Bears Fiordland

Being Bear (Un)Aware

Monday, October 06, 2014S.V. CAMBRIA

A Google map image of James Bay sitting of Mathieson Channel.

When we were anchored in James Bay (Pooley Island) back in August I had a wildlife experience I won’t soon forget.  The day started off like any other:  I woke up hours before anyone else, so I was sitting on the deck taking a look at the world when I thought I heard something rustling in the bushes.  Our friends aboard Salubrious had seen animal scat on shore the day before, so I got a little excited about the prospect of seeing a bear . . . or better yet, a wolf.  It turned out to be nothing, but the seed had been planted.  So, I quietly launched a kayak, grabbed my camera and left Cambria behind to see what I could see.

I paddled over to the eastern shore and slowly made my way down to the head of the inlet where the water shallows and becomes the James Creek Estuary.  From east to west, it’s about 300 metres (990 feet) wide before it narrows to 30 metres (100 feet) and access on the creek stops.  My plan was to see what was at the “end of the road”, turn around and then make my way up the western shore for a peak at the logging road.  So, that’s what I started to do. 

A Google map image of the head of James Bay with marks to depict locations: (from bottom
right to top left - Salubrious, Cambria, the bear and the kayak).

It was beautiful and quiet at the head of the creek and I could hear a woodpecker hammering in the distance.  I didn’t think I’d be able to see it but slowly floated up-stream on the small chance that I might.  I stopped for a bit along the western shore to take a couple of pictures of the inlet when a family of Common Merganzers swam past on the opposite side.  So, I took a few pictures of them.  And then a juvenile eagle flew overhead and landed in a nearby tree.  While I was watching the eagle, I heard something rustling in the bushes along the western shore, maybe 35 metres away (115 feet) away.  My heart skipped a beat or two, but I let out a sigh of relief when a raven flew out – the tricksters!  But the rustling didn’t stop and soon, very soon, a large black bear followed suit and he looked . . . a little irritated. 

The head of James Creek Estuary.

A large black bear coming out of the bushes.

I was scared and the adrenaline was pouring out of me.  I hadn’t been paying attention and put myself in a vulnerable situation – I was sitting downwind to a very large bear with only one exit route and few options.  I put my hands in the air, hoping to make myself appear larger, and spoke loudly and firmly so it would know I was human.  It just stood there and looked straight at me.  So, I paddled out of there as quickly as I could . . . with my back to the bear.

I turned around whenever possible to keep an eye on the bear and see if it was following me.  It was.  At first, it walked up along the eastern shore, on the opposite side of the creek, towards me.  And then it crossed the water to the western shore, near the spot where I’d been sitting in the kayak.  I should stop here to point out that bears, though big, are fast runners and good swimmers so it could have easily caught me if it had wanted to.  But the fact that it followed me for more than a half of a mile and was clearly tracking my scent was disconcerting . . . and still is.

The bear walking across the water to the area I had been sitting in the kayak.

The bear following me all the way out of the estuary and searching for me.

This wasn’t my first bear encounter, but there was clearly something different about this one.  In all my previous experiences, the bear was foraging along the shoreline and had little interest in the fact that I was watching from the water.  But this one came out.  Why? Bears will normally do whatever they can to avoid contact with humans.  So, why didn’t it consider me a danger and stay hidden?   

According to the Parks Canada website, there are three types of behaviour a bear exhibits during an encounter:
  1.  Defensive
  2. Non-Defensive
  3. Predatory
A defensive bear may feel threatened and respond by vocalizing, pacing, swinging its head or slapping the ground with its head lowered and ears drawn back.  A non-defensive bear, on the other hand, may approach because it’s curious, looking for food or establishing its territory.  And a predatory bear will approach deliberately and quietly with its head and ears up while showing no signs of stress.  My encounter falls into either the non-defensive or predatory category, but predatory encounters are extremely rare.  It’s difficult to know what was on the bear’s mind that morning and the fact that it followed me doesn’t clarify anything but, in all probability, it was just curious after picking up my scent. . .

. . . or at least that’s what I like to think.

Things I Did Wrong:
  • I went kayaking, something that’s very quiet, alone and should have, at the very least, talked to myself out loud so I didn’t surprise any animal in the area.
  • I was complacent and distracted by birds (of all things) when I knew bears and wolves were in the area.
  • I didn’t pay attention to the current conditions – the wind had started to blow and I was downwind to the head of the creek and the bear.
  • I entered an area with one escape route, a position I normally wouldn’t put myself in.
  • I was small in the water.
  • I turned my back to the bear.
  • I didn’t have any line of defense with me, such as bear spray (we don’t carry weapons of any kind on the boat, so this one is the norm).
  • I didn’t remain calm and assess the situation before acting.

Things I Did Right:
  • I spoke to the bear in a loud and firm voice to let it know I was human.
  • I raised my arms to make myself look as large as I could.

For more information on bear safety and how to behave when encountering a bear, you can visit theParks Canada website.

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  1. That does sound scary, but also interesting, and, in the end, he let you be. As you said, if he'd really wanted to get you, he could have. I will choose to believe he was curious, but I know I would have hightailed it out of there just as fast as you did! And you still got a great photo! Way to think under stress!

  2. It was scary at the time, but I agree with you that he was just curious. David isn't as convinced, but he's basing that on the bear's appearance . . . and the fact that I was still shaking when I got back to the boat (adrenaline rush!).