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Don’t die this summer: how to fend off bears and cougars

However it happens, you find yourself in the company of a creature that could inflict some serious damage. What do you do?

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By Katie Stobbart (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: May 21, 2014

“Protect your vital organs.” (Image:  Dr.DeNo/Flickr)

“Protect your vital organs.” (Image: Dr.DeNo/Flickr)

You never think it will happen to you. You’re hiking through a lush West Coast forest, admiring the wide trunk of a Douglas fir or the tiny oval leaves surrounding clusters of red huckleberries. The air is saturated with sunlight and warmth.

Maybe you feel a prickle at the back of your neck, or have the feeling of being watched. A branch snaps, or all the birds take off at once in the canopy. However it happens, you find yourself in the company of a creature that could inflict some serious damage.

What do you do?

First, no matter what kind of animal it is, do not relinquish your control over the situation. Your main advantage over an animal is your brain, not brawn, speed, or agility. Do not run. 

Bears

There are two kinds of bears you may encounter in B.C.: the black bear and the grizzly. Black bears are smaller than their bulkier cousins and tend to stick to the forest, whereas the aptly named grizzly bears can be twice the weight (anywhere from 150 to 450 kg) and prefer more open spaces, though they can be found in the forest as well.

Some say you can outrun a bear if you run downhill. This is false. Bears can also run downhill, and a grizzly can match the average urban driver at about 55 km/h.

Your next thought might be to avoid the bear by climbing a tree. It may seem like a logical course of action, but black bears can climb trees (again, probably faster than you can) and young grizzlies are also capable of scaling the rugged bark of your sanctuary.

B.C. Parks has more comprehensive information on bears and encounters with them, and their advice is to be preventative rather than reactive: do your best to avoid running into a bear in the first place. Hike with friends and make loud noise, store food and garbage properly, and be alert.

In the event you are faced with a bear, always try to stay calm and speak in soothing tones, not aggressively. The goal is to establish you are not a threat — remember it is you intruding on the bear’s territory, not the other way around. Back away slowly.

If a bear does try to attack you, your ability to identify it as a black bear or grizzly will be helpful. 

When fending off a black bear, you’ll want to change your tack entirely. Go from soothing and non-threatening to imposing and powerful — stand up straight, stay on the ground, and always fight back.

B.C. Parks’ pamphlet advises to “protect your vital organs” by assuming the fetal position if a grizzly bear decides to charge. An initial attempt to intimidate a bear that can stand two metres high on its hind legs is not the most effective strategy, but you should do anything you can to fight back if the bear wants you for a snack: a cast-iron pot or other camping supplies could help you in this situation, but rocks, sticks, fists, and adrenaline-fuelled bursts of ingenuity shouldn’t be ruled out — do anything you can to best the bear.

Cougars

Also known as mountain lions. You’re less likely to come across a cougar than a bear. It’s also less likely you will come face-to-face with one, as cougars usually attack from behind.

As with bears, try not to avoid or startle a cougar — common sense rules. Be alert and do your best to avoid coming into contact with one of these large cats, which can be found in a variety of habitats all through southern B.C. Hike as a group, leash pets, and keep children close.

If a cougar does approach or attack, be very aggressive. In this case, you want it to be clear you are a threatening presence: make eye contact, bare your teeth menacingly, and shout. 

When it is necessary to yell at animals, I always find myself cursing. On the last occasion I was shouting profanities at a racoon posing a threat to my poor, docile housecat. I don’t make a habit of swearing on a regular basis, but for me the intensity of the words made the warning more effective. Once or twice I have foregone words entirely and made a series of bizarre screeching sounds to deter intrusive wildlife from the enclosed screen of my tent.

Though I hope the adrenaline rush that accompanies having your life threatened covers this, the moral of the story is to leave any thoughts of foolishness behind. If shouting curse words, screeching, or ululating makes you louder and more intimidating, do what you have to do.

Obviously in this situation you will want to fight off the cougar with anything and everything you have at your disposal: rocks, sticks, equipment, and so on. Go for the face.

Overall, make sure you are informed before going on your hike. Go into the woods prepared no matter what your skill level, even if you’re only going for a short hike in a familiar area, and find someone to go with you. If you do run into an aggressive animal, keep calm and use your head. After the encounter, make sure you report it to a parks official so no one else is taken unaware.

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