea. Many campgrounds provide locked dumpsters for use. If this isn’t an option, you are best to store your garbage wrapped tightly in plastic bags far away in a tree, or burn it.
Another useful tip is to make use of scented dryer sheets. These dryer sheets deter wildlife due to their strong scent. They also will help mask any other scents such as food. Stuff them in your backpacks, tents, and sleeping bag. Also, keep your tent in a relatively clear area. Dense vegetation will make it more difficult to spot wildlife. When out in the wilderness, stay with your group. Bears are a lot less likely to approach groups.
What to do if a Bear Wanders into Your Campsite
If a bear finds it’s way onto your campsite, do not panic. Try and assess the bear’s behavior. Is it aggressive or defensive? Or is it simply curious about the smells in the area? Knowing the difference can help you decide how to react. Bears may be aggressive due to hunger and a lack of fear of humans. A bear that is aggressive/predatory may have stalked you and followed you to your campsite. These bears will attack by biting at your neck and head. They will wrap their arms around you in a ‘bear hug’ to hold you in place while she bites. Predatory black bears are very dangerous as it is unlikely they can be scared off.
Bears that are acting aggressive-defensive may be more defensive if they are with their cubs or feel as though you are invading their personal space. If they are feeling defensive, they may run away, or make several bluff charges at you to test how threatening you are. If you look at the ears, they can be indicative of how serious the attacks are. Bear ears that are more angled backwards signal more serious intentions to attack. Another indicator is hair standing up on the back, and growling. Black bears that are defending themselves are more likely to swat and try to bite you, but unlike a predatory attack they will not target your head or neck. If a bear bluff charges at you, stand your ground. If you have bear spray or a weapon, grab it slowly during these charges and prepare for an attack. After a bear charges at you, talk calmly and back away slowly with your hands above your head. If a defensive bear stands on it’s hind legs, stay still and let it assess you.
What to do if You’re Being Attacked
If you are being attacked, don’t panic. This will be difficult but it is important for you to act, rather than to react like a prey animal. Try and make yourself look bigger than you are by holding your arms above your head and standing with your legs slightly spread apart. If you can, raise your jacket above your head to help yourself look larger. Realize though that by doing this you have less protection if the bear attacks. If you have a backpack, leave it on. It may protect your back from the bear. Do not make eye contact with the bear, as the bear may see this as a challenge. However, do keep your eye on the bear at all times- you need to know where he is and what he’s doing. If the bear is small, you can try making loud noises to scare it away. Preferably, make metallic clangs using pans. If the bear is large or seems very unafraid, noise may increase it’s curiosity. If it is dark out you can try and shine a flashlight into the bears eyes, or even use the flash or a camera to temporarily blind it. Never try to out run a bear. Bears can run up to 64 kilometers per hour, and running will make you seem more like prey and can trigger predatory instincts. Hiding in your tent is also not a good idea, as bears have a foraging instinct and will try to find you. Do not try and climb a tree, as bears are excellent climbers. The best thing you can do when confronted with a bear is to distance yourself, and try and create a blockade between yourself and the bear such as a tree, rock or something large. It may also be helpful to try and move slowly to a sloped area. This way, the bear will be less likely to stand on it’s hind legs.
If you have tried everything and a bear it still aggressively pursuing you, you will need to fight back. Use whatever you can as a weapon. Use a stick or branch, throw dirt in it’s eyes, throw rocks, etc. Bears eyes and snouts are very sensitive and vulnerable to aim to strike these areas. Do not try and punch a bear, this rarely does damage and puts you more at risk. Kicking may be more effective. Avoid being hit at all costs. One swipe will do damage and make surviving even more difficult. Throw things at the bear that are near you.
Using Bear Spray
When camping, it is a good idea to bring bear spray. Bear spray can save your life during a bear encounter. Bear spray will deter a bear, but may not necessarily stop it. For the best effect, have it easily accessible and know how to use it beforehand. It is important to know the range of the bear spray. You don’t want to waste it if it won’t even come near the bear. The wind direction is also important; if the wind is blowing towards you, using the spray could hit you instead. If you can, slowly move upwind from the bear. If the bear is charging you, spray it where the bear will be. The bear will experience burning eyes and stinging. It will not likely be immobilized, just temporarily distracted, so take advantage of any seconds you have to act. If you don’t have bear spray, you can try and use bug repellent or other sprays you may have and spray them directly in the bears eyes, although this will not be as effective.As soon as you’ve temporarily disabled a bear, or have a chance to escape safely, do so. Walk away but be aware that the bear may return. Have your weapon ready.
Other tips for staying bear-safe while camping include avoiding wearing perfumes, lotions, and other products with a strong scent. Do not feed bears, as over time the bears will learn to see humans as food providers. Report bears that watch humans or campsites from a distance, as they are showing interest. Do not walk or explore alone, especially at night. Be loud to avoid surprising a bear, and potentially scare it off before you come near. Bears will travel on trails because they are easier to walk down, so be wary when on these trails.