Coastal Journeys

Brown Bear Encounter on Price Island

It was one of those frightening life changing moments that are set apart from all others and become seared deeply into ones memory.

I had been paddling for 38 days since leaving Bellingham, WA and it would be another 10 days before I reached Prince Rupert, BC. It would still be another 41 days before my trip would end in Skagway, AK after paddling 1,300 miles (2,080km) through the Inside Passage. My route at this point had deviated from the common path taken by most sea kayakers and I was in deep wilderness. I was in a groove, making good time, and everything was going well, maybe too well.

This day had been a particularly good one for spotting wildlife. Besides the Bald Eagles and Steller Sea Lions that had become every day sightings, a pod of Orcas had passed close by and a Humpback Whale had surfaced just 50 feet (15 meters) from my boat.

The day was getting late and it was time to start looking for a place to land. The spot that I chose to camp this evening was at the western end of Higgins Passage on the shoreline of Price Island (Coordinates: 52°28.5N x 128°45.3W). Sea swells rolling in from some distant storm in the Pacific were crashing onto a group of small islets just offshore that created a calm lagoon in front of my campsite. I could not have found a more remote location in all of British Columbia to spend the night. I had not seen another person or even a boat for the last two days. If it were not for the vapor trails of commercial airliners passing silently 30,000 feet (9,144 meters) overhead, I might have thought that I was the last person on earth.

After weeks of paddling and camping I had established a routine for setting up camp, fixing dinner, and doing daily chores. After landing on this day, I unloaded my boat, changed into dry clothes, and set up my tent in the woods. I found a large tree about 30 paces from my campsite and threw a long rope over one of its branches that would be used later to hang my food cache. It was time to start fixing dinner.

I set up my kitchen on a gravel beach that would be underwater at high tide. I tried to do this whenever possible so that any food smells that I might leave behind from cooking would be erased. My alcohol stove was burning silently and a pot of water was heating up for coffee and to re-hydrate my dinner. While I waited for the water to boil, I sat quietly on the beach filling in my journal with the events of the day. After mentioning the Humpback Whales and pod of Orcas the last words that I wrote were, “This looks like bear territory”. That was when my quiet evening ended.
I spotted something swimming through the calm water in front of my campsite and heading straight for the spot where I was sitting. The big round ears told me that it was not a sea lion or river otter. Instantly I realized it was a bear - a Brown Bear!

I grabbed my pepper spray and camera and jumped to my feet staying quiet and still for a moment. The bear took a few steps up the beach and shook the water out of its fur like dogs do. It then started walking up the beach toward the woods where I was standing. I started yelling at the bear in a stern voice, “Get out of here bear”, as I took a few steps toward it. The bear apparently had no idea that I was there because I think I scared him, as he immediately took off running toward the tree line. Right before he reached the trees, he stopped for a moment to take a second look at me. That is when I snapped his picture. With the picture taken, I immediately went into “crazy-man mode” and attempted to scare the bear off with continuous volleys of, “Get out of here bear” as I moved slowly in his direction.

(Note: If this would have been a Brown Bear mother with cubs, I would not have acted aggressively like this, opting instead to remain calm, quiet, and non-threatening.)

I tried to put on a brave face but my heart was beating so rapidly that it felt like I had just run a marathon. My blood was pumping so hard that I swear I could hear it being forced through the veins in my ears. I amazed myself though, and stayed calm and in control of my emotions the whole time.

After the bear disappeared into the woods, I went on high alert looking to see if he was still around while listening for rustling sounds in the bushes. That’s when I spotted him standing on his hind legs looking down at me from a small hill up in the forest. I again started walking toward him yelling and waving my arms the whole time. My idea was to make him think that I was not scared of him and that hopefully he would leave me alone. He dropped down onto all fours and quickly ran off into the thick woods. My amateur animal psychology must have worked because I did not see him again. I did not know at the time that this would be the last that I would see of this bear and so I went into full bear avoidance mode for the rest of the evening.

Sleeping up in the trees where I had set up my tent earlier was now out of the question. I took down my tent and retrieved the rope that I had set up to hang my food cache. I chose instead the base of a small cliff at the top of the beach where I could camp for the night and be protected on at least one side from a bear approaching in the dark. I did not set up my tent opting instead for just a tarp in case it started to rain. To keep from being too vulnerable to a nighttime visit from the bear, I stayed completely dressed and just wrapped my sleeping bag loosely around me. I spent the night like this only half asleep and with my bear spray close at hand. Thankfully the bear did not return.

The rest of my trip went smoothly with no more bear encounters but with a greater appreciation for how quickly an evening on shore can change from routine to terrifying in seconds.

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