May to October, it's an odd day in Whistler that I don't see a black bear. Sometimes I have to go out of my way not to. I've bumped into them taking out the garbage, walking down the street, at Starbucks Creekside, outside Village 8 Cinemas, running on the valley trail, biking everywhere and on skis (in a November snowstorm so fierce that the animal itself was caked in white like a Polar Bear). I like the fact that we live in such proximity to black bears, and I get pissed when people's carelessness in yards, homes or on the road results in their death. I'm neither afraid nor overly trusting-after all, they're black bears. I have healthy respect and treat them like the wild, wary animals they should remain.
On a canoe trip with my daughter last summer in Ontario's Algonquin Park, we saw neither hide nor hair of black bears during our two-week trip, though I'd never failed to see one in past visits. Filling in the gaps for her around that expectation forced me to revisit those somewhat head-shaking experiences.
I always figured black bears for comical cartoon-like characters. Growing up in the '60s and '70s, what else could you do? Yogi and Boo Boo, Baloo, Gentle Ben-all dancing, berry-picking, honey-grubbing, picnic-basket-swiping clowns who would always get into trouble and then get out again with a laugh.
My first encounter with a real bruin did little to dispel this cavalier attitude. As a teen, I was on a month-long canoe trip through Algonquin with some schoolmates, and we'd camped on a large, airy island in Burnt Island Lake. There'd been warnings of black bears, but we figured our food was secure in the locked wooden boxes carried in each canoe. That night, however, we awoke to a yearling black bear engaged in some creative carpentry. It had busted open a box and was gorging itself on tinned goods punctured at will with its teeth. Yelling left it unperturbed. Only a well-placed kick to the butt persuaded the black bear to leave.
A year later, our group returned to the same campsite. Expecting trouble, we floated our food in an aluminum canoe and anchored it a dozen metres off shore. Sure enough, we were awakened by splashing and banging. A larger black bear had swum out and overturned the canoe, and was nosing the food pack around. It only moved along after someone hurled a burning log in its direction. We had to laugh at its persistence.
The following summer, I took a girlfriend on her first-ever canoe trip, and we camped at the same spot. (It was too romantic to pass up --black bears or not.) This time, I suspended the food so high and so far out on a branch that nothing but blackflies could hope to reach it.
And then the inevitable midnight ruckus summoned us from our tent. A black bear had climbed the tree, shimmied out on the limb and somehow rappelled down the rope. It was now swinging like a ravenous piñata, head buried inside the pack. Again, yelling seemed only to encourage the beast's resolve. Lacking an alternative, I took careful aim and swatted it across the haunches with the flat of an axe blade. He promptly dropped to the ground with a bag covering his head, Winnie-the-Pooh style. As he thrashed it off, I gave him another swat. He bolted into the woods, but the axe skipped off his back and nicked my leg. The wound needed stitches, so my girlfriend and I had to paddle out the next day. Taped to my leg was the only thing we had to staunch the bleeding - a tampon. The black bear, I imagined, had the last laugh.
Though I'd been bested, my cartoon image of Ursus americanus remained intact. For years, I chuckled about my misadventures on Burnt Island - until the day I read that in a few rare instances, healthy young adult male black bears in Algonquin with no known history of camp-robbing had attacked humans as prey. In 1978 three teenagers on a fishing trip at Radiant Lake were killed by a black bear, the first fatality since 1893. Then in 1991 a rogue black bear broke the necks of a man and woman on Bates Island in Opeongo Lake, a heavily travelled area within sight of the main dock; the black bear dragged the bodies into the woods and consumed the remains. A park naturalist called it "right off the scale" of normal black bear behavior. And it was. Completely inexplicable, as black bears sometimes are. But I'm no alarmist: despite these isolated incidents, when you look at visitor numbers (in the millions) the chance of being attacked by a black bear while camping in Algonquin or anywhere else in Ontario remains virtually nonexistent.
Nevertheless, I've taken black bears seriously ever since.