Bears in the Boundary Waters

Recreation By Alex Messenger

Keep yourself, and the bears, safe when traveling in canoe country

It’s day three on your Boundary Waters canoe trip, and you feel like you’re getting the hang of it – the group is gelling well, the food is oh-so-good (who knew you could eat so well on trail?), and your shoulders ache with a cathartic soreness born of paddle and portage.

You’ve turned in for the night and lay in your tent, happy for the rest. Twilight dips to night as trees sway in the wind, frogs peep in the distance, and crickets chirp in the hills behind your site.

That’s when you hear a heavy breaking of branches.

Image of a bear in the Boundary Waters

How many of us have been there? Lulled to comfort, and yet so wired taut about any errant noise. Is it a moose? A pine marten? A bear? There is so much to activate the senses in the Boundary Waters, and so many things to think about, and while bear encounters aren’t particularly common in the Boundary Waters, they’re a presence you always have to be aware of, to protect both yourselves, and the bears.

I’ve been going to the Boundary Waters since I was a little boy, and I’d always had the bruins on my mind. It wasn’t until 2005 however that I took a real interest in them.

That’s when, 29 days into a subarctic river canoe trip in Nunavut, Canada, I walked up one side of a ridge and came face to face with a grizzly bear.

I’ve chronicled that experience — and the survival story that followed — in my memoir, The Twenty-Ninth Day, but suffice it to say, the episode inspired me to take as much ownership of my own safety in the future, and to work to understand these powerful animals so that I’d never be in a similar situation again.

Read on for advice on staying bear aware, and bear safe in the Boundary Waters.

Assume a Bear is Nearby

Bear awareness and safety shouldn’t make you ‘bear-anoid’ but their presence in the wilderness should be on your mind in the backcountry.

Folks like to think that there are places bears do and don’t frequent, but the truth is that they’re likely to be anywhere in the wild. So, your best bet is to just assume they could pop up anywhere.

The one I’ve heard more than any other is, “Well, we were on an island, so I didn’t think there’d be any bears.” This is just not the case. Bears are strong swimmers, and they can swim where they want to. More to the point, when I was attacked, I was on an island, in a 25-mile-wide lake, with miles between the island and shore on every side.

And that’s where the bear was.

If humans can get there under their own power, it’s a safe assumption that so can a bear. So, conduct yourself in a safe manner wherever you go.

3 Ways to be Prepared

I like to categorize bear preparedness into three categories:

  • Avoid
  • Defuse
  • Defend

These are what I keep in mind when I’m in bear country and working to avoid a repeat attack: Avoid bear encounters, work to defuse an encounter if you have one, and defend yourself if it comes to that.

Avoid – Food and smells

The most important part of bear safety in the Boundary Waters is avoiding attracting a bear with food or other smelly things, and ensuring that if it does make its way to your stuff, it can’t get at the tasty treats. There are a few common practices to follow.

Avoiding a bear encounter involves how you pack your gear, how you prep your camp, and how you conduct yourself in the backcountry to avoid surprising a bear.

Pack your food in odor-proof containers and keep it separated from your sleeping gear and clothes. Keep a clean campsite, protect and properly store your food and scented items, and separate your sleeping space and gear from those scented items and food.

Image of a man in the Boundary Waters hanging a line for his gear.

In camp, cook away from your tents and where you sleep. Don’t bring food, or scented items into your tent – this includes things like lip balm, toothpaste, snacks and deodorant (which you shouldn’t bring anyway!). Per Forest Service and Leave No Trace guidelines, do things like dishwashing and fish cleaning 200 feet from your campsite and away from shore.

Keep a clean camp. At night, or when you’re away from camp, store your food and any cookware securely and properly. For the bears’ sake, make it as hard for them to get your food as possible.

There’s a saying that “a fed bear is a dead bear,” meaning that when bears associate food with humans, it leads to more human-bear encounters in the future. That bear can become a “problem bear” and eventually might be destroyed by authorities or killed in an encounter. No one wants that.

There are differing and strong opinions about the best way to keep your food secure in the backcountry. Talk to your outfitter or rangers before you head out to find out if there are any special regulations in place, or if the area you’re visiting has had recent bear activity. Some areas require that you store food in truly bear-proof containers (bear barrels, or the Ursa Sack paired with odor proof bags, for example).

In most parts of the Boundary Waters, the common practice is to set up a proper bear hang. In general, it needs to be 12 feet off the ground, 6 feet from the tree, and 4 feet from any suspending branches or ropes.

That’s a tall order.

And it’s pretty challenging to hang it just right if you’re in a burn area or a place without large trees with stout branches. If it’s not done right, it’s not a bear hang, it’s a critter pack. A lot of folks like to carry an odor-proof bear barrel, the big blue ones. This, hung in a bear hang, provides a scent-free pack that’s out of reach.

However you secure your food, get good at it, and do the best you can. Being aware, and keeping your food out of reach will protect both you and these amazing creatures.

Diffuse

If you do run into a bear, I hope it’s a positive encounter, one where both you and the bear are safe and where you’re able to appreciate the animal. If you end up too close for comfort, though, there are some steps you can take to help direct which way the situation goes.

With any bear encounter, don’t run away from the bear, as this can initiate the bear’s predatory instinct and cause it to chase after you, even if it had been considering disengaging.

Image of friends exploring the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
Alex (far left) and his crew in Nunavut, before the bear attack

When traveling in areas with grizzlies or polar bears, you have to be religious with your bear precautions and need to carry a deterrent, like bear spray. Some folks choose to carry a firearm for protection against bears. Firearms can be effective, but it has to be right kind, and they require a lot of practice in order to be deployed effectively—and they have an unfortunate outcome for the bear if it’s a situation where bear spray would have been effective. For the Boundary Waters, firearms tend to be a bit of overkill.

The Boundary Waters is only inhabited by black bears, which are typically less aggressive than grizzlies or polar bears, are less prone to attack a human and more likely to run away if they stumble into you.

As with all bears, the situation is different if there are cubs around, you surprise it and it’s too close for it to run away, or if the bear is ill, malnourished or sees people as a food source. Give any sow and cubs plenty of space. If you see cubs alone, you should assume that mom is nearby, and give them plenty of space.

A sick or malnourished bear, though, or a bear conditioned to people, can be a bit trickier to diagnose. These animals will act differently than a healthy, or normal bear. They’ll be more likely to hang around you or your camp, to brazenly approach, even if you’re trying to scare it off. A sick bear may look sick, with patchy fur, a thin or bony appearance, or an obvious deformity like a broken leg or jaw.

In some areas of the BWCA, there are bears who have grown accustomed to humans and are habituated to getting food from them. In these areas, additional precautions are recommended. Check with the Forest Service and your outfitter or permit issuing station before you go out to determine if you’ll be in an area with known ‘problem’ bears. As mentioned, you may even be required to use bear-proof containers in these areas. In summer 2020, some of the areas affected included Sea Gull Lake and Alpine Lake.

If a bear does show up in camp, or you find one on a portage, you can work to scare it away by getting your group together, making noise, yelling, singing, swinging your arms, banging pots together and otherwise making a big show of yourselves. You can also throw rocks or logs at the bear. This will often scare them away.

Sometimes, in those situations, if you have a deterrent like bear spray, prepare it. It’s generally best to try to defuse the encounter by giving the animal as much space as you can. As always, don’t run, but it can be a good idea to separate yourself from the animal. Don’t climb a tree to evade a bear, as they’re great climbers they’re not so easily deterred.

Defend

In those situations where they aren’t scared away, if you have a deterrent like bear spray, prepare it. It’s generally best to try to defuse the encounter by giving the animal as much space as you can. When dealing with black bears, it’s important to be confident and in charge. Yell, make lots of noise, make yourself large, and fight back if it attacks. Don’t climb a tree to evade a bear, as they’re great climbers. As always, don’t run, but it can be a good idea to separate yourself from the animal.

More often than not, the bear is going to be more scared of you, than you are of it. And if you’ve taken the steps to avoid attracting the bear in the first place, you’re already taking the steps to have a successful adventure.

There’s a lot to consider whenever you venture into the backcountry. You have to be prepared, self-reliant, and able to adapt to changing situations. The Boundary Waters is certainly no different, and your safety is often largely dependent on your own ownership of your situation. So own it, be prepared, and enjoy this beautiful wilderness.

Alex Messenger
Alex Messenger is a Duluth, Minnesota, author, marketer and photographer who, at seventeen, was mauled by a grizzly bear. His best-selling memoir, The Twenty-Ninth Day: Surviving a Grizzly Attack in the Canadian Tundra, is available wherever books are sold. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Men’s Journal, National Parks magazine, Outside Online, and Backpacker magazine. Find him at www.AlexMessenger.com and @amessengerphoto.

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