Looking for local black bear knowledge/advice

As I continue my research/prep work for a solo navigation of Lake Superior in 2021 (maybe, hopefully) I am once again turning to the fabulous resource of this board.

While I’m actually more concerned about the humans I might encounter, I’m curious about personal experiences from both sides of the Lake concerning camping with black bears.

I always practice the basics - keeping a clean campsite, 200 foot triangle, no food in the tent, don’t cook in your sleeping clothes, etc. so my interest is more about the local bear population’s behaviors and specific conditions at lake side campsites both developed and not.

Are there spots without trees for bear hangs? (Also important information since I prefer to hammock camp.) If there aren’t trees, can I leave odoriferous items in Opsacks-lined dry bags inside the hatches at night? My 2002 Necky is an old school heavy layup fiberglass with hard cockpit covers. I know that’s no match for a bear but I hear stories about paddlers doing that if there’s no bear sign. I do have an Ursack Major but it’s not going to hold months of food and toiletries.

Do y’all regularly see black bears when camping along the shore? Any encounters with predatory black bears? Any advice on bear deterrents. I’ve heard certain brands of spray are not allowed in Canada.

Let’s hear your stories!

Ms. B Dawson

My info is ‘old’, (I paddled around L Sup 4 times, but the last time was in '92)
At the time, I knew there were bears on the Apostle Islands (a frequent weekend paddling spot), but was only ‘aware’ they were generally around Superior.

Nearing the end of my 3rd trip around, I stopped on a beach in the Porcupine Mountains Park. Apparently a popular tourist spot as the bears were quite aware of people and their food.
I was carrying only dried food (I dehydrated) stored in the rear bulkhead of a Nordkapp (oval hatch).
I woke up early the next morning to discover the rear hatch torn off (2 or 3 very small puncture holes (claws) through the cover).
All dry bags (I think 2 or 3) carrying my dried food (separately bagged inside) were gone.
Bears have an impeccable sense of smell.

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I don’t know your area, but as someone who spent a lifetime working (surveying) in the woods with a large coastal bear population, hunting in their home, hunting them and camping and playing in their back yard I can say that as long as you aren’t stupid with food they leave you alone. I’ve been very close to them on many occasions while working and never had them bat an eye at me. Spring with cubs can cause some protective mothers and if you are in an area where stupid people have made them associate camps with easy meals that is a variable.
I now live in North Idaho with grizzlies around. Not a huge population, but they’re around. I just step up the food handling a bit more and everyone leaves everyone alone.

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Richard P. Smith, the Author and outdoor writer is the best resource you will find on Great Lakes black bears. He’s on the socials, drop him a line.

You are going to run into habituated bears, that understand people and are hard to get rid of.
I paddle with dogs.
Bring bear spray and keep it handy.
Firearms are a choice.
Learn how bears think.

Some good info, thanks!

I live in the wilds of West Virginia and routinely see a black bear on the property. My experience has pretty much been the same as yours @dcowell65. We’ll survey each other and then I’ll say ‘go on now!’ in a firm but calm voice and off she goes. But she did do a number on the chicken coop door one night, looking for yummy chicken scratch.

@tundrawalker - Thanks for the reference, I’ll look up Richard and have a chat! I’ve been reading “Bear Attacks: their causes and avoidance” by behaviorist Stephen Herrero. I’m a biologist myself and was surprised at some of the behavioral traits that Herrero gleaned from reviewing data on documented encounters since the 1800s. Habituated bears, because you know where to expect them, may not be a bigger problem than wild bears, who don’t understand people. The book was last updated in 2018, so a more current perspective from Richard would be most useful.

@raisins - I had little faith that a bear wouldn’t tear up a 'yak despite what some friends have said. Bears peel window off cars to get to food in SP all the time, right? Thank’s for that up close and personal account. Did you patch up your kayak and carry on sans food? Did you find trees for bear hangs all the way around the Lake? Any other great tidbits like camping spots or tricky stretches?

@ppine - somehow I don’t think my Afghan hounds will be useful in this case even if I could get them into the sea kayak. While they are a hunting breed (really, they are), these guys mostly just hunt the couch! Are you partial to any particular brand of bear spray? I am considering taking a side arm with me, as much as that pains me. Just one more thing to worry about during border crossings.

Thanks again, all y’all! Please keep posting! I’m off camping in Tybee next week so I may be a bit slow acknowledging posts.

Depending on your logistics, I’d recommend buying your bear spray in Canada & keeping the sales receipt. I would recommend against a firearm in Canada without proper permits, etc. Not worth the potential problems. Check on what is allowed on bear bangers and use of a flare gun. Again depending on logistics, it may be worth off-loading any questionable items before the border crossings.

I recall being camped at the mouth of the White and seeing a helicopter flying down the coast with a bear cage dangling underneath and then hearing on the VHF that a couple of campsites to the East were closed due to a nuisance bear.

I have carried the spray made in Montana, which is easy to get.
I lived with a guy in forestry camp that had a part Afghan hound. He hunted bears with his dog and was very fond of her. Once she tangled with a porcupine and lost and he carried her out of the woods. I remember that story like it was yesterday, but it was in 1974.

The use of firearms takes some practice. The most important thing in dealing with bears is to learn how they think.

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I was only a couple of days out from finishing up (Bayfield, WI) and had enough to ‘nibble on’ for a while.
The claws pierced the rubber hatches, but they were not ‘open’ holes.

I never hung food, I was sort of careful where I landed (wrong choice in the Porkies).
I think the Apostles have ‘bear boxes’, don’t know about other areas of the lake, I would think campsites in bear country would have them.

There are a few stretches that you’ll want to make sure you have a good day before doing them (eg: 20 mile stretch around ‘Pictured Rocks’, some areas in Canada (for some reason ‘Pt Isacor’ rings a bell).
At the time, I didn’t have too much trouble finding camping spots. That was almost 30 years of development ago. (though, I do recall one day - I was chased to shore from a quickly oncoming storm. I landed on a cobblestone beach (out of site of any houses), however, a couple appeared coming down a trail and told me it was their property and I had to leave. (I was able to find a spot another couple miles on before the storm hit).

You’re going to have a very rewarding trip.

Many highlights, just a few: The Apostles, north shore (MN), Thunder Bay area, Pukaskwa
, Lake Superior Provincial Park, Grand Sable Dunes, Pictured Rocks, Keweenaw Peninsula (I ‘cut through’ each time, though, if you have the time, go around), Porkies, and back to Bayfield
I did it each time in about a month (975 to 1000 miles), last time in 21 days because I wanted to make it to Grand Marais in time for the symposium that year.
I would suggest to take your time, I pushed myself on that 21 day trip.

I like July the best (though watch out for the flies), June can be cold, August is good unless there is an early fall.

I wish the internet (& gps) was around when I was doing this.
Check out: https://www.gpsvisualizer.com/draw/
zoom into Lake Superior, and select the ‘us: Nautical chart’ map (top right)

I paddled Pukaskwa solo in and back from Marathon to Cascade(?) Falls a few years back. The lake and its conditions should be of more concern to you than the bears.

Throughout Pukaskwa I found a good bear hang tree or used one of the provided hangs or boxes. I never support the idea of leaving food in the boat unless you are ready to lose the boat, the food, and the bear.

I did carry bear spray (available for purchase throughout Ontario, sometimes they take some ID at time of sale) but have never since had reason to consider using it. It can be reassuring when you must camp somewhere that a bear has obvious recently occupied though.

Skip any camp where a mess has been left - even if it means a crappy site for the night. Generally bears are still afraid of people in this area. They aren’t interested in eating you while you sleep.

Illegal, unregistered, and restricted firearms in Canada are about the biggest no-no there is. They will land you in way more trouble than a black bear will cause. Even legal long guns aren’t allowed in most national parks I’ve been in. If you don’t have the skills and knowledge to avoid a problem, you shouldn’t be there in the first place.

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@raisins - I could follow along in my mind the points you mentioned! I’ve been pouring over a wall-sized chart of the Lake for about 2 years now trying to narrow down a route. I am taking my time - 3 months of it in fact! Fifteen miles a day is fine with me plus I’m building in lots of time for weather days. This is a conversation between the Lake and me and I want time to savor it. Hoping it happens in 2021 as it’s my 65th birthday adventure. I attended the GLSKS this year and paddled some of Pictured Rocks because I knew there were going to be long days in that area. Beautiful area. And I’ve read that compasses have a fine time in the Sibley Peninsula islands due to the iron ore.

@ppine - One of my Affies got too close to a skunk a few years ago and we both regretted it for days! You’re spot on about the firearms. I’m a passionate archer, not bad with a long gun but just OK with a side arm and I’ve never had to make the shot under duress. Big difference. I figure spray and LNT/food awareness should suffice. Plus as @Sparky961 mentioned, Canada doesn’t appreciate pistol-packing Yanks. Turns out the high potency 2% capsaicin bear spray available in the US isn’t legal in Canada either. I agree that skills and knowledge are necessary but you-know-what happens to the best. I prefer to avoid bad encounters by understanding animals but sometimes it all goes wrong and you need to be prepared for that too. We all practice rescues or study wilderness first aid; same principle. As to Lake conditions - Mark Thornton of LakeErieWeatherWX has some amazing on-line classes for weather forecasting.


I have paddled the north shore of Superior between Thunder Bay and the foot of Lake Superior Provincial Park and also the Apostles.

Pukaskwa has occasional bear problems but they are handled by the Rangers. Prone campsites have steel bear vaults. Don’t rely solely on a hang as some tree species found in the area do not have suitable branches. if you can hang it a bear can climb it.

You can indeed bring bear spray into Canada. It must be bear spray with a picture of a bear and shown to the Customs officer. Any pepper spray without that picture is illegal. Look for no more than 1 percent capsacin. You WILL have more problem with small rodents. I brought a box of wine, stored in a bear locker and next year the mice and rodents had chewed through the box. Luckily they could not get the coffee; that might have been a trip ender.

it is good to have a conversation with the Lake. She always tells me to get up early because by noon she will be out to make my life miserable

I have had seven trips in the last 15 years on the Lake and miss her terribly; my last trip was 2018

If you know how to read the sky for weather it is very useful as the weather stations are scarce. Its not useful to know conditions down by the Soo when you are at Marathon and thats what the weather radio is picking up for stations, Also be aware that katabatic winds can blow you off shore without you wanting to be blown and being too close in and onshore winds can cause reflecting waves and clapotis due to the steep dropoffs in some areas underwater,

I have never paddled Superior at the end of August and beyond because the weather appreciably worsens then. So far I have only had to spend three days out of 100 winded in camp. May is a good month actually. The lake never gets warm but some beach areas can be swum at.

You will be glad to have a drysuit.

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Reminds me of the VHF weather radio broadcasts. Every day the same thing: bla, bla, bla… Waves one metre or less. Actual conditions were anywhere between dead calm and close to 1.5m waves, though I am fully aware it could have been worse.

My trip was, if I recall, late August or early September. It had been a warm summer and most of the time the lake was unusually warm. I had my drysuit but didn’t end up wearing it except for the first day.

I have just moved across the country, but another trip in the area is certainly on my list for the future.

Forget about bringing a handgun into Canada. While it is possible (you can get an Authorization to Transport, not easily though) it isn’t likely to happen. Stick with bear spray. I’ve worked in remote Alaska for nearly the last 20 summers and falls as a flyfishing guide so I’m on the rivers, and have had an untold number of bear encounters. My record is 26 in one day. I’m partial to the UDAP brand, but I think they’re all probably about the same. Keep it handy, and know how to use it. Buried in the bottom of a pack, or out of arm’s reach isn’t going to do you much good. Bears are amazingly fast, and if one decides he wants a close look, they can close distance in a hurry!

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