BLANE KLEMEK COLUMN: BWCA trip brings close encounters with bears
Three of us were just in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, June 3–8. We began our paddle from Entry Point 14 off the Echo Trail northwest of Ely, where we canoed the Little Indian Sioux River and camped and fished on Upper Pauness Lake, Shell Lake and Little Shell Lake.
My brother-in-law Mike and I guided our 13-year-old nephew Eric on his first-ever Boundary Waters paddle. The weather was fabulous with only a little rain on the first day. Fishing was good, insects weren’t bad and wildlife was aplenty. Birds and frogs of all kinds were vocal and flowers were blooming everywhere.
The highlight of the trip turned out to be something much different than the norm. Indeed, we had an interesting bear pay us a visit not just once, but twice on the same day. The animal looked like a 2- or 3-year-old, possibly older, and probably a male. But the animal was exceptionally bold at each of its two visits.
The first time it visited our mainland camp on Shell Lake was in the early afternoon on June 7. Mike was alone in camp just relaxing and reading. My nephew and I were fishing on Little Shell Lake, which is a 15 rod portage from the north side of Shell Lake.
The animal surprised Mike. No amount of shouting and banging and throwing objects phased the bear. Mike was as close as 10 feet from the bear at times. The bear took the bag of garbage that we had hanging on a tree and made off with it. A short time later it came back and knocked over the bear proof food barrel, but Mike didn’t have the lid secured during the daytime as he was in camp and needed to access it.
The bear stuck its head into the barrel and made off with one of the food sacks and ate the contents a short distance from camp. Mike could hear the bear eating trail mix, crushing the two small bottles of vegetable oil, and rummaging through other odds and ends. Upon finishing eating, the bear walked to the edge of camp next to Mike’s canoe to drink from the lake.
And then the bear came back to camp; grabbing backpacks, sniffing around our two tents, walking by the fire grate and smelling our other packs. Mike said the bear remained in camp for about an hour while he kept an eye on the animal, continued shouting, throwing objects and banging canoe paddles together. After the bear finally left camp, Mike took a canoe ride to get away for awhile. When he returned, the bear was gone for good and it appeared that it hadn’t returned.
Eric and I returned to camp from our day of fishing about 5 p.m. After we listened to Mike’s story, we decided to move to a new campsite, and a half-hour later we were on our way. Our new camp was across the lake, still on the mainland, but about a mile of shoreline separated us from the old campsite.
Close to sunset while my nephew and I were fishing on the shore near our new camp, the bear (or a new bear) suddenly showed up just 20 yards from us. The bear clearly saw my nephew and me as we backed our way to camp while we shouted at the bear and warned Mike a bear was in camp. Despite our presence and our voices, the bear kept walking directly toward us.
We can’t be sure it was the same bear, but Mike said it looked and acted like Bear No. 1. I'm almost positive that the second bear was indeed the first bear.
All three of us were actively trying to get the bear to leave camp, to no avail. The animal clearly saw and heard us -- even feeling some of the objects that we threw at it -- yet it always ignored us, kept walking around and toward us, grabbed our nephew's backpack again, walked to within a few steps of us, and lingered in and around camp for 10 or more minutes.
We shouted and threw rocks and firewood at it and at last we got the bear moving in the opposite direction of camp. Even so, and while I was behind it trying to keep the animal going, twice the bear turned around, looked at me and/or at the three of us, and then came right back to camp.
Much to our relief, the bear did eventually leave, but it never ran; it just lumbered slowly away and occasionally walked along the shoreline as it went along. I boarded a canoe and paddled down-shore to encourage the bear to continue on.
Less than an hour later the bear was in the next camp down from us. Several people could be heard shouting and banging things. It went on for several minutes before all was quiet again. About an hour after that, the bear was in another camp. More shouting, more banging. The bear never came back to our camp that night and who knows where it ended up.
For such a seemingly young bear the animal seemed to know exactly what it wanted and where and how to get it, as if it had done it before or had watched and helped mother bear do the same thing. Fearless bear? Dumb bear? Potentially dangerous bear? Definitely nuisance-like bear behavior and curious behavior nonetheless.
We talked about the bear while sitting around a warm fire on our last night in the Boundary Waters. We all agreed that we should’ve packed pepper spray for the trip. Having pepper spray would’ve provided us with a great opportunity to give the bear an unpleasant experience at a campsite instead of the rewards of food that this bear seemed accustomed to getting.
Lastly, I thought our young nephew summed it up best by describing what his first experience with a black bear was like for him. He thought for a moment and then --wise beyond his years -- said simply, "Fear...curiosity...awe".
Well said, Eric, well said.
Bears are enigmatic creatures. They fascinate us, they can frighten us, and they can make us laugh. Even so, all of us living and recreating in bear country must know the things we can do to mitigate unwanted encounters should they occur as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
For safety tips on camping in bear country, visit Recreation.gov at https://www.recreation.gov/outdoors/Explore_And_More/exploreArticles/nee...
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.