Throughout the year the most common question I get about wildlife and safety is what to do if you encounter bears in the BWCA. The concern is funny to us because we live here and know there is nothing to worry about but we’ll go ahead and try our best to set you at ease. First off, it is highly unlikely you will even run into a bear while on foot; most people see them while they are driving, and secondly even if you do encounter a bear in the woods they are going to be just as scared as you and any loud noise or movement will scare them off. We like to tell people that black bears are just like big squirrels, well most of them are. Over the past 13 years of personally camping and hiking in the BWCA and outfitting hundreds of other people who are out there doing the same thing I have dealt with two “problem” bears. When I say problem bear I mean one that is not easily scared away, and even then it is only interested in food from your pack or dumpster.
Real Experiences with Bears in the BWCA
The first experience with problem bears in the BWCA was on a paddling trip from Ely to the Gunflint in August about 10 years ago and we were camped on Ensign Lake which is an easily accessible lake with tons of campsites that are regularly occupied and close to each other. Ensign Lake is a perfect storm of scenarios that consistently lead issues with bears. It was just before sunrise on the morning of our encounter and we heard campers from across the lake yelling and banging pots in an attempt to scare it off. After a bit things quieted down and I fell back asleep only to be woken a half hour later by a bear (I am assuming the same one) up in the tree our food pack was hanging in. We yelled and banged pots and the thing barely even noticed, so we started hurling our firewood at it only to have it shrug and continue ripping into our food pack, finally it came to lighting up our camp stove in such a way that large flames shot out of it and ran towards the bear with it. We packed up and took off early that morning, and I will never camp on that lake again. The second problem bear was one we had on the property a few years back but that one doesn’t have nearly as exciting of a story, it just kept getting into our dumpster is all.
Other Concerns in the BWCA
It seems like a common thought of most people that visit us for the first time that the forest is teeming with ravenous blood thirsty bears, and we are here to say they are not, the forest is one of the safest places you can be. There is one thing up here that is actually dangerous and regularly kills people; the water. It is amazing to me that the level of concern for bears does not match the level of concern people have for being on the water. Especially early and late in the year wearing your personal floatation device shouldn’t even be a second thought. So we started with mitigating your fears of bear attacks and ended with advocating for proper PFD use while on the water.