Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Bells and Whistles

Over the past two weeks several bear stories here in B.C. have made the headlines. The most sobering was the story about the woman killed by a black bear near her home. It is presumed the bear that killed her was the same one that had tried to break into her home previous week. There was also the grizzly who attacked a man picking berries and the black bear who went after a jogger.

The interesting thing about these last two stories is in the first instance dogs caused the problem and in the second dogs saved the day. After doing some research this past week into the effectiveness of bear bells and whistles I realized they are a lot like having dogs as a deterrent. It can go either way.

I went to our big outdoor store on Sunday fully intending to buy some bear bells and a whistle. The bells are meant to let bears know you are in the area. The whistle is for scaring "reluctant to move along" bears away. The woman who helped me discouraged me from buying the bells. She said the tinkling of the bells can actually attract bears. Worse, they can also attract cougars. Gulp. Needless to say my only purchase was a whistle.

It isn't just any old whistle though. Apparently in the world of whistles, a world I didn't know existed until entering the sporting goods store, this is the top of the line. It is a Fox 40 Pealess Safety Whistle. It claims it can be heard over a mile away, and has no moving parts to jam or freeze. Of course, it can't guarantee the person using it doesn't freeze when confronted with an angry bear. And just in case you thought it was only electronics that come with ridiculous warnings - you know, things like "don't use this blow dryer while standing in a tub of water" - here is the warning on the back of the Fox 40 package:

Caution: Do not blow a Fox 40 whistle directly in a person's ear.

While searching Google for an answer to the bell dilemma I came across a book called Don't Get Eaten. Since this was my goal, although in starker terms than I would have chosen, I decided to have a closer look. The author, Dave Smith, had some great advice about cougar encounters. He went in stages, starting out with how to avoid cougars in the first place, then moving on through how to react if you do have an encounter based on the level of aggression the animal is exhibiting. He lost me somewhere around the stage where the cougar "is staring intensely and trying to hide, combined with crouching and/or creeping toward you." I am sure his advice is sound, but I think it would be rather hard to implement after one had fainted.

My recent interest in avoiding bear encounters has been motivated by more than the news stories I mentioned earlier. Last week a friend and I were out on the trail and when we came to a patch of Saskatoon berries I noticed some broken branches on the biggest bush.

We weren't left wondering for long what had done the damage. Rounding the corner on the other side of the bushes we came across this.

Then on Saturday I was out walking with my neighbor. This time it wasn't broken branches or a pile of scat. It was the real thing. Of course, my first reaction was to grab my camera. I managed to catch it just as it ran off into the bush.

For the remainder of the walk I was able to comfort myself with these two thoughts.

1. It was a small bear. (I am operating under the assumption that small bears only take small bites.)
2. It wasn't a cougar.


  1. those are the whistles we used for life-guarding! hope you don't have to use it but it sure seems like there are a lot of bears close by this year

  2. Even though it is scary, you are still more likely to get hurt in a car accident than you are by a bear, even if you see them every day. I have lived in very close quarters with black bears, and an attack, although a possibility, is unlikely. I think of my mum's home in South Africa, where people are faced with green mambas, one of the most poisonous snakes in the world, on an almost daily basis. The gardeners see them all the time. They slither across mini-golf greens (seriously, I saw one).

    I try to keep it in perspective, as I think you do as well. Otherwise you become like so many of the people I know on this island who won't walk in the woods or go camping for fear of the bears, but they'll get in a car anytime of day and drive on our roads. And that to me is a greater shame. Be prepared, be informed, then go out and be in nature.

  3. When we did a guided rafting trip in Alaska several years ago, we saw bears but never encountered a problem. Being from the big city, I was terrified. But there was a phrase the guides used that calmed us down and always made me laugh..... as we'd hike, someone would report: "Bear crap!" Guides' response: "Is it steaming?" I guess they only worry if it is really fresh! Still, I think you are wise to be cautious!

    Barbara M.

  4. Thanks for the poop picture. It was awesome! OK. The bear picture was pretty cool too.

  5. @Jennifer - Yes, it said the whistle was waterproof so I'm not surprised to hear they are used for lifeguarding. Do you have bears in Langley?

    @kate - You are right about cars being way more dangerous. Of course, people tell me that about flying all the time and I am still afraid to fly! And like you I have no intention of staying out of the woods. I just want to be as safe as possible.

    Green mambas? On a daily basis? Aren't mambas the snakes that will go after a person even if not provoked? Give me a bear any day! But, of course, I feel that way about garter snakes too. :-)

    @Tana - I forgot to point out the poop picture and the bear picture are not related. That poop was deposited by a much bigger bear than the one in the picture!

  6. Any thoughts about bear spray? Love the pictures!

  7. @Anonymous - I have considered bear spray, and haven't completely ruled out getting some. There are a few problems with the spray though. The first is you can only use it at very close range. I think a stick whacked on a bear's nose might be a better bet. Plus, if the wind is blowing, like it is most of the time here in Kamloops, there is a very good chance the spray is going to end up coming back in my face instead of getting the bear.

  8. Wow, here's hoping you and your family (and little Jenny) never get close to an angry bear or cougar. That advice about avoiding in the first place sounds like my kind of advice. Don't get eaten...LOL, a great book title.

  9. that looks like a scrawny (and therefore hungry) bear. I'm going to stick to my stationary bike.

  10. @Ric - Wasn't it a great book title? I laughed when I saw it, but the part I read about cougars was actually very good information. And don't worry, Jenny won't be going anywhere near the trail!

    @Maureen - Think of all the adventure you are missing by not going for a walk with me. The most excitement you can have on your stationary bike is is you fall off onto the carpet. :-)

  11. Thankfully no bears in North Wales, although the children were once convinced they'd seen a dragon! Hope you don't have much need of your whistle x

  12. @Annie - I have heard that what you have to watch out for when hiking in Wales is the rain! That is funny that your kids were sure they had seen a dragon. :-)

  13. I think you're right to be cautious, better to be safe than sorry. Yes, thanks for the bear poop photo, I needed that with my morning coffee..!
    I'm in the UK, the biggest beasty we have here is the rain! And even that's not very bad!

  14. @Jaz - Sorry to ruin your morning coffee! I guess I should have put a warning ahead of the picture. At least this way if you visit Canada you will know what to be on the lookout for if you go hiking. And when I go to the UK this fall I will be sure to take an umbrella. :-)

  15. My mum would collect the turds and use them as a dung for her flower garden -_-

    Take care of yourself.