I love catching a glimpse of wildlife! I really want to keep it that way. In the BWCA, there is lots of wildlife that you might encounter. The rarest of which are moose, wolves, and black bear. Of them, the black bear is the most likely to become what is called a “problem bear.” However, this has more to do with how humans act in the woods than the bears.
- Keep your distance
- Sweat the small stuff
- Proper kitchen cleanup
- Bear bag or alternative
- Proper food disposal
- Police your area
- Be prepared to make a stand
These tips are derived from Leave No Trace practices. Of the 7 principles of Leave no trace, the focus here is on respecting wildlife, disposing of waste properly, and being considerate of other visitors. All tips may not necessarily be spelled out in LNT guidelines, but they are aligned with the objectives. These tips are directed towards dealing with black bears in wilderness canoe country, US-Canada border.
Encountering Bears On the Trail
- Keep your distance if you see a bear, especially if the bear has cubs. If you are a safe distance, get a picture or two. For the love of all that is good, don’t be the idiot trying for the close-up selfie with the bear. It is also best not to spook bears, so do yourself a favor and make some noise.
Preventing Bears In Camp
2. When cooking or eating meals, do your best not to drop food bits on the ground. Small pieces not only contribute to bear interest but also small rodents that seem to plague campsites. Not great to wake up with a mouse in your tent because you dropped a chunk of a granola bar. Its happened.
3. When cleaning pots and pans, strain out all food bits not eaten and pack them out. Once you have what is left of your wash water, walk 200 feet back from the water’s edge, and disperse your water.
4 Bear Bag your food when sleeping or leaving camp. This involves putting all items that may attract a bear’s attention into a bag and selecting a branch that will accommodate your bag to be hoisted 12’ up and at least 5’ below the branch it hangs on and 5’ away from the trunk of the tree. You may find that splitting up food into multiple bear bags may be necessary.
ALT Option #1 If you are leaving camp. Take all your smellables with you.
ALT Option #2 Bear canisters have become more and more common and are generally considered effective.
ALT Option #3 If you have been to the Boundary Waters before, you may be thinking, where the heck did he find this perfect tree to hang his bad? Well, any of my charlie guide friends can describe to you what has been dubbed the “bear canoe,” which essentially involves placing a canoe upside down on top of your food bag or bear barrel and placing rocks or pots and pans on top of the overturned canoe. This acts more like an alarm system. It makes a racket when it is messed with any will hopefully wake you or anyone in your camp up. If you’re the one who wakes up to this, be prepared to be the one to wake the rest of the camp up because now you have to scare it away. This is not the perfect solution, and I would not do it with a kevlar canoe, but sometimes the bear bag option falls short. If you don’t have a metal or plastic canoe, creating a similar alarm system with pots and pans is better than doing nothing.
5. Do not put any food down the latrine ever. I heard a horrible story from a forest service ranger about a wolf pup that fell into a latrine going after food some idiot put down there. The theme here is proper food disposal. If you packed it in then it needs to be packed out.
6. Before leaving your campsite, walk with your group and police the area to pick up any trash or food bits that might have been left behind. The next group to visit the spot will hopefully never know you were there.
Encountering Bears Face to Face
7. After a handful of encounters with black bears I feel more comfortable saying this, scare the bear away. The thing to do is make yourself as big as possible and make as much noise as possible. Pots and pans to make noise, a paddle waving in the air, a whistle, all of these things have worked. In one such instance I put my hands over my head and waved asking it loudly to go away. Backing away quietly is not the thing to do for black bears. Think of them as big raccoons, if you make your spot inconvenient for the bear they will likely pass you up.
Final Thoughts and a Take-A-Way
Sometimes hanging Bear Bags in the BWCA is just a struggle. I’ve hung my head in shame after snapping three branches off a tree trying to hang a bear bag. I’ve seen the rope helplessly wrap around the branch you wanted over and over, securing itself with some magical knot over a small nub on the side. I’ve never had to leave a rope in a tree but have come real close a few times. In any case, it’s good to have some methods in your back pocket to keep your food bear safe. If you have some good tips or see something, I forgot to drop a comment down below.
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