I have had several opportunities this summer to camp in one of the most beautiful places on earth: Algonquin Provincial Park. It is located about 3 hours north of Toronto and is pretty big. It is 7,725 square kms which, for my American friends, is about the same size as the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. For my European friends, that is about one quarter the size of the country of Belgium.
Algonquin Park has over 1,500 lakes and 1,200 kms of streams and rivers. It is also the home of lots of wildlife. I personally have seen many species of wild animals in Algonquin Park including beaver, huge moose, deer, wolves, and finally black bears. It is an encounter with the latter animal, Ursus Americanus, which serves as the inspiration for this story.
For years I have camped in Algonquin and never once saw a bear. But in 1999, the spring bear hunt was cancelled in Ontario. Some say that this caused the population of black bears in Ontario to rise from 100,000 to over 250,000. Others argue the increase is smaller than that. I am not going to go into the reasons why they cancelled it or whether I agree with it. But needless to say, when the bear population grows over 150%, the chances of encountering a bear increase.
So, a few years ago, my son (who was about 12 at the time) and I decided to do some backcountry country camping in Algonquin. We packed up our gear, loaded the canoe on the car and off we went. We selected a lovely site on a lake so we could swim and fish. We had just finished an afternoon swim and I was starting to make dinner while my son went to gather firewood for a campfire.
Of course, I did not have my cochlear implant on because I was still drying off from the swim. I was barefoot and just in my bathing trunks. Delicious meat with no wrapping on it. I turned to go to the tent, which was about 4 meters or 12 feet behind me, to get a t-shirt. And there he was..Big George the Bear as I later called him. George was just sitting there beside the tent and staring at me, probably wondering why I was so calmly ignoring him up until that point. Well George, you snuck up on a deaf guy that’s why.
He was a beautiful bear with a gorgeous coat…but I would have preferred to see him on a high definition television or in a zoo like 99% of the rest of the sheltered world. I was close enough to see that he had a green tag in his ear. This indicates that he had already been tranquilized, tagged and relocated for bugging people. Well, I guess George wanted some more Doritos from the car campers which were only about a one hour paddle away.
Note that George was not interested in anything I had in the tent. I am a very careful camper. All food and toiletries are safely suspended high up in a tree and not in the tent. You would be surprised what bears consider to be food (which is almost anything). I have heard of people leaving Preparation H hemorrhoid cream in their tents only to come back later and find a bear happily munching away on the tube. Yuck.
After my initial surprise to see a wild bear right behind me, my thoughts turned to my son. Where was he? Should I call out to him? But I did not have my CI on so I would not hear a thing if he responded. I stupidly forgot to bring bear spray or bear bangers with me. For those unfamiliar with these protective devices, bear spray is a large can of pepper spray under high pressure. If needed, you can squirt it into a bears face and it will take off but in intense pain. I had the unfortunate experience of spraying a tiny amount into the wind and having it come back at me. It was extremely painful even though the amount was only miniscule. Pepper sprays such as bear spray is actually illegal in many parts of Europe, but that makes sense. Why would a European ever need it? There are no dangerous animals there.
I recall reading about what to do if you encounter a bear. Note that your strategies for black bears will be different than brown or Grizzly bears. Black bears are excellent tree climbers so don’t bother trying that. With Grizzlies, you more or less play dead and pray to what ever Deity you worship. With black bears, I have read, you actually try to make your self appear big and scare it away.
So I made my decision. I was going to scare the bear. If he ran, great. If not, at least my son would be protected, he could have me. Believe me, there is plenty of meat on me, particularly back then when I was a chubby deaf guy. So I grabbed the pot I was boiling water, dumped out the water, got a spoon and started banging it while at the same time roaring at the bear. I must have been quite a sight. Shirtless, shoeless, chubby white deaf guy chasing a bear with a pot and a spoon whilst dropping F bombs.
The thing ran so fast. I heard bears are fast runners, but to see it live with my own eyes was something else. But most importantly, my son was safe. He returned out of the woods with a look on his face that said “That’s it, my old man is now crazy”. He never did see the bear himself.
So what did I learn from this experience?
1. I am very proud that my first instinct was to protect my child. We all hope that we will do so, but it is nice to have been tested and passed.
2. I never go into the backcountry without bear spray and bear bangers now. This is of particular importance to a person with hearing loss. In humans, hearing is the best sense we have for detecting danger. It works 360 degrees, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Our other senses can’t match hearing for danger detection. So, all the more reason for a person with hearing loss to protect oneself whilst in bear country.
3. It is true what the experts say about what to do if you encounter a wild bear. I would suggest reading up on that if planning a trip to the back country.
4. But I am not afraid of bear encounters, just respectful of the animal. Statistically speaking, I have a greater chance of being killed on the highway while driving up to the park. Just keep the campsite clean, store food and toiletries up in a tree, and bring bear spray for protection.