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A rare, unprovoked attack by a black bear that closed part of the Mantario Trail in Whiteshell Provincial Park has a Winnipeg couple and the provincial government urging hikers to be "bear aware."

"They tell you what to do in all these situations, but no one says it's going to sneak up behind you and nip you on the leg," Ryan Potter, 44, said Tuesday, a day after being attacked.

Late Monday morning, Potter and his wife, Allison Potter, started their hike on the scenic backwoods trail that hugs the Manitoba-Ontario boundary. They were heading to Ritchey Lake, where they planned to camp overnight to be there on Tuesday for Allison's birthday, he said.

"We were about an hour into our hike, walking along Big Whiteshell Lake, then back into the bush, when all of a sudden it felt like someone kicked my legs from behind," he said. Allison was ahead of him on the trail. He was carrying a 35-pound backpack and was unable to look over his shoulder to see who or what had hit him.

"I had to turn all the way around and there was a bear (close to a metre) behind me," he recalled Tuesday from the safety of their Winnipeg home.

Ryan and Allison Potter at the beginning of the trail. (Supplied)</p>

Ryan and Allison Potter at the beginning of the trail. (Supplied)

"He literally snuck up behind me and bit me on the leg," said the real estate agent who was wearing a thick neoprene knee brace that the black bear had bit. Potter said the force of the attack made his knees buckle, and he wasn't sure how badly he'd been bitten. He was focused on protecting himself and his wife while trying to scare off the bear.

"I started swinging my hiking stick at him as I'm backing away. I started yelling 'Bear! Bear!'" to alert his wife who was five metres ahead of him. The bear was not afraid and didn't back off.

"My wife's yelling at it, and it keeps coming at us slowly." Allison stayed behind Ryan as the bear began to circle them, he said.

It was just two metres from the couple. They grew increasingly alarmed that the bear, which didn't appear to have cubs to protect, was not responding to their shouts and gestures, which are supposed to ward off a bear attack. Fortunately, the experienced hikers, were prepared for that, too.

"I'm trying to get the bear spray off my belt and I fell back on my butt," said Ryan. "I'm sitting on my butt and I got the bear spray out and was able to spray it on the nose," he said.

"He didn't like the spray. He turned and walked away. We high-tailed it down the trail."

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Ryan and Allison Potter after Ryan was attacked by a black bear hiking on the Mantario Trail yesterday. Tuesday, July 3, 2018.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Ryan and Allison Potter after Ryan was attacked by a black bear hiking on the Mantario Trail yesterday. Tuesday, July 3, 2018.

They headed back toward their car at the start of the trail.

"We walked quickly and kept looking back" to see if the bear was sneaking up from behind. At the same time, they were trying to get a cellphone signal to alert conservation officers about the unprovoked attack and to get the word out to other hikers and campers nearby.

When they felt it was safe to stop, Potter nervously checked his leg where the bear had bit him. "I really thought, when we stopped, it would be mangled." Thanks to the neoprene brace, it wasn't.

"There's one good abrasion from the teeth and bruising all along the right leg," he said.

He was advised to have it checked at the Winnipeg hospital that specializes in administering the rabies vaccine. At the Victoria General, he was told there have been no reports in recent years of black bears having rabies in Manitoba and that he wouldn't need to undergo the painful rabies vaccine regimen. A day later, his leg was still tender but OK.

"As far as bear bites go, it was really mild," Ryan laughed. He's not sure how the bear is doing. As soon as the Potters got back to their car and were able to get a cellphone signal, they called conservation officers.

Ryan and Allison Potter had bear spray on them, which helped scare off the black bear. (Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press)

Ryan and Allison Potter had bear spray on them, which helped scare off the black bear. (Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press)

The province placed "trail closed — dangerous wildlife" signs at the Big Whiteshell staging area, and also marked the trail closed at the south end from Mantario Lake to Big Whiteshell, a government spokesman said.

Being bear smart

The province urges hikers to be "bear smart." There are many helpful tips on the Sustainable Development website.

Here are some tips for handling black bear encounters.

The province urges hikers to be "bear smart." There are many helpful tips on the Sustainable Development website.

Here are some tips for handling black bear encounters:

A black bear will react to humans in two ways:

1. Offensive - the bear either wants the right of way to assert dominance or it may be stalking you as possible prey.

2. Defensive - a bear sees you as a threat to it, its cubs or its food.

What to do:

Give the bear right of way by moving aside and watching the bear.

If it continues to follow you, you may try dropping your pack and food then slowly move away while keeping an eye on the bear.

If the bear ignores your pack or food and continues to follow you stop and stand your ground. If you're with others, stay close together.

Make sure the bear has a clear escape route.

Act aggressively to persuade the bear you are not easy prey.

Stare it in the eye.

Raise your jacket to look bigger.

Shout. Wave your arms. Stomp your feet.

Use your bear spray if within range.

Use your walking stick or grab a rock.

Strike for the nose or eyes.

Kick, yell, be ruthless.

YOU ARE FIGHTING FOR YOUR LIFE.

If the bear attacks, fall to the ground immediately upon contact. Lay on your stomach with your legs spread slightly apart, locking your fingers behind your head. If the bear flips you over, roll back on your stomach to protect your vital organs and face.

Do not struggle or cry out.

When the attack is broken off, do not move or make a sound until you are sure the bear has left. If you do, the bear may resume the attack because it still feels threatened.

Source: Province of Manitoba handout: Black Bear Encounters

"Conservation officers searched the area for the bear but did not locate it although the officers did encounter some hikers, and made sure they were notified of the incident and that the trail was closed," the provincial spokesman said.

"Officers will fly in to Mantario Lake (Tuesday) to post closure signs and will be monitoring the trail for hikers as they fly over. If any hikers are found, they will be notified of the incident and told the trail is closed," he said.

"This is an area where bears can be seen, and it appears the hikers did everything they could to ward off the animal. It is unusual for a bear without cubs to be aggressive without being provoked," the spokesman said.

"There is no timeline for the reopening of the trail, and this is believed to be the first time this trail has been closed due to an aggressive bear," he said.

Ryan Potter said conservation officials appeared to be alarmed by the attack. "They all seemed very surprised it snuck up behind me. It's not normal behaviour for a bear. We never saw any cubs. He wasn't startled by us. He was right behind me. And after that, he wasn't backing down. He was not scared and seemed to want this encounter."

Ryan Potter's leg after being attacked by a black bear while hiking on the Mantario Trail Monday. (Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press)

Ryan Potter's leg after being attacked by a black bear while hiking on the Mantario Trail Monday. (Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press)

Potter said the bear looked fit and in good shape.

"He was a beautiful, healthy black bear," said Potter who estimates the animal weighed 200 pounds. "He looked a lot bigger than I am," said Potter who is 5-9, fairly stocky and was carrying a hefty backpack at the time.

"We hike regularly and we've never met anyone anywhere who's used their bear spray on a bear," said Potter.

His wife Allison said she wanted to get the word out to other hikers in bear country to be prepared. "I really want people to know because bears are usually fine but when you encounter some, you're in their territory and you've got to be smart about it, too," she said.

"We met four groups on the trail that day and none of them had bear spray. We saw a single hiker and someone who slept with food in their tent," Allison said.

"Had we not had the bear spray, I don't know how this situation would have ended," she said.

The frightening encounter won't stop them from hiking in the wild, she said.

"It's our favourite activity — getting fresh air and getting some exercise ... We have a trip planned the first two weeks in August. We're going to the Rockies in the backcountry and camping for a couple of days there."

They will each have a can of bear spray within easy reach, she said.

"We're not overly cautious people, but we don't want to be the people mauled to death by a bear and they find the bear spray in our backpack."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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