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Bear-Deterrent Know-how and Knick Knacks

Kayakers often wind up in many of the same locales bears do. The streams where ocean paddlers refill their water bags often have bears that drink from them too—sometimes with the added enticement of spawning fish. The gently sloping beaches that appeal to kayakers as landing and camping spots appeal to bears as obstacle-free travel routes with the added allure of all-you-can-forage buffets at low tide. On craggy coasts, the beaches and river deltas that offer the only available landing spots also funnel any commuting bear right through camp. And the berries that we pick to add some extra zing to the breakfast pancakes are what bears fatten up on after a winter's fasting. So it is important for kayakers to engage in prevention to avoid going mano-a-bruno in the wilds.

It is possible to choose campsites strategically to avoid bear encounters. Begin by seeking up-to-date local knowledge; park rangers are an excellent source of information about current bear hotspots. Avoid rich foraging areas and anywhere with bear sign—scat, trails, tracks, digs and marked trees. If bears can avoid an encounter with humans, they generally will, so be sure that there are alternative travel routes for bears passing your campsite—flat, open areas are preferable. Bears depend on smell, sight and sound to detect and avoid you, so campsites that are cramped in dense growth with poor visibility or in loud places like spots beside waterfalls increase the chance of a surprise encounter.

Also be sure to minimize food odors. Set up your kitchen away from your sleeping area and never cook or eat in your tent. Regardless of how you store your food overnight, seal it in plastic bags and/or drybags to reduce odours. Kayakers frequently get away with storing drybags of food in airtight bow or stern hatches of their boats; however, all bear experts advise against this. In national parks in Alaska, it is illegal.

"Fiberglass is like peanut brittle," says Tom Smith, bear researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey in Alaska. "They smack it and it breaks." Using an alternate storage method is a relatively easy way to prevent a leaky kayak and a long swim home.

The most widely recommended storage method is to hang food bags from a rope suspended between two trees. This offers security if rigged far enough away from the trees and high enough off the ground, but in some cases, suitable trees are just not available.

Portable bear-resistant food containers (BRFCs) are another option, standard in grizzly country. Many are cylinders of metal or heavy-duty plastic which are shaped to deny a proper purchase to claws or jaws. The downside is that a bear may dribble such a container a long way down the court before he gives up on it, or even slam-dunk it down the beach and into the water. The Ursack bag is a soft BRFC that takes a different approach: it flexes under attack (your food may get a bit ground up) but can be anchored to prevent bears absconding with it.

When camping, pull your kayak right up to your campsite and keep all your equipment together where you can keep an eye on it. The presence of humans is a significant deterrent. Many bear incidents occur simply because people flee and leave their camp unattended. Bears find kayaks and equipment lying around and decide to investigate. Bears are curious, says Smith. "They ask questions with their claws and their teeth."

Even with all the precautions, it is not always possible to avoid run-ins with bears, so you should carry active defensive measures.

"People have to have a deterrent," says Smith. "It is absolutely irresponsible to travel into bear country with no way to turn a curious bear away." Options include firearms, bear bangers or bear spray.

In Arctic regions with polar bears, or in parts of B.C. and Alaska that are known grizzly habitat, some kayakers carry a firearm, typically a shotgun loaded with solid slugs or 00 ("double-ought") buckshot. However, firearms have plenty of practical limitations, not to mention the moral issues: they are banned in many parks and recreation areas; unless made of stainless steel or specially plated for the salt-air environment, they will need to be cleaned and oiled daily on coastal trips; they are heavy and bulky; and they by no means guarantee safety.

Bear bangers—essentially "fireworks" that make a loud, alarming noise— are another option. Signal flares can also be used as a bear deterrent and can be just as effective.

Bear spray—the backcountry version of the personal defence pepper spray used by police—provides a more potent deterrent. With a range of thirty feet or so, bear spray is clearly a close-quarters defense, but that may be a good thing: in a night attack or an accidental encounter in brush the bear may be close by the time you're aware of its presence.

If a bear comes around, it's best to stay near your campsite where you can oversee and control your property. Don't back away, Smith advises, because that's a sign of submission. Group together—bears are very unlikely to attack two or more people standing together. Sit down first, be calm, and watch the bear.

If the bear shows intentions of coming into the camp, stand up to enhance your presence. Next, up the ante and speak out loud, shout and use noisemakers like your bear bangers. If the bear continues coming, then you can use the bear spray.

In most cases, however, the bear will just walk right by. You can be glad that you came prepared with your bear bangers and pepper spray, but if you've taken all the right precautions, you probably won't have to use them.

In many years of muddling around the wilderness, Philip Torrens has only had a bear gnaw on him once, after eating in his tent while camping in the Arctic. Fortunately, a warning shot drove the polar bear away and Philip escaped with minor injuries.

Reprinted with permission from Adventure Kayak Magazine Spring 2004.

Adventure Kayak magazine is based on one very simple concept, accessibility - getting readers onto the water. Editorial from across North America, placing as much value on fresh water lakes and waterways as coastal regions. Columns include: Urban Adventures, Paddling Gourmet, Trip Photography, Guiding Light (humour), Rock the Boat (critical look at issues), Techniques, In the Hatch (gear) and much more. Read full online at www.rapidmagazineinc.com.

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