Sensible precautions in bear country

Michael Johansen
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“Whatever you do,” one friend advised me on the question of how to play dead during a bear attack, “always clasp your hands over the back of your neck. The bear could maul your fingers, but you might save your spine.”

“Whatever you do,” another friend told me not long after, “never put your hands behind your neck. Bears are hungry and hands most always smell like the food they’ve been touching.”

As I stood in front of my cabin last week, preparing to hike out through several kilometres of bear-filled woods, I gave the conflicting advice some serious thought. Since my hands and both arms up to the elbows were saturated with the stench of rotting meat, I decided I’d go with the second recommendation — should the need arise.

The local black bears have been out of hibernation for a week or two, and the frequency of reported sightings suggest their numbers are increasing. My bear sighting wasn’t of the actual animal, but of the signs of its presence — its presence inside my cabin, that is.

I’d been gone a little over a week, and I returned to find a hole in the wall that had the top of my food barrel poking out of it. Fortunately, it was an unfinished wall, so the bear only had to break through a few layers of nylon tarp and fibreglass insulation.

It must have been a young bear, because only a small one could have fit through the narrow space between the two-by-four studs. But fit it did. It got inside, crossed the floor to the barrel, tipped the barrel over towards itself, grabbed it on the lid with its teeth and dragged it backwards to the hole in the wall — where it stuck. At this point, the bear was outside again, probably with a puzzled look on its face. It had just discovered the problem of putting a round peg into a square hole.

Not being someone who carries firearms, my main defence against bears has always been to avoid them as much as possible by eliminating or hiding the smells that attract them.

Under normal conditions, the food barrel was airtight enough, but only if it contained dried, vacuum-sealed, or canned food that hardly produces any scent anyway.

Unfortunately, I had forgotten a package of sliced bacon and a selection of coldcuts I’d stored at the very bottom during the deep winter freeze.

The meat thawed weeks ago and since then has been steadily rotting to the point of liquifaction.

No barrel is airtight enough to hide such a stench from the nose of a newly woken, ravenously hungry bear.

All in all, I got off lightly.

The bear failed to open the lid and it gave up.

The only damage was to the temporary wall coverings and they were easily patched.

It could have been a lot worse. If, while inside the cabin, the bear had bounced up and down on the side of the tipped-over barrel, the lid would have popped right off.

The bear could then have enjoyed a feast in full comfort, sleeping it off on my bed and probably breaking it, too.

However, the bear never thought of that, and for some reason, even though the pungent smells must have been driving it frantic, it simply went away. At least on the day I had to dispose of that stinking flesh, I hoped the bear was away. I couldn’t bury the meat or burn it because there was a lot of contaminated plastic mixed in — plus a few unopened tin cans, too. I had to hike it out of the woods on my back and I was ready to drop it on the trail if a bear started stalking me — hoping the bag would smell more like dinner than I would.

It wasn’t the most relaxed stroll through a forest, but I’m happy to report that this story has a boring ending: no animal attack against me or my garbage. It ends with a cheap lesson in bear-proofing: avoid carrying rotting meat on your person. You might get away with it once, but after that you’d be pushing your luck.


Michael Johansen is a writer

living in Labrador.

Geographic location: Labrador

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