December 16, 2019
I want to take a moment to relay a recent bear encounter while hunting in northern BC.
Bear with me…
It was getting late. My 10-year-old son and I were travelling up resource roads searching for a basecamp for our moose hunt.
Silvercore’s in-house hunter extraordinaire and firearms instructor, Paul Ballard, was our group elected “sealgair,” which, as Paul explains, is Gaelic for “leader of the hunt.” My son and I had left a day early and were working off of Paul’s verbal directions, which got us in the general vicinity, or at least I thought so.
It was going to be dark soon, and the location we found didn’t precisely match the general description that Paul provided before losing cell reception. Why couldn’t he just give a UTM, grid reference, or even a photo of an “X” on a map, I thought to myself, but I was already accused of being a “techno-geek” for suggesting he try and drop a pin using Google earth so I didn’t push the issue.
“I think this is the spot,” I tell my son, “it’s about the right distance in from Paul’s direction, and there is a game pole already set up like the suggested. Besides, it will be dark soon, and if it’s not the right spot, we should be close enough to radio in when the rest of the group arrives tomorrow”.
With that, I pulled our Honda Pioneer 1000-5 side by side out of our converted utility trailer, which will serve as our accommodations for the next week. I park it, about 15 yards away, and am mindful not to unpack too much else from the trailer lest we need to move in the morning.
My son is excited and bubbling away as we talk about fishing, hunting, comic books, video games, and everything else that occupies the mind of a 10-year-old boy. We planned an early evening to get out at first light, and we sat on the floor of the trailer, not bothering to set up chairs and a table, and ate vegetables that my wife packed but was sure we wouldn’t touch. We put a pot of water on the stove and were waiting for it to boil for a quick supper of hot dogs when we heard a clicking sound on the window of the trailer door.
Now, when you’re as far away from civilization as we were, and you hear an unexpected noise, particularly on a window 6 feet off the ground, your mind will go into high gear quite quickly, perhaps even instinctually. In a split second, several thoughts raced through my mind almost at once, “Raccoon? No, that’s silly… bear?… Ballard a day early tapping keys on the window?… No… bear.” We are in grizzly country; I remind myself.
Before the thoughts concluded in my head, I found myself loading slugs into my trusted Mossberg 590A1 shotgun. A gun I purchased from Alan Lever of Lever Arms when I was working in his shop as a teenager. My son was still talking away, seemingly oblivious to what was happening until he stopped and said: “dad, what are you doing?” “I think we have a bear outside,” I explain, and as I say that, I hear some loud popping noises coming from the Honda Pioneer.
“Stay inside the trailer and plug your ears,” I tell my son, “this might be loud.” Seemingly in a state of shock, my son finds cover in an area of the trailer as instructed, and I open the door. It’s dark, really dark. I have a headlamp on and the batteries seem to be dying. Peering out through the door, I can’t even see the Honda side by side but I do see two, enormous glowing eyes peering back at me at height. From the position of the eyes and the proximity to where I remember the side by side being parked, I deduce that the bear is on its hind legs with its front paws on the back of the side by side.
“Get out,” I shout, “git,” the eyes don’t even blink.
I close the trailer door, grab a can of bear spray and give it to my son. “hold the can firmly like this,” I explain. “If you need to use it, pull back on this safety tab and then press down to spray.” “Do not use this unless you need to, and the bear is close,” I tell him. “Do you understand?” my son nods and is visibly concerned. “I don’t want you going outside,” my son pleads. “I will be fine,” I assure him as I open the door. “Please, Dad, please, I don’t want my dad to die,” my son keeps pleading with an ever-increasing sense of urgency. I open the door again, and I can now see the bear’s eyes close to the ground behind the side by side. From the height and how the eyes are moving, I get the sense that it is eating something. But what I wonder? I haven’t left any food out or anything that a bear may find particularly enticing.
I shout again, and again the bear is un-phased by my actions. The bear currently isn’t doing anything aggressive, but it also is not showing any signs of fear of me. With my son continuing to plead with me, I take a moment to assess how he must be feeling. Crouching inside the trailer and peering out the propped open door with a shotgun in hand, I call my son over to put my arm around him and slowly walk him through what is happening.
“See the reflection from its eyes there?” I ask. “I am going to try and scare it away,” I explain, “but if it doesn’t leave, or if it acts aggressively, I may be forced to shoot it.” “The bear has already attempted to get into an occupied trailer, and that is a sign the bear may be habituated,” I tell my son. “If that’s the case, we may have more problems throughout the night.” My son gives an understanding nod. “Now show me again how the bear spray works,” my son repeats exactly what I showed him. “Good, now go over there and stay away from the door,” I tell him.
I start to step out and can now make out the bear’s shape. It’s not a grizzly, but rather it’s a very large black bear with broad shoulders and a thick face. “Last chance bear,” I think to myself as I muster the loudest shout I could, bringing back distinct memories of calling drill on the parade square.
Perhaps it was the fact that I was approaching combined with the loud shout, but the bear decided it was time to leave. Not quickly mind you, but rather a slow turn and saunter away. Not seeing any need to continue standing in the dark with a failing headlamp, I got back in the trailer and finished making dinner. My son and I slept well throughout the night with nary a sound from outside.
To my knowledge, the bear did not return, and in the morning light, we witnessed the aftermath. On examining the paw prints, we could see that the bear was exploring all around the periphery of our truck and trailer before getting up on its hind legs to try and gain access through the door.
Researchers talk about tachypsychia, where the perception of time is distorted through a stress- induced neurological response, which often makes the recollection of time suspect at best. Despite that, I will still endeavour to say that the total length of time passed from the bear’s claws clicking on the window the bear leaving was around 1 minute or less. That was enough time for the bear to go to town on the side by side, breaking open the glove compartment, tearing apart the front seats and rummaging through the box of straps in the back.
On investigation further, I found that the game pole that we parked beside had two fresh territorial claw marks on either side which weren’t there when we first set up the night before. The bear’s behaviour was sending a clear message that this was it’s territory. A moose hide as well as gut pile close to the game pole, provided a likely indicator as to why the bear was lurking around. This is typical behaviour of black and grizzly bears when they are defending a carcass.
I asked my son to keep watch as I cleaned up the debris from the Honda’s seats and we packed up and moved to a new location. We met up with the rest of our hunting group later in the day and told them about our recent bear encounter. I turn to Rob, who works for BC Parks, and comment, “I’m sure you have seen this happen once or twice at work, haven’t you?” “Nope,” Rob replies, “not like this, you’re special.” Rob explains that this behaviour is not a common site for what he and his co-workers typically see and that the bear’s behaviour was indicative of what they would call a “problem bear.”
The following night I set up a game camera on our trailer in case we should have another visit from the bear. That night we did have another visitor, but all the game camera picked up was me in my underwear, headlamp and shotgun doing a perimeter sweep.
Later, while recounting the story, I would hear from other hunters how they would have shot the bear as soon as they saw the glowing eyes. While this is all well and good in theory, there were several mitigating factors that night.
When taking the life of any animal, you are required to ensure you are justified. A bear simply being in your area while you are relatively safe inside a trailer (keep in mind the damage to the side by side was not determined until the morning) is not, in and of itself, a justifiable reason to kill. Secondly, while I have a deep respect for bears and other wildlife, I am not overly fearful of them to the point that I feel I would need to shoot one simply because it was in my space.
Should I have felt I was justified in shooting the bear, I would need to identify and isolate the target. Again, in the dark, firing rounds towards glowing eyes is not advised unless you can be sure of your target and backstop. To shot at and wound the bear is not ideal, nor is using your side by side as a backstop. Despite having a bear tag, it was over an hour past sunset, and it would have not been a legal harvest, and the authorities would need to be made aware of the kill.
Some important afterthoughts. Ensuring that the headlamp had adequate batteries before leaving would have significantly assisted in target identification. Even better, a dedicated light mounted to the shotgun so that the target is illuminated without getting glare back from the front sight would have been helpful. I had previously removed a Surefire forend from that shotgun, as I did not like the bulky ergonomics. A good friend has an Inforce WML attached to an ATI heat shield with picatinny rail that I had the opportunity to try, and I quite liked the ergonomics.
One other effective deterrent that has proven successful in the past, aside from a firearm or bear spray, would be an air horn. My neighbour, a professional photographer and rafting guide, spends a fair bit of time each year running multi-day trips in remote areas of Alaska and Africa. He explained that on a recent trip he did with several Environment Canada scientists, they found the air horn to be such a great success. They were even experimenting with different variations of arial deployable air horns. Stephen Herrero, the well-known author of ‘Bear Attacks, their causes and avoidance,’ also corroborates the point about the effectiveness of using air horns to deter bears before a close encounter can occur.
So whatever bear deterrent method you use when navigating through bear country, remember to keep aware, prepare in advance, and stay safe! Also, if, like me, you find yourself requiring parts and accessories for your ATV or Side by Side, do yourself a favour and chat with the folks at Carter Motorsports in Vancouver. Not only did their team source all the parts I required, at a great price, but they also offered to do a complete inspection as well as install the new ket at no cost. That, in and of itself, deserves a shout out.
For further information about bear safety and awareness, check out the Silvercore website and online Bear & Wildlife Defence course. Silvercore also offers in-person and live-fire bear courses throughout Canada to corporate clients, government agencies and private citizens.