The combination of heavily-weighted footsteps, breaking branches, and low grunting and snorting made it clear that we were in the company of a grizzly bear. With the light of the full moon shining behind the bruin, we could actually make out its silhouette as it brushed along the wall of our tent.
After quick deliberations, we grabbed the bear spray, peeked out under the fly and let off a few blasts in its direction. Crashing and battering through the woods, the bear took off in a fury. Three times it would return, and each time we would use the spray until we had emptied two cans.
Pitifully armed with a Leatherman and a marine rescue whistle, we spent the night lying in wait, preparing for the worst.
In time, and as the campsite grew quiet, our adrenaline began to subside and we managed to catch an hour or two of sleep. Miraculously – and in opposition to the gory end that we had been preparing for – we awoke in the morning, unscathed and with no bear in sight.
We cautiously crawled out from our tents and immediately saw the one crucial mistake we had made when choosing the campsite.
At least eight fallen trees surrounding the site had been torn to shreds by the grizzly’s powerful claws. The bear had had no interest in us; it was simply there to enjoy the delectable buffet of grubs that those fallen trees had to offer. In the light of a new day, we could see – to our chagrin – that we had basically set up camp in the middle of its kitchen.
As experienced backcountry users, we were shocked at our own blunder in overlooking what was such an obvious sign of possible bear activity. We are lucky enough to laugh about it now, but the outcome could have been drastically different, and not just for us humans.
Regardless of where it is that you are planning to visit in the backcountry, and no matter how experienced you are, you should always be aware that there is a chance you might encounter wildlife. This is, after all, their home.
Local bear experts Kim Titchener, program director of WildSmart, and Sarah Elmeligi, bear biologist and PhD candidate, shine a flashlight on the sometimes hard-to-see signs of animal activity that we should be looking for out there.
“Try to have a heightened sense of awareness when you’re walking through the bush,” Elmeligi cautions. “Pay attention: look, hear, smell.”
The element of surprise is often the leading factor in unwanted human-animal interactions. Be sure that you’re always following the basic rules of backcountry travel, and respect the space of our wild neighbours by keeping an eye out for the following signs:
Some signs of animal behaviour you may know, and some may be less obvious. One of the least obvious signs — that undoubtedly you have walked past without a clue — are rub trees, otherwise known as the Facebook of the forest.
“Black bears and grizzly bears both use rub trees as a communication tool. It’s how bears communicate to each other in the forest. They mark them, they rub up against them, and then other bears walk by and smell them – bears use rub trees as a middle man,” Elmeligi explains.
Beyond being used as a form of basic communication, these trees play a significant role during mating season. From late May to early June, male bears will mark trees to let females know that they are in the area (“the boys are back in town!”), and females will respond in kind.
So what is it that you should be on the look out for? Rub trees can have a variety of markings, but first and foremost, you will see claw marks. Black bears like to climb these trees while grizzlies rake their claws down the bark. Sometimes bears will bite at the tree to leave saliva behind, so you may see teeth marks. Clumps of fur are also a common sign as bears frequently rub up against these trees.
Most importantly, according to Elmeligi, is that, “you’re looking for a tree that has bark that has been freshly disturbed.”
What does this mean, then, for the humans passing by? Trail camera footage shows that often hikers and bikers unknowingly choose to stop and take a break or even picnic in close proximity to these trees.
Titchener emphasizes that if you come across what you suspect to be a rub tree, keep your distance from it and avoid disturbing it in any way.
Some of the more obvious signs of bear activity are footprints. Though easily identifiable, they’re probably one of the least reliable indicators when it comes to quality bear signs.
Elmeligi says that it can be really easy to use tracks for identification in the springtime when the snow is melting and the ground is soft and muddy, but beyond that, it can be very difficult to tell how recently a track has been made.
“How you age tracks is quite dependent on what the weather has been like, and typically, when we look at tracks, my first question is, when did it last rain? Tracks are always younger than the last day it rained.”
Despite tracks being an exciting and interesting sight to behold while out on a hike, Elmeligi says she doesn’t believe that tracks are a reliable way to estimate when a bear was last in the area.
Scat is another key sign to watch for — and not just because you don’t want it on the bottom of your hiking boot! Determining the freshness of a scat will help you to know whether or not you’re increasing your chances of an encounter.
Use a stick, a knife or the toe of your boot to get a feel for how new the poo is. Pro tip: Elmeligi prefers hiking poles and sticks.
“Whenever I see bear scat, my first instinct is to poke it,” she says. “Use a stick, or use your hiking pole to see how soft it is. If it’s encrusted on the outside and still soft and gooey on the inside, it’s maybe a day old, up to a few days old depending on the weather. If it’s really, really soft, it can be within the last day, and that’s probably when you should be more aware.”
Since it is the forest, after all, and we can’t quite hold bears to the same bathroom standards as our beloved indoor pets, Elmeligi says to keep your eye peeled, and take a good look around.
“Look for scat off of the trail as well as on the trail; bears can be crapping anywhere.”
Despite their large carnivore status, Rocky Mountain bears exhibit mainly vegetarian tendencies. Our local bears dig for two main reasons, and the dig sites themselves vary quite a bit in appearance.
Later into the summer season, as the melt progresses, grizzlies return to alpine meadows where they commonly forage for the roots and bulbs of glacier lilies. In these dig sites you will see concentrated signs of purposeful, localized excavation.
The second reason grizzlies dig is to hunt for juicy marmots and those bothersome, feisty little gophers and ground squirrels we’ve all grown to know so well. The pattern of these digs is more erratic and is determined more by the path of the pesky prey than the bear itself. Elmeligi says it’s not uncommon to walk in an alpine meadow and see the entire area ravaged, with boulders turned upside down.
These digs are quite large. Just imagine the size of a grizzly bear and the stroke of its paw; one swipe is about a metre in length.
You can also take a stab at determining the age of a dig site, she says.
“Take a look at the soil on top; is it dry or is it still moist? Sometimes what I’ll do is flip over some of the big chunks that they’ve dug out and see if the vegetation on top is dead or alive; if the vegetation that they’ve overturned is still alive, then the digging is probably less than a few days old.”
I SAW THE SIGN AND IT OPENED UP MY EYES
Regardless of which sign it is that you find yourself staring at, it’s important that you not only recognize it as a sign, but that you can assess it properly, both for your safety and for the safety of the bear.
“People can often misjudge how old signs are,” Elmeligi says. “It’s not only the ability to recognize the sign, but you have to be able to look at it a little bit critically: ask yourself, is it fresh, or is it years old?”
Ultimately, it comes down to being bear aware.
“Be aware that no matter where you go, whatever trail you pick, even if no one has heard of anything happening there, you have the responsibility to be prepared,” Titchener says. “So carry bear spray, make lots of noise, go with a big group and make sure everyone in your group knows how to use bear spray and what to do during a bear encounter.”
Do you own bear spray, but you’re not so sure how to use it? Find out here.