Patricia Sommers was having a great race. Until she ran into the bear.
Sommers was running her first 100-miler, in the Haliburton Forest, back in 2000. She was keeping a good pace, the weather was good, and her husband was waiting for her at the 75-mile turnaround.
One mile shy of that aid station, Sommers heard a noise. It was eleven at night, and she could hear a large animal crashing down a hill towards her, on the left hand side of the trail. “I hoped it was a moose, but it wasn’t,” she explained. “It burst onto the path 100 meters ahead of me.”
Sommers shone her headlamp at the animal. It was an adult black bear. It rose up on its hind legs and roared.
I’ve run into a number of bears on the trail. It’s gets your heart pumping, that’s for sure. Given that these animals are large, with claws the size of steak knives, I’ll found myself wondering: am I crazy to be running in a forest?
The answer, according to Bart Hillhorst, is no. Hillhorst is a Forestry Technician with Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources. He deals with a lot of problem bears. “There’s always a danger with animals of this size,” he explains, “but in general, black bears are programmed to be scared of humans. Ninety percent of the black bear’s diet is vegetation – grass, berries, nuts. The other ten percent is meat, but that’s mostly larvae and ants. The reality is, bears don’t like dealing with people. It’s not in their personality.”
Statistics back this up. Since the early 1900’s, fewer than 70 deaths in North America have been attributed to black bears.
“When you see a bear on the trail, your first reaction is to be scared,” Hillhorst says. “That’s perfectly natural, but fear is the wrong thing to show a bear. You want to be calm. You want to look at the bear and figure out her situation. What’s the bear doing? Is it aware you’re there? Is it feeding on something? Are there cubs nearby? Then you can figure out your best response.”
“Once you know what the conditions are, then it’s just a matter of risk tolerance,” explains Dr. Stephen Herrero, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science at the University of Calgary. “There is risk associated with bears, so you have to decide if you’re comfortable with that. I’m a runner myself, and I love running in nature. But there are some places in North America where I wouldn’t dare run right now.”
If you do decide to lace up in bear country, you can take steps to increase your safety.
1) “Run at a more leisurely pace than you otherwise might. Bears hate surprises, that’s a major cause of aggressive behaviour, especially with Grizzlies.
2) Keep an eye out for bear tracks, spoor, fresh diggings, torn up logs and scratched trees. If you see any of those, find another place to run.
3) Above all, make lots of noise, particularly when you’re running in dense forest, or rounding blind corners.
Carrying a can of bear repellent doesn’t hurt either. Just be sure you know how to use it.
“When you’re staring at that bear, and your heart is racing, and the wind is blowing, how good do you think your aim is going to be?” Hillhorst says. “Bear spray is good because it gives you confidence, but practice using it a couple of times before you head out.”