Knowledge Feature: Staying Bear Aware in the Field

Pic: I was kneeling down in my unit examining this clump of clam shells 1.2 m deep, when we started to hear the branches break on the path into site

Being an archaeologist generally carries its fair share of regionally unique safety hazards.  Safety hazards that you don’t learn about in a classroom.  These are hazards you can only learn about through experience in the field, either through your own encounters or through stories and safety training from others.

In the case of British Columbia, one such hazard is that of bears.  Where I work it’s mostly black bears (Ursus americanus Pallas), though there are areas where you have to worry about mainland grizzlies (or brown bears, Ursus arctos horribilis Ord).  Bears are super adorable.  They have these fluffy round bums, kinda fat bellies, and cute little ears.  But they also have sharp claws, big teeth, and super strong muscles.  Did you know that bears aren’t only fast runners, but can keep their speed the same on both uphill and downhill slopes?  Bears don’t want to cause harm, but they have the capability of causing great harm.  Which is important to recognize and respect if you’re going to be spending any sort of time outside.  Like during fieldwork.  Safety meetings are a crucial part of fieldwork, not only for giving instructions on how to keep safe but also on how to properly react in unsafe situations.  At the start of my current field season in Sechelt, BC, we went through a 2-hour safety meeting which included bear safety.  I’ve learned about bear-safety since I was little and started camping, but this was a great refresher. And boy was I glad we went over it because one week later my colleague and I had to put our safety skills to the test.

It was a Monday.  Most of my colleagues were working in the local museum helping start the prep for an exhibit opening.  I was in the field with one of my colleagues (one of our volunteer students on the crew this year).  Normally we cross a beach to get to our field site, but that morning the water was too high and we ended up having to take the forest route.  Along the way we happened to notice a lot of bear poop and bear tracks in the mud, which we made a mental (and spoken) note of.  As a result we decided to have some music playing while we worked to increase the sound around us.

Bear Poop
Bear poop

Bear Safety Tip #1: Always make note of tracks you see close to where you’re working.

Bear Safety Tip #2: If you find bear poop, try to determine how fresh (warm) it is.  If it’s too fresh, move away from the area immediately by back-tracking your route.

Bear Safety Tip #3: To reduce the chance of bear encounters, make a lot of noise, either through talking or playing loud music.  Bear bells can also be good to use while walking.

We were having a great day.  We had found a couple of artifacts, excavating was going quickly thanks to the loose shell midden in our unit, which by this point was 1.2 metres deep.  I was excavating in the unit while my colleague was on the screen.  It was around 3 pm when we noticed the sound of branches breaking.  My colleague made a comment that it sounded like someone was walking up the path from the beach, which is the route we take into site.  Our other colleagues had mentioned the possibility they would make it to site, so we thought it might be them.  It was also a bit windy so we thought maybe some dead branches had fallen from the trees.  We both stopped working when we agreed that it sounded like whoever was on the path was getting closer.  All of a sudden, beside a large tree that was about 10-ish metres away from us, a black bear popped out of the bush.  She was slowly moving in our general direction, not because of us but because she happened to be walking that way.  I immediately and calmly said a very bad word followed by, “Bear”.  I also immediately, but calmly, climbed out of the unit while my colleague stood up at the same time and dropped the screen.

(This is a picture from last year)  I’m standing at Unit B, where I was working during the bear encounter.  You see that big tree in the middle of this photo (that all the wires are going around)?  There are some bushes to the left and a little behind.  That’s where I first noticed the mother bear.  They walked up to that large tree in the middle and that’s the tree the cub ran up.

Bear Safety Tip #4: No matter what the situation is, ALWAYS KEEP CALM.  Move slowly and calmly.  

As the screen is dropped, it startled the cub we previously had not seen.  Now, a bear is a bit worrisome on its own.  A mother and cub is a whole other level of worry.  Mother bears are known for their ferocity in protecting their cubs and we definitely did not want her to consider us a threat to that cub.  The cub immediately ran up the tree beside them and the mother bear ran into a nearby bush, luckily not one that was in our direction.  Though this all happened in a matter of seconds, my colleague and I both had the sense to remain perfectly still when we saw the cub start to move, as to makes sure we weren’t coming across as threatening.  Once we realized the cub had gone up the tree and the mother had retreated into a bush, we decided the best course of action was to move back and give them extra space.  Our unit is on a bit of a slope leading up to the top of a very small hill (which we think was a defensive look-out point of the village).  She and I decided the best place to go was the top of that hill where we were not only giving the bears extra space, but where we could also keep an eye on the bears.  And if push came to shove it also gave us a bit of an escape route towards the path down to the beach.

Bear Safety Tip #5: If you see a bear, calmly move away from it.  Do not run (unless you are absolutely forced to).

Bear Safety Tip #6: If you see a bear, always keep it in your sight (until it leaves the area).  Never turn your back to it.

By the time we had reached the top of the hill (which was only a few metres away), the cub hadn’t moved from its spot in the tree and the mother bear was still hidden from our view.  Luckily, when I had climbed out of my unit I also had the good sense to grab my cell phone so I could inform my colleagues at the museum what was happening.  Also, in case the situation turned bad, I could call for help.  While I was texting my colleagues at the museum to let them know what was going on, we also decided to loudly and calmly (notice the theme is CALM) start talking to the bears.  We started cracking a bunch of un-‘bear’-ably bad bear jokes.  My colleague even modified a Disney song to be about the bears.  About 5 minutes later the mother bear came back and the cub climbed down the tree.

We moved up to that flat spot you see behind me (where the green bushes are), which put another 3, 4 metres between us and the bears (Photo cred: Anne Marie).

Bear Safety Tip #7: If you have cell service and you encounter a bear, let someone know what is happening and where you are.  This can be either a trusted friend or family member who could help alert authorities if you need help, but also park rangers (if you’re in a National Park).

Bear Safety Tip #8: If you encounter a bear, speak to it in a loud but calm voice.  Yes, speak TO the bear.  Can’t think of what to say?  Introduce yourself and tell it why you’re there.  This may sound silly, but it’s a way to let the bear know you know it’s there.  And by speaking in a calm, smooth voice it reduces your threatening nature and helps the bear stay calm.  

Once the cub’s adorable little butt reached the ground it was a bit of a waiting game to see what the bears would do next.  Bears have fantastic eyesight, hearing, and smell and we didn’t know exactly how curious they would be about us.  Would they want to come closer to us to investigate us more thoroughly?  Or had they already seen, heard, and smelled us enough to be bored of us?  To know we were two cool humans who didn’t want to harm them?  Lucky for us, the bears figured out we were pretty cool (because we totally are) and they slowly walked off into the bushes in the opposite direction of us.  The only unfortunate thing is that they wandered off in the direction closest to the way we needed to exit our site.  I decided that as soon as it was safe for us to leave (i.e. once we had given the bears enough time to move away from the site), we would grab our bags and leave.  I didn’t matter that we had half a screen left to sort through or that our gear was all over the unit.  The best thing for us to do was to leave as quickly as we safely could.

Bear Safety Tip #9: If you do encounter a bear, immediately leave the area once it is safe to do so.  If you’re on site, head out early for the day and grab a cold beer.

About 15 minutes later we felt it was safe to move.  We slowly walked back to our unit, continuing to talk loudly to the bears.  Leaving our work unfinished, we grabbed our backpacks and also picked up a couple of large fallen branches.  Since we had to walk right past the area where the bears had been/were last seen, we felt having some large branches would be a good “just-in-case” bit of protection.  We quickly made our way out of site and back down to the beach.  5 minutes later we were back in the truck and on our way to some cold beers with a new experience to share.

So there you have it.  A story of my recent bear encounter on an archaeological site and some bear safety tips.  My colleague and I did everything right according to the bear safety training we had received.  When we saw the bears and realized it was a mother and cub, we didn’t panic.  We remained completely calm.  We gave the bears some extra space, spoke calmly to them, and remained patient.  We let them work on their own time.  And because we stayed calm, the bears stayed calm and left the area all on their own.  Nobody, including the bears, was hurt, which is exactly the outcome one wants in a situation like this.   And at the end of the day, over a cold beer, my colleague and I had a very special (though slightly nerve-wracking) experience to share and remember for a long time to come.

Bear Safety Tip #10: Always do your research and have a proper bear-aware safety meeting before heading into the field.  Make sure you know what species of bear you are most likely to encounter and learn the appropriate ways to respond to an encounter.  Stay safe.

A black bear like the one we encountered. Protect bears and yourself by being bear-aware and staying safe around them.  Remember, you’re in their territory and it’s important to respect that.

For more information: BC Parks bear safety suggestions

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