Tofino bears are busy people
by Dan Lewis, Tofino
Bears are everywhere on the coast. In fact, while at home writing about wolves for last summer's Wildlife issue, I went for a walk to stretch my legs and re-connect with Nature. Imagine my surprise when I spooked a young bear right up a hemlock tree! I had been writing about wildlife occurring in 'wilderness' areas, and was simply not thinking that I might encounter one by our little island home near Tofino. As he scrambled up the tree, I spoke out loud, letting him know that I would be leaving immediately. I headed back to the beach with my heart racing--definitely back in touch with Nature!
Another time, we were camped on a small gravel beach with lots of big, barnacle covered rocks, the kind bears roll over to find shore crabs. I was taking care of business, squatting near the water's edge with my pants down around my ankles, gazing out to sea.
Suddenly I heard a large snort, like a sea lion surfacing. Except it was coming from behind me, in the forest. Spooked, I looked around me but could see nothing. I carried on, and again the snorting and sputtering began behind me. Twisting around, I saw a huge black bear rousing itself in the forest, about 6 feet up an embankment, close to the edge of the beach.
I hadn't finished doing what I had come to do. Specifically, the paperwork. Quick decision time. Scoot back to camp with my pants around my ankles, hoping the bear would not chase after me? Or plead for time, trying to get the job done and return with my dignity intact.
I chose the latter, explaining to the bear in a calm voice what I was doing, so he could figure out that I was human. I called out to Bonny to get the kayaks ready (we were about to leave on a day-trip), as we might need to make a quick exit. She could not see the bear from camp, and later told me she thought I had gone nuts, talking to myself.
I finished my task quickly, pulled up my drawers and began slowly walking towards camp, still talking to the bear. No sooner had I turned to go than the bear tumbled down onto the beach. Bonny began to get the boats ready as she saw what I had been raving about. The bear immediately began rolling rocks and eating crabs as if to say, "I knew you were there and you didn't surprise me at all. In fact, I was just thinking I'd get up and forage for some shore crabs."
Not all encounters with bears are real. One night in Haida Gwaii, I was awakened by Bonny. As I surfaced groggily, I thought I heard her say there was a bear outside the tent. "A bear?" I asked. Now it was Bonny's turn. "A bear?" she replied. "Is there a bear?" I demanded. "A bear... is there a bear?" she repeated. This conversation quickly escalated into full-blown panic, neither of us awake enough to understand exactly where this rumor of a bear had originated, or indeed, whether it was fiction or fact. I could hardly breathe in the confines of our nylon cocoon. My leadership training kicked in and I flipped over onto all fours and began breathing deeply to get myself under control. Calmly now, I asked Bonny, "Is there a bear?" "I don't know," she said. "I heard something." Zipping open the tent door, we scanned around with a flashlight and confirmed that if there was a bear out there in the darkness, it was not about to rip our tent open. We decided it must have been a mouse running up the inside of the tent fly, and promptly fell back into a deep sleep. Bears are busy people, and don't like having to deal with distractions. A human appearing on their beach is kind of like a paper jam when you're multi-tasking-- something they really do not need in their day. If you don't invite one into camp with delightful aromas, it will most likely detour around you if possible.
My approach with bears is to speak calmly to them, explaining what it is I'm up to. Something like, "Hello Bear, it's just me, Dan. We're camping here for a couple of days, and then we'll be gone. Sorry to bother you. Nice place you have here." It doesn't really matter what you say, the bear will figure out that you are human, and at that point will take off. Try not to be rude by throwing rocks, yelling, and such. Singing works as well, and leaves the bear with a better impression of our species. Remember, the main thing a bear wants to do is get away from you, assuming you're not wearing the pants you wiped your hands on while cleaning the salmon.
There are basically two kinds of bears -- wild bears and spoiled bears. Spoiled bears have been conditioned to associate humans with easy food. There is not much that can be done for a bear at this point--why would anyone forage around in the woods for grubs and bugs when there are so many humans running around in the backcountry with food?
There are some simple things you can do to avoid having problems with bears. Separate your tent site from your kitchen site by at least 100 yards if possible. Don't ever cook or store food in your tent. Wash dishes immediately after meals, keep your kitchen clean, and store food in airtight containers, away from the tents. Avoid camping on game trails or in prime bear habitat such as berry patches. And never make food available to them. Our over-riding goal with bears must be to not contribute to the problem. The sad truth is that spoiled bears typically end up being killed. There is our own safety to think of, for sure, but the fact is that humans kill far more bears than vice versa. Let's do what we can to avoid spoiling bears.
Dan Lewis operates Rainforest Kayak Adventures in Clayoquot Sound