A year ago this weekend, I spent a few days paddling in the Experimental Lakes Area with a trio of friends, two of whom were completely new to backcountry camping.
Before we headed out, the newbies asked logical questions about what sort of gear they would need, what kind of food they would eat and how many hours they could expect to spend in their canoes each day.
But their biggest concern came as a surprise: They were extremely worried about black bears.
"Should we take bear spray?" one asked. The other inquired, jokingly, about taking firearms. Although black bear attacks are uncommon, they were spooked by a couple of high-profile, widely reported incidents.
Living in the city, it's easy to fear bears, which are curious, intelligent and physically powerful creatures. But the reality is we need only to maintain a healthy respect for these animals, which tend to be far more afraid of humans than we could ever be of them.
That's been my experience during several decades worth of paddling and hiking. It's also the opinion of every wildlife expert I've ever interviewed or read.
"In most cases, a bear will run away when encountering a person. In most cases, a bear will hear you or see you and then it's gone before you even know it," said Dean Berezanski, a biologist with Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship's wildlife branch.
While experienced campers know this, it's worth repeating this message over and over to prevent less experienced campers from fretting needlessly about bears -- or making unfortunate decisions.
Earlier this week, RCMP attributed the death of a camper at Namay Falls on the Bloodvein River to the discharge of a weapon by another camper who believed a black bear was in the vicinity. This is a tragic incident and no blame can be ascribed to any of the individuals involved, who deserve nothing but compassion and sympathy.
Nonetheless, the first question on the lips of anyone who's ever paddled in Atikaki Provincial Wilderness Park was why a firearm was present in the first place.
In polar-bear country, it's advisable to travel with at least one person who's trained in the use of a shotgun. In some areas where grizzly bears are present, arguments could be made in favour of taking along a firearm.
But the easiest way to prevent black-bear encounters is to keep a clean campsite and avoid travelling in a stealthy manner that could surprise a bear. Travelling in a group usually creates enough noise to allow any black bear in the vicinity to be aware of your presence and bound away.
The only time I've ever had a problem with a black bear was when I camped near a place notorious for use by car campers, who sometimes leave coolers outside their vehicles at night. In that incident, a bear kept circling my camp and would not leave in spite of repeated efforts to ensure it was aware humans were nearby. The situation was resolved by packing up and moving to another campsite.
Eliminating the potential for contact between people and bears is always the best objective. Other forms of bear deterrence can be considered last resorts.
Bear bangers, such as the pen-launched variety manufactured by Truflare, can actually send a bear scurrying into your camp if you set off the charge in the wrong location. Compressed-air noisemakers such as the Screamer "help alert alarm" are easier to use, but I don't know a soul who can vouch for their effectiveness.
Bear spray, meanwhile, is a weapon of absolutely last resort, useful only against a charging bear -- and certainly not guaranteed to work. In high winds, it's relatively easy to incapacitate yourself with pepper spray. All weapons and noisemakers require testing ahead of time.
If you're going to invest any money in bear deterrence, purchase a food container that seals in odours and it isn't easy to carry off. A hard-plastic barrel with a snap lid is a good choice.
Making your food less accessible to bears also means keeping it away from mice, squirrels, raccoons and foxes, all of which are far more likely to pose a genuine threat to your provisions -- and by extension, your well-being.