Bear Attack: Never Let Your Guard Down

During a 30-day canoe expedition in Canada’s central Labrador last summer, a predatory black bear almost ambushed two canoeists.

Covered in bug jackets against the tundra’s clouds of mosquitoes, they were returning to pick up their canoe for the second part of their portage toward the Kogaluk River, one of the peninsula’s challenging whitewater streams. They were laughing and joking around and filming themselves. One of them heard the charging bear at the last second and wheeled around, shouting. The two of them yelled and waved and managed to keep the bear at bay. It was very reluctant to leave. The incident happens shortly after 1:48 on the video below.

They had proper deterrents with them, a shotgun and some bear spray. But as they admitted in the written intro to the YouTube clip, they made the mistake of leaving their firearm at the endpoint of their first carry. And the bear spray was back in the canoe. They had nothing with them at the time of the attack.

Photo: Tristan Glen/Instagram


I’ve traveled Labrador a lot and am familiar with the area where they were. Labrador’s black bears are large and sometimes aggressive, and I’ve had to scare a few away. But my closest calls have been further north, with polar bears. I too carry a shotgun, bear spray in summer only (it doesn’t work well at 40 below), and aerial flares to fire in front of an approaching bear.

Flares have been my most effective deterrent but they would have caused problems here. The white-hot burning magnesium would have set that willow underbrush on fire. It could quickly have burned out of control. You can only use flares in a true arctic environment, where there are no brushy plants, or in winter with polar bears (when other species are hibernating).

It is very easy to let your guard down as they did. They’d been out for at least a couple of weeks. Nothing bad had happened. Likely, they hadn’t even seen traces of a bear. It is easy to become complacent after many uneventful days.

They appear out of nowhere

Yet it is astonishing how quickly a large animal like a bear can appear out of nowhere in that open environment, with its seemingly endless visibility.

Easy to overlook. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko


I’ve had two incidents where polar bears caught me off guard at close quarters. Once, I’d just set up my tent on the sea ice off Ellesmere Island. I went about 15m away from the tent, where the shotgun was, to pick up a heavy chunk of tidal ice to help weigh down the tent.

Suddenly, a polar bear appeared about 10m away from behind some pressed-up ice. We stared at each other for a few moments. The gun felt miles away. Then the bear made a decision to exit the encounter in a dignified way. It began sniffing the ice, like someone whistling past a graveyard, and wandered off. As casually as I could, I went back to the tent to retrieve the shotgun. But the bear had made its decision, and it was soon out of sight.

On another occasion, I was pulling my sled over the sea ice, also off Ellesmere. I was a few hundred metres ahead of my partner and had to go to the bathroom. Because he was following my trail, I unclipped from the sled and moved about 15m to one side, so he would not have to see a turd when he passed by.

My bibs were around my ankles and I was squatting down when a polar bear appeared just a few metres away. Where on earth had it come from? The bear was as surprised as I was but it wasn’t in a predatory mood. It wandered off, while — my ass still hanging out — I waddled back to the sled, where the shotgun sat, in case it changed its mind.

That would have been a very embarrassing demise.

All unharmed

It’s hard to know what I could have done differently in these cases. I do carry protection when I go off some ways for toilet duties around camp, but this was just a short few metres away. Yet in both these cases, I was as naked and unequipped as these guys in Labrador.

The two canoeists seemed to handle the situation well. They shouted, raised their arms above their heads, faced the bear. They looked for rocks or logs to throw, but couldn’t find any right away. Meanwhile, the bear seemed to be just waiting them out, looking for an opportunity to score some food somehow.

It’s likely that on subsequent portages, they kept their shotgun, bear spray, or both with them at all times. In the end, any encounter that leaves both people and bears unharmed is a success.

Portaging near the headwaters of the Kogaluk River, which begins at the bottom of that canyon. Photo: Tristan Glen