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Bear Encounters Are Always Exciting - Especially in a Kayak from 30 Feet Away

"I've seen a fair amount of bears in the Hayward, Wisconsin area, but it took a close encounter on the Chippewa River to really get my adrenaline going."

Black bear mom and cubs
photo courtesy of NPS.gov

by Roe Pressley

It was Independence Day weekend, a three-day stretch that always guarantees lots of laughs, libations and lounging around. My family and I spent the weekend up north at the Chippewa River Lodge Resort, our vacation home/rental lodge in the Hayward, Wisconsin area, a 7-bedroom lodge right on the Chippewa River, one of the state's most scenic and historic waterways.

We always keep ourselves busy when we go up for the weekend. Between the river, lakes, and attractions around the region, there is hardly a dull moment in which to relax unless you create one. That's usually where the canoe and kayaks come in. Nothing can slow your pulse and ease your blood pressure quite like drifting aimlessly down the Chippewa River beneath the rolling clouds and blue skies of Sawyer County, Wisconsin.

That is, until you have a surprise run-in with one of the area's larger mammals, the Great American Black Bear.

I'd seen a fair amount of bears in the Hayward area since we bought the place in 2005. But in most cases, it had been from the comfort and security of a motor vehicle. On one occasion, I watched from the deck outside the house as a rather large black bear hobbled out of the trees and ran along the shoreline before disappearing into the foliage on the other side of the yard. But even then, I still had a good 100 yards between me and the animal, and just a short jump through the kitchen window had I needed to make a quick escape.

This time was a little different.

I'd been kayaking with my mother downstream from the Wannigan, a bar up the road where we often set in. When we reached the lodge she went inside to start dinner, and I, having remembered that I had left a fishing pole at the edge of the water, paddled around in front of the lodge. I was casting and reeling, reeling and paddling, paddling and casting, hoping to pull in a fish to augment our dinner of grilled chicken and corn on the cob.

There are three piles of rocks in the water beside our yard which used to serve as supports for a walking bridge, which has long since been torn down. Shortly after casting out toward the first mound of rocks, I heard a scuffle in the weeds near where the lure had plopped into the water.

Assuming I'd stirred up a beaver or some other small aquatic mammal, I began reeling in as normal. Suddenly, a big black ball of fur poked up from behind the rock mound and began lunging away from its hiding place.

Without a moment's hesitation, I dropped the fishing rod and picked up my paddle.

"BEAR!" I hollered toward the lodge as I smacked my paddle against the hull of the kayak. "BEAR!!"

The bear I saw looked relatively small (less than full-grown, but large enough to where it was probably separate from its mother) but it's hard to be sure of the details when there's a potentially man-eating predator in your midst.

Though it must have happened quickly (the whole incident couldn't have lasted more than five or ten seconds), my survival instinct had already kicked in and told me what to do should this bear, or a larger one lurking in the trees on shore, come charging at me: I would flip the boat over and scramble inside, creating a sort of body-sized plastic armor to protect me from the teeth and claws of what I feared would be a very distraught mama bear. My only hope from there would be that the bear would lose interest before it figured out how to flip the kayak over to access the juicy meat within, or before I ran out of air.

Luckily I did not have to resort to this extreme measure. By the time I'd yelled "bear" the third or fourth time and banged on the kayak like a war drum, the creature was gone, leaving only the wind and the babbling current of the Chippewa River in its wake.


Bear country safety tips:

Encountering a bear on foot or by river is a rare occurrence, as these elusive creatures generally do their best to not be seen. The best defense is to avoid the encounter in the first place. There are several ways to help with this:

1)      Make noise. Talking at regular outdoor volume, clapping and singing can all be good deterrents and help ensure that a bear which hears you coming has plenty of time to leave the area before it sees you. Having a boombox or mobile music device is always nice on a kayaking trip anyway.

2)      Travel in a group. This will naturally help increase your noise level and also increases the chance a bear will smell you coming.

Black bear mom and cubs
Graphic courtesy of http://wi.dnr.gov

3)      Properly dispose of garbage. Bears which become accustomed to human food and garbage will inevitably hang out in human-populated areas more often. If camping, properly store your food and garbage in a bear-safe bag, suspended from a tree branch, far from your tent.


If you encounter a bear:

1)      Do not panic. If the bear has not noticed you or has noticed you but not charged, walk slowly away, keeping your eyes on the bear. Raise your arms so that it may properly identify you as a human. Do not shout or run. You cannot outrun it.

2)      If the bear charges you, stand your ground. Easier said than done, but again, you cannot outrun a bear, and often a bear will charge you as a bluff. If it attacks, curl up into a ball or lay flat on your stomach to play dead.

3)      Many companies produce bear-strength mace or pepper spray. Having a can is never a bad idea, particular if you'll be hiking or kayaking in remote areas. Keep it somewhere easily accessible, like a keychain on your belt loop.

4)      Bears are excellent climbers. Do not attempt to climb a tree to escape unless it's your only option and you're sure you can get at least 25-30 feet off the ground.

5)      If you encounter cubs, resist the urge to approach them. Mama bear is never far away!


For more info on staying safe in bear country, click here: http://www.mountainnature.com/Wildlife/Bears/BearEncounters.htm