Fall is the time when you’re most likely to see a bear in the wild. That’s particularly true this year, when drought has all but eliminated the berry crop.
By this time of year, bears are feeding heavily to put on the weight that will get them through the long winter. They can gain as much as 30 pounds a week, feasting on carbohydrate-rich foods like nuts as well as greens, berries, fruits, roots… just about anything they can get, in fact. In Muskoka in late August, berries are usually an important part of that mix, but this year the blackberry and raspberry canes are all but empty. And while many apple trees seem to have a heavy crop of fruit (perhaps as trees tried to make up for last year, when a late frost killed off a lot of the blossoms), the drought has also kept the fruits on the small side.
Bears aren’t in any danger of starving – they are omnivorous, so they can almost always find something to eat. But the loss of one predictable food source just means that they may have to roam farther in search of something else to eat. That means they’re more likely to show up at back yard vegetable gardens, or sniffing around the garage where the garbage is kept. One of our team has had a composter at the edge of his wooded property for years, and this is the first time he’s ever had a bear visit it.
Bears are marvelous creatures, but they can be a bit frightening. No matter how much we know that they are frightened of us, we still don’t want to get in their way.
The only bears in Muskoka are black bears, which is great news. Black bears are big cowards, and most want nothing more than to be left alone. That’s one of the reasons it’s so unusual to see one at all – they hear or smell us coming long before we know they’re around, and they hightail it out of there.
That’s a behaviour to encourage. When you’re walking in the woods, make a bit of noise. Sing or talk out loud from time to time. Crunch loudly on branches, or bang your water bottle on a tree or rock from time to time to let the bears know that you’re around.
If you do come across a bear unexpectedly, you need to ensure it can escape. Stand up tall, speak to it firmly and calmly, and back away. It’s all about communicating that you’re not a threat, and allowing the situation to deescalate.
To prevent a surprise encounter, this is a good time to check your property for food sources that might attract bears. Ensure your garbage is kept secure (it’s amazing how many people put bags at the end of the driveway when they leave on Sunday night, and are surprised that this free buffet then becomes a bear attractant!). If you have a bird feeder, consider emptying it, or at least empty it when you leave the cottage.
Our team member with the composter made some noise to scare the bear away. Then he put a layer of soil over the compost to mask the smell. He stopped adding fresh material for a week or so, until he was certain the bear wouldn’t be returning.
So far, it’s worked – he’s back to composting, and the bear is presumably happily munching away on acorns and wild apples, and getting ready for a long winter’s sleep.