Bears - BWCA

I’ve never canoed the BWCA, but my daughter just led a group of three girls in at Sawbill last Monday. On Wednesday about 3 a.m. a bear came into camp on Beth Lake, tore down their food bag and sat in the camp for the next 4 hours; at first they stayed in the tent, not sure what to do, then got in their boats and waited off shore while the bear ate and he’d come to the water’s edge and stare at them, sniffed the tents, but didn’t touch anything (she keeps a really clean camp-hung bag 12 feet). Finally about 8 a.m. they went back on shore, grabbed tents and gear and paddled out. The rangers they ran into just down didn’t seem too concerned (but the campsite was strewn with garbage from their food bag)and said there hadn’t been any bear reports. But when they got back to the take-out spot, some paddlers said there is always a bear at Beth Lake. Shouldn’t people be warned about that? Maybe hang their food in a different tree (there was a rope there all chewed up when the girls arrived) Is there a way to warn the next camper that a bear was in camp and got food??? He’ll be back…

cross post
Post this info over at Canoe Country BB. They are BWCAW/Q intensified.

BWC A Bears
Yep. There are bears in the wilderness. The area between Polly Lake and Sawbill are notorious for them. A few years ago there was a very agreeive bear in the Kawwishiwi Lake/Polly area. This year one has been working the area closer to Sawbill (and Beth).

Hardly ever is anyone hurt. They are after your food. Actually your daughter did other campers a disservice. You should do everything you can to get them out of camp. Scream. Throw rocks. Bang pots. Try to take your food back. Make it not worth the effort for the bears. Staying in the tent, or paddling away from camp is playing right into their hands (paws). It encourages the bears to do it again. You’re right, this bear will be back. “That was easy. Just walk into camp and everyone leaves.”

As far as signs, you said yourself there was a chewed rope. That’s a pretty good sign. I have known campers to write a note and leave it on the firegrate anchored with a rock.

Personally I don’t hang my food anymore. It’s a hassle and the bears are educated that the food is the bag hanging in the tree. As your daughter now knows, bears have learned how to get that bag out of the tree. Put it someplace else.

Friends have told me they have left their food on the ground but hung a pack with clothes to see what would happen. Guess which pack the bear went for … the one in the tree with no food in it.

Remember that this is where the bears live and that we are visiting their home.

Check- in with outfitters
Must have been a frightening experience. Even though most campers know that black bears “rarely” threaten humans, it is hard to remember those statistics when a 200 pound bear is outside your tent.

I utilize an outfitter for BWCA/Qu trips, even if it is just to pick up my permit and rent an extra paddle. When I pick up my permit I go over my route (as a courtesy I also buy a map) with the outfitter and ask specificaly about bear problem areas. Outfitters are generally the most up to date on bear issues because it is usually their equipment at risk and they talk to all most of their clients after the trips.

From what I learned, and I don’t think it has changed, the previous poster is correct about banging pots and pans and making noise. I still hang food as a precaution, and in 28 years and countless trips I have had only one bear in camp (didn’t get the food), but I fully understand the “no-hang” argument.

I’m glad no noe was hurt. The BWCA video tells about bears. We camped at Beth two years ago and yes, there is a bear working the area. It really worked the portage between Beth and Grace. One daytime it came into our camp when we were there, but with a little shouting it ran off through the woods and swam across the bay. Good swimmer. I’ve had bears investigating things in my camp twice before and had no problems. I run a clean camp. Even had one sniff around my tent when soloing once. I run a clean camp.

As noted above, I do not hang my food preferring to barrel it and hide it off the beaten path. The harder pack keeps the chips and mice out of the food. Bears tend to look in the same areas for food and follow the easy routes (foot trails around camp). Putting your pack where other people do is not wise. Find a different tree off the paths. Hanging packs on commonly used trees are bear pinatas.

Beth Lake
We did the Lady Chain route back a few years ago. We used Sawbill Outfitters for a shuttle and they warned us of the well educated bear/bears along this route. They said that they would get the food packs at the portage trails while the people where double portaging. So we played by the rules and kept a clean camp. We didn’t have any problems until the last night on Beth. Unlike the other nights, this time I forgot to hang the flavored drink bottle with the food barrel. I was awaken by a sound in camp. I unzipped the tent and looked around with a flashlight, the barrel was swinging in the tree, but it wasn’t windy, hmmmmm. When I got up in the morning the drink bottle was full of holes from the bear trying to eat it. He also ruined a platypus that only ever had water in it.

So he’s still there…


One of the standard questions
When you pick up your permit you should always ask what the bear activity is like where you’ll be going. I know the Ranger Station at Tofte (the nearest to Sawbill) used to keep a big map with pins indicating where folks had reported bears. The outfitter at Sawbill also has up to date information. Your daughter either didn’t take the opportunity to ask or didn’t see the warnings on the map. She should also have known what to do when a bear showed up; what she did was exactly the wrong thing as the Forest Service video and handout material would have shown.

I hate to sound callous, but your daughter didn’t do her homework. This is a wilderness and there are bears. I always assume I’m going to have one in camp and prepare accordingly. We hang some food and we leave others in approved bear-proof canisters. Remember that packs have to be hung not only high but a long way away from other trees.

BTW: The only real bear encounters I’ve had in 8 trips was near Sawbill (both in the same trip). One was actually in the outfitter campground itself when a bear broke a pickup window across the road from us and made off with some bread. The other was at the end of the portage from Alton to either Grace or Beth (sorry, I don’t have my maps). The most gorgeous bear I had ever seen (big, silky, and very well fed!) tried to get our stuff as we were snacking. Waving and hollering didn’t do anything, so we started throwing rocks. Hit him hard with a couple of them and he went away. He followed us from shore as we paddled away so we decided a close campsite wasn’t very appropriate! My kids (ages 9, 10, and 15) were thoroughly impressed and still describe that as the neatest BW trip they’ve ever gone on. Of course, we also had great fishing which helped too!


Homework for bears
Hate to sound callous, but advising people to throw rocks and hit Mr. Bruin hard (while three kids are nearby) could result in unexpected consequences for others. Different situations and different bears require different approaches. Who knows, maybe leaving camp was the best tactic? In the dark at 3 am you cannot ascertain whether or not you’re dealing with a surly old and injured emaciated bear with painful rotting teeth just waiting to be set off. Losing you food and possibly your gear to a bear in BWCA is inconvenient but not necessarily life threatening, so the better course may be to give up. No matter how smart and experienced one thinks they are, and how perfect their food hanging technique or how good the barrel, or how clean your camp is, or how long you’ve been camping without incident, there is a bear around that might best you. To presume someone loses their gear or food to inferior technique or inexperience is not always accurate. Lashed barrels can be kicked around and rolled off into the woods or into a river and never be found too, so they’re not necessarily a perfect solution. So maybe let’s all be a little bit humble.

Homework from the US Forest Service
I’m not recommending this based on my own experience, but on the recommendations of the US Forest Service on the BWCA section of their website. For more information please see

Follow the link to “Know Before You Go”, and look at the second page, far right. All BWCA permit holders receive this material with their permit. This is what I meant by homework: ask the experts who manage the resource.


There are small plastic barrels available for food storage. They are sealed so no smell escapes. A bear can roll them around but can’t open them. Wash barrel to remove food smell. No need to hang, can be floated to keep food cool too.

Bear - Beth Lake
Thanks for all the messages. You offered some good ideas for her next trip; my daughter has led Y-camp trips into the BWCA for the past several years; she is extremely aware of bears and happy that they are there and respectful that it is their home, not hers. The girls did try banging and shouting (their pots were in the bear bag and in the bear’s posession!)and he was totally unfazed–he didn’t even look up; she was uncomfortable in throwing rocks at a bear though; I had suggested that to her. I would agree with her…it probably works with most bears, but like humans, every wild animal has its own personality too…and you never know “who” is sitting in your camp eating your week’s supply of food! She is also very aware that what happened makes it dangerous for the next camper; that is why they told the rangers and then told every paddler they ran into.

I think the most helpful thing is to know that a bear had been working that area, checking the maps for bear reports prior to entry, and having seen the chewed rope, moving to another tree farther away to hang, or probably better still to use a bear container like is used in Alaska.

Thank you all for the tips! I think what I’ve gained here is an understanding that I already knew…when dealing with the wilderness there are suggestions but never really one answer is sure fired to work in every situation.

All in all, except for choosing a campsite that had some obvious bear history, I think the girls did the best they could. I know when we do backpacking trips or Voyageurs by kayak, we would not camp at a site that had any bear signs.

Happy Paddling!

Well said rp4u…

– Last Updated: Sep-01-05 4:15 PM EST –

In June 2 experienced wilderness travelers that "DID everything Right" were killed by a grizzly bear in ANWR camping on a river bank, they even had a rifle in the tent with them...The only bear that I had to kill in 25 years in Alaska was a black bear that attacked my partner and I while hiking for no apparent reason..later we found out that bear had kept two bird watchers in their cabin for 2 days...

Hey guys, first off,let me say that I don’t post on this board often.I think this may be only the second time.I live in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mounains(I guess you would say)and often camp in the mountains.Until recently I never worried that much about bears.Actually,I would often wonder what it would be like to encounter one.Here I suppose there would only be black bears.My wife and I just got back from hiking along the Chatooga River in G.A.We base camped in a county camp ground where there had recently been bear activity.We did’nt have any idea that had been going on until we got there.The first night we camped in the camp ground I barely got a wink of sleep.I asked my wife if bears are nocturnal or not.She nor I had an idea.I’m glad I took a glance at this post.Now I know that bears can come out at any time of the day or night.I guess it just depends on wether they are willing to try to get your food or not.We kept our camp as clean as we could and had no problems.If we would have had an encounter I don’t know if I would have thrown rocks at it or not but I guess you gotta do what ya gotta do.


I can tell you that if you are trying

– Last Updated: Sep-06-05 11:35 AM EST –

to fend off a black bear there is not a dam thing wrong with throwing rocks at it or smacking it in the head with a stick..if a black bear ever attacks you.. fight with everything you have to fight with because you are defending your life...a black bear will get discouraged if it thinks its to much effort or risk in fighting for a meal...a person can successfully defend themselves from a attacking black bear..

yes, but…
…what are the odds of kicking a black bear’s butt in fist-to-paw combat? If it gets to this point, you might be better off to take a dive and play dead (saved one of my friend’s lives who wished he had not provoked the attack by yelling).

absolutely dont play dead
with a black bear.

Or you WIll be.

Stand tall, look menacing yell throw anything . Pots and pans work well. If the bear is close and you think you are done for its suggested to try and hit them in the nose.

Keep fighting.

Most all bears will be discouraged by this behavior.

However there are predatory bears (mostly males) and a woman was killed by what seems to be a predatory bear on the Missinaibi recently. Not much you can do for a predatory bear. Surprisingly the same bear approached other campers after the attack and was scared off by pots and pans.

The idea is not to kick his butt
but to discourage him…a black bear will not continue the effort of trying to eat you if he thinks the effort/risk is to much for him…black bears are opportunity eaters and weigh effort when it come to getting food…For far this year there have been about 6 bear attacks here in Alaska…the last one was Tuesday morning at Kenai Princess Lodge…a worker was attacked by a grizzly bear and dragged and she did what I would never do with a grizzly bear and fought back and the bear dropped her and left…there seems to always be that one instance where doing the wrong thing works out for the better…always play dead with a grizzly and always fight back with a blackie…

I suggest you read the book by Herrero
"Bear Attacks" before you consider playing dead. He describes bear attacks when people played dead when attacked by a Brown bears and they didn’t just sniff you and walk away. If you moved while they were mauling you they wouldn’t leave. So, unless you are willing to lay perfectly still while getting mauled it wouldn’t be a first line of defense for me at least. Eventually they did go away so I guess you can say the strategy worked - battered but alive. Anyway, I always carry pepper spray, bells, whistle, an air horn and keep a clean camp. If you want to read an interesting story about a group of yakkers who spent the night keeping a brown bear at bay check out and look in the Yukon discussion forum.

They use portable electric fences out here on the Rogue and they seem to work. The rangers loan them out to floaters because of bear problems. I’m seriously thinking about getting one since they aren’t expensive and easily carried on a canoe or yak.

I have read two books on

– Last Updated: Sep-12-05 12:08 PM EST –

all the recorded bear attacks in Alaska, have lived in Alaska 26 years and keep up on all the latest attacks....have been charged 4 times by grizzlys and once by a balck bear..

?? Why have bears not learned to tear
into food packs while they are unattended during portages? When in Quetico for 12 nights in '73, we repeatedly had to leave food packs unattended while two-carrying portages. I never hear about packs being ravaged except in camp.