When traveling in the backcountry it is inevitable that at one point or another you will run into a bear, knowing what to do and how to react can provide you with a tremendous sense of confidence as well as safety. Bear encounter during the year are in reality not that common, however knowing what to when you do encounter a bear is something that every outdoors man and woman should know.
In Canada there are 3 bear species Black bear, Grizzly Bear (some distinguish between coastal and interior) and polar bear. For the purposes of this article we will only focus on Black bear and grizzly as I have no experience with polar bear and the likely hood of every running into one is extremely low.
Black bears are by far the most abundant bear species across Canada, stretching form BC to the east coast, for this reason understanding black bear behavior is something that is extremely valuable. There are a number of key occasions that you will likely find yourself in black bear country and I just want to touch on how you should react to each. The most common interaction between humans and black bears is where you both stumble into each and are both aware of each others presence. In this situation 90% of the time the bear will look at you to figure out exactly what you are and then take off in the opposite direction, This not a dangerous situation as long as the bear has a rout of escape. A far less likely situation is when you come across a sow with cubs, if you see each other from far away the bear is likely to move off in a different direction to protect her cubs, some sows will however stand their ground and this is when you must change your route plans and travel in a different direction. Another possibility is that you may surprise a sow with cubs, this can be a dangerous situations as both parties have little time to react, in most cases the sow will chose to move in a different direction or climb nearby trees if they are large enough. The other outcome is that she may feel threatened and choose to defend her cubs by bluff charging you or in very rare cases making contact with you, in these situations the number one thing that you must remember is not to run (this triggers a prey drive in bears). If she is defending her cubs then it is not a predatory attack and thus laying down after contact is an appropriate response, she will likely move off after she realizes that you are not a threat. By far the most dangerous situations is when you come across a bear that is acting aggressive and moving towards you in a threatening way, if you find yourself in these situations your response will be to make as much noise and make yourself as large as possible, you want the bear to figure out for himself that he does not want to challenge you. In the very rare case that the bear does attack you must fight for your life, since this a predatory attack the bears intent is kill, use whatever you have to fend off the bear, striking sensitive areas like the throat and head are your best bets.
For those in Grizzly country the same general rules apply when confronted by a bear, especially with a sow with cubs, however when running into grizzly bears your actions should directly default to one of respect and awareness that this bear needs ample space to move on. When looking at grizzly bear encounters I like break it down into two main groups. The first group is what to do when you surprise a bear with or without cubs. In this situation if you are attacked your best bet is remain still and silent, you want the bear to assume you are not a threat and move on. The more dangerous situation similar to black bears is that if you have a bear that is acting aggressive and threatening. your first action should be escape, find a route if possible to leave the area, you want to show the bear that you are not a threat and that he can remain is his spot and carry on with whatever activity he was doing. Remember do not turn you’re back on a bear as this a symbol of disrespect in the bear world, slowly back up facing the bear. If the bear does end up attacking then once again fighting is you best response, this is due to the fact that if a bear is acting aggressive and pursuing you, it is doing so out of curiosity or hunger. I want to stress and emphasize that being aware of the situation and what response is appropriate can save your life, pretending to be dead when a bear is acting predatory will do nothing for you but being able to distinguish between predation and defense is something that dictates your response.
I just wanted to make small point about carry firearms specifically for bears, if you are carrying specifically for the purpose of bear protection I want to caution you that in most situations you will not have enough time to react to a defensive attack in which you surprised the bear, shooting a bear during a defensive attack can turn the situation even more dangerous, wounding a bear during these defensive attacks can turn them into one of defense into one of aggression and predation. If you’re going to shoot a bear make sure that you have the skill to consistently hit a bear in a location that will kill it, a wounded bear is by far the most dangerous animal on the mountain. Understanding bear behavior and the different responses to humans that bears exhibit can be more powerful than a firearm.