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Bears and other Critters

Coexisting with wildlife

The animal world is a large part of why we chose to go canoeing. The possibility of seeing a bear or moose, trying to identify a brightly coloured bird, and listening to a cheeky squirrel's chirp all contribute to the connection with nature that a canoe trip develops faster than any other sort of travel. The question, therefore, is how can we coexist with the myriad inhabitants of the boreal forest?


One of the most commonly asked questions by people new to the outdoors is "what about bears". This is a valid concern: bears are big, powerful creatures deserving of respect. Naturally we don't want to get attacked by a bear, but humans are not the only ones in danger. The maxim "a fed bear is a dead bear" is a good one: If a bear wanders into your campsite, attracted by the smell of improperly packaged bacon and open bags of gorp, he may learn to associate humans with easy pickin's in the food department. Once a bear has made this connection it is as good as dead; it is only a matter of time before someone has to go and shoot him to protect human lives and property. This is a preventable tragedy and you can do your part to prevent it from happening!

So how do we bearproof a camp? The basic idea is to minimise all odours and smells as much as possible. Promptly clean up and burn any food spills. If you've been fishing and the lake is deep throw the remains into the water, not along shore. Food fights are a definite no-no. Don't cook right by the tents; try to have the cooking area at least 50 feet away from the sleeping area.

All food supplies should be plastic-wrapped, and these packages in turn should be in a food barrel or large, thick, plastic bag. Double packaging will not only keep the bears away but will also waterproof your food in the event of an upset. The clear bags used to package sand at some building supply stores are perfect. Pots and pans, with their residual food odours, should also be stored in a smellproof bag or barrel at night and when not in use. NEVER take ANY food into your tent. This rule needs to be emphasised when travelling with kids who generally like the idea of eating chips while sequestered in their sleeping bags. At night it is a good idea to divide your food into two groups and leave each pile in the forest at least 100 meters from your tents and cooking area. Don't dump the bags right on a game trail, but make sure that you can find them again yourself!

If you do end up face to face with a bear stay upright, talk in a low voice, and slowly back out of there. If there are several of you, stand in a line broadside to the bear so that it can see everyone. Don't hunch down; stay upright to appear as big as possible. Some people suggest dropping a backpack or jacket for the bear to sniff at while you retreat. Get into your canoes and paddle away. If you are really worried about bears carry 5 or 10% capsicum pepper spray. This is truly vicious stuff, not without its own dangers, but generally much safer than a 12 gauge.

Bears should not be the bogey-man of the boreal forest. Robert Perkins, who canoed the remote Back River solo, remarked that maybe people just fear the intangibles of the land; they feel uncomfortable in the unfamiliar surroundings and look for something they can project their fear onto. Often they choose the wolf or the bear as a scapegoat for their worries and apprehension. It is easier to shoot a wolf or bear than it is to deal with the underlying anxieties of wilderness travel. The more comfortable you get in the wilderness, the more coexistence with all the many animals of the northern forest will be possible.


Bugs are the mascot of the muskeg. Mosquitoes, blackflies, and no-see-ums ensure that the flowers get pollinated, the birds have something to eat, and that the North-country is not overrun by people. Bad bug conditions can drive you insane, however, and if you are canoe tripping in June and July you must take certain precautions. Carry either bug dope (Muskol and other DEET-containing mixtures are the best) or bug nets. Prudent people bring both and try to get away with using as little mosquito repellent as possible.

Make sure that you have some long-sleeve, tightly woven shirts: what the bugs can't get at they can't bite. Avoid darker colours, especially blue, which attract biting bugs in plague-like numbers; green is an excellent bug-neutral colour. In really bad conditions you might want to wear gloves as well as headnets, and make sure that your pants are tucked into your socks so that the blackflies won't leave bloody rings on both ankles.

Campsite selection is also important. The bugs will be worse near dense vegetation (grass, willows, etc.) and wet ground (swamps and puddles). An exposed site will be windier with less bugs. Usually the mosquitoes get worse after sundown, so a tripping schedule in mid-June might be early-to-bed and early-to-rise. Ensure that the netting on your tent's doors and windows is in good repair, and that all the zippers close fully. If your tent can keep the bugs out, a quick dive in through the door and a 5 minute mosquito hunt by flashlight will usually ensure a good night's sleep.

Environmental ethics | Trip planning and preparation | Basic Wilderness First Aid
What to do when it rains and rains and rains. . . | Bears and other critters | Resources
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Modified on 06 Feb 2007