A couple of weeks ago I undertook some rather unique training at work. Following last year's tragedy where a young woman was mauled by a black bear, Suncor rolled out some new bear awareness training. The first part was basic background information about bears, how to read their behaviour and how to act (or not act) if you should happen to encounter one. The second part, which I completed a few days later involved how to properly use bear deterrents, namely bear spray.
I've had a couple of black bear encounters in my life, the most recent being about a year and a half ago so while I had a good idea of how to react, I found these courses a welcome refresher. Much like a fire drill, its something you have to be up to speed on and not treat lightly. Afterall, it could very well save your life.
My most recent encounter actually did happen at work but in a different area from where I've spent the past year and a bit. A mother bear and a juvenile had wandered along an adjacent haul road and somehow gotten separated. Mom cut through a corner of the scaffold yard, probably to within about 50 feet of me and another worker. When I lived in Nunavut I got pretty close to polar bears but I was always in a moving vehicle of some sort. It certainly gave me a healthy respect for the power of these animals. I joked for the longest time that I was probably the only southerner up there who had gone the longest without taking at least one polar bear photo. Yes, six years and not a single photo. But I'm okay with that. I'd rather have seen and walked away then have potentially gotten myself into trouble.
It was my most recent encounter that I played through my head as I did my training and that along with the extra training was very helpful. I know I can stay calm and I know how not to push my luck. There was only open ground this time around and covering 50 feet is not a difficult feat for a bear. I was with another worker at the time who had his back to the bear. He actually from Oklahoma so I'm pretty sure he had never dealt with a black bear before. At any rate, I calmly told him to stop, turn around and slowly back up, as I also did, to create as much space as we could. Fortunately for us, the bear kept heading in the same direction, taking it slowly away from us in between some racks of scaffold gear at the rear of the yard. We had to do a wide circle to get to the safety of the lunch trailer as at one point the bear was actually between us and the trailer. Eventually the bear moved off and the all-clear was eventually given.
Now before I freak any relatives out I should say that in the area I work in now the odds of a repeat encounter are very slim. Not impossible, of course, but I'm very near a plant and I'm hemmed in by a river and a coke pit on one side (along with a great deal of heavy equipment) and by aeration ponds on the other. So the odds are small. I DID see the odd fox cut across my path a few times though.
Anyhow, all this to say that I'm glad to have taken this training. Not only did a get a shiny new training card for my collection but the refresher was good and I learned a few new things as well. More importantly, its renewed my respect for these animals and given me more confidence in knowing how to react. Truth be told, I didn't do any hiking last year at all as I was a bit freaked out over the one fatal bear attack.
The second part of my training involved how to properly deploy bear spray if necessary and I will likely pick some up in the coming weeks as I look forward to getting back out some trails again. I miss being out on the trail and now I feel more confident in knowing how to deal with these types of situations should they present themselves.