Your trip into the Boundary Waters: Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!
by Ken Hupila
I often get asked if I am ever afraid of what might get me when I travel the Boundary Waters. Most times it involves bears and wolves. Will they steal my food? Might they attack me? Do I carry a gun along on my trips? Truth be told, there’s only one animal that tried to harm me in the sixty plus years I’ve wandered through the backcountry of northern Minnesota. More on that a bit later, but in the meantime let’s put to rest some of the fallacies and needless fears of those who might visit the BWCA.
I have had dozens of encounters with bears over the years – some up close and personal. Bears can be a problem in the back country, however, without almost no exceptions, the problems are caused by campers in relation to food. Black bears are always looking for their next meal. They are omnivorous and will eat most things that they come across. Steaks, bread, oatmeal, candy bars, GORP – all fair game as far as bears are concerned. I’ve seen them drink brandy and even had one drink a container of motor oil once. Campers in the Boundary Waters bring in much of what they may find attractive to put on a good layer of fat for the upcoming winter. Many paddlers encourage being visited by a bear in the way they maintain their camp.
Bears have an acute sense of smell. Some biologists suggest that they can pick out a prepared breakfast of bacon over several miles. No camp is safe unless the people inhabiting it do a good job of keeping their camp clean and food kept out of the way of being a bear’s snack. There are many ways to do this:
First – Food storage is a skill everyone must learn. There are several ways to keep bears from getting your food pack. The old tried and true method is to hang food packs off the ground high enough that bears can’t reach them, either from the ground or from the trunks of trees they might be hung from. I don’t feel safe unless a pack is high enough that when standing below it, I can’t reach it with an extended canoe paddle. It takes some work to make that happen. There are kits of ropes and pulleys that can make that job easier. I guided some engineers from New York who always took on the challenge of setting up a system that was bear proof.
Blue “bear” barrels have become quite popular over the last few years. Not known to many is that these canisters are not “bear proof”. It might take some work for a bear to get into them, but they certainly are capable. Bears can lift the lids on locked steel garbage lockers seen at many parking lots and motor campsites. A little blue barrel is not that much of a challenge. More concerning to me is that shoulder harnesses that the barrels can be carried with are easy for a bear to grab and haul into the woods to have an opportunity to figure out how to open them away from nosy campers at a campsite. I still usually hang mine. If you insist on leaving them on the ground, at least tie them firmly to a tree – away from your tents and the fire grate. Actual bear-proof food barrels are available and work well. They are strong enough to not be punctured by their claws and large enough that they can’t get their jaws around them to crush them. Kevlar food packs have recently been used. “Ursack” is a common brand. Bears can’t get into them, but they can chew at the bag and make a mess of what might be inside. DO Not trust that a cooler will stop a bear. Twice I’ve been paddling down a lake and have seen bears attacking and emptying coolers at a camp site. Once on Gun Lake and once on Sandpit Lake. Bears will come into camp any time of day. If you are leaving your camp to fish or sightsee, either hang your pack before you leave or take it into the canoe with you. By the way, bears DO SWIM! Some campers believe camping on an island will protect your food pack from bears. Not so. They are good swimmers!
Second – Keeping your camp clean does not pertain to just your food pack. NEVER leave ANY food in your tent! I can’t stress this enough. A bag of peanuts, a candy bar or even a single hard candy will send a bear through the side of your tent whether you are in there or not. Even empty wrappers have enough smell to give a bear a reason to investigate! Clean dishes immediately after a meal. A pan with bacon grease will, left at the fire grate, bring the bruins into your camp. Burn leftovers and grease in a hot fire. Wash your dishes well back from camp in the woods – BWCA regulations require that. Don’t clean fish near camp. The slime from the outside of the fish’s skin leaves a smell even if you bury the innards well away from camp. I usually like to clean my fish at least a quarter of a mile away from any campsite.
Third – Dogs. Our pets are kind of a two-edged sword when it comes to bears. Generally, most bears don’t like dogs. I’ve seen some barky ankle-biters that will chase a bear up a tree. Most dogs that I’ve been associated with in the back country don’t like bears as well and will easily keep bears out of your camp. There are exceptions. Each bear and every dog is a bit different. Watch your furry friends when you’re out in the wild.
Finally, bears for the most part don’t like to interact with people. Unless there is an enticing smell that they can’t resist, or if you get into a fight over a food pack, or if a sow and cubs are involved, bears will stand down and keep their distance when humans are present. I’ve only had two bear encounters where bears have shown aggression towards me. I did have one bluff charge me once, and I did have one pace back and forth twenty feet from me snapping its teeth. Both times were in my yard when my kids were little, and I didn’t want them to think that my yard was a place where they could hang out. If I meet a bear in the woods, I try to give it a wide berth. That said, it’s not worth the chance of a bad encounter. A startled bear could be a trouble bear. I seldom bring a gun, and certainly don’t recommend it. I have started to carry a cannister of bear spray and know how to use it. Some people will bring “bear bangers” which are loud noisemakers and usually quite effective at scaring them off.
When you arrive, be sure to ask at your outfitter or at the Forest Service office whether there has been increased bear activity in an area you are traveling through. Nuisance bears are just that because too many campers haven’t been careful and have been habituated. Extra care must be taken if bears have been active in campsites you plan to stay in.
One of the most exciting encounters you can have in the back country is with one or more wolves, or better yet, hearing them sing across the lake from you. For me, they are the epitome of what the back country means. In all honesty, you will seldom see wolves in the summer. Most that I’ve encountered, with a few exceptions, have been in the winter. That said, I’ve had them walk up to within ten feet of me in camp.
I’ve had wolves within just a few feet of me at least six times. In my mind, one of two things happened. In one scenario, they don’t expect you to be there and aren’t paying attention. Once on Indiana Lake, there were four of us sitting near a fire under a tarp in the middle of the day, talking and drinking coffee. Suddenly, an adult wolf walked up between me and the guy sitting to my left. We were ten feet apart and the wolf was between us. I don’t know who was more startled – us or the wolf! It did a double take, turned 180 degrees and lit out.
The other situation I’ve been in has wolves that acted curious. Paddling down the Bear Trap River, we had two rise up on their back feet to check us out over some tall grass. Another time I watched one come down a trail, see me and then cautiously come forward, sniffing and with his ears forward, listening to me. When he got within twenty feet, I clapped my hands and yelled “get outta here” and he calmly walked around me, barely off the trail. I’ve had dozens of encounters with them and have never had one show any sign of aggression.
Wolves aren’t afraid of dogs, and under the right circumstances, could try to grab one. Maybe because of hunger, possibly because it sees another canine invading its territory. I had some friends of mine who were walking their dog and were surrounded by several wolves. They had their dog on a leash and brought the lab in between them. After several seconds that seemed like minutes, the wolves melted into the brush.
There is an unnatural fear of what wolves typically do when they encounter a human. Wolves that have been habituated to people near urban areas can be a problem, both with them getting into garbage cans and picking off pets. In the backcountry, I’ve never heard of a wolf-human encounter going bad.
Now, this is an animal that can cause some harm. I mentioned earlier that there was only one animal in all my years that became aggressive to me, and that was a moose. When I was in my middle teens, a large bull chased me up a tree and kept me captive there for several minutes before wandering off.
Moose for the most part are quite docile. You can paddle close to them; take photos or videos and they will only stare back at you or turn and leave. Two notable exceptions to this.
First, cows will aggressively protect their calves. This is not a situation you want to mess around with. If you see a mama with little ones, only observe from a distance. If you get between them – look out! I was portaging between Disappointment and Snowbank Lake one time. I’d been camping with a father and son, and halfway across the portage the ten-year-old shouted with an expletive that you seldom hear coming from someone that age. I had a pack and a canoe on, and my first thought was that a bear was ahead of us. Nope.
I set the back end of the canoe down and to my right was a large cow, and to my left was a calf. I was defenseless and fortunately we skedaddled down the trail and they left us alone!
The other time of the year when moose can be a problem is from about the middle of September until the end of October when the bulls are in rut. They are ornery and unpredictable. They’ll take on anything that gets in their way. I had one challenge me on Highway 1 one time that stood in the middle of the road and wouldn’t let my truck by. Had another one by Table Rock one October afternoon that became aggressive as I was grouse hunting a shoreline. He challenged me for a couple of minutes, thought better of it and walked away.
Most other animals have a “live and let live” mentality. Chipmunks and squirrels can be either entertaining or a nuisance around camp. I’ve encountered mink, fisher, pine marten, otter, fox, beaver, muskrat and weasel. I had a cap taken off my head by a broadwinged hawk once. The only food I’ve lost from a food pack was when a striped skunk got into it one October when I was too lazy to hang it!
Insects and Ticks
Of more concern to me are some of the smaller creatures that you will encounter. Mosquitos, black flies, no-see-ums and deerflies are primarily a nuisance and a bother. Some people will get welts and swell up from being bitten. If a problem, calamine lotion or antihistamines will usually calm the inflammation down. Wasps and hornets can cause bigger problems, especially with those that are subject to anaphylactic shock. If that is a concern, make sure an EpiPen is in your med kit. Head nets, bug jackets and bug dope (DEET is still the most effective) help to keep the little biters off of you.
In recent years, ticks have been becoming a bigger problem as Lyme’s Disease has been slowly marching north. Check daily at bedtime and when swimming to catch any hitchhikers as soon as possible. Treating pant legs and boots/shoes with DEET or permethrin can reduce the chance of having one latch on.
Water Borne Creatures
Not many things in the water will harm you. There are leeches and bloodsuckers that can attach themselves in a surprisingly short amount of time. They are creepy, but harmless. Most will pull off or drop off if you touch them with match head that has been lit and pinched out, or by sprinkling them with salt.
Giardia can be an unpleasant problem. The good thing is that, unless you are out for a long trip, the symptoms won’t appear until you get home. The bad thing is that it can make you very sick. If you come back from a trip and develop intestinal symptoms, see your doctor and let them know where you’ve been. It is usually easily cured. In the old days, we used to get our drinking water in the middle of the lake on calm days. I don’t trust that anymore. Never drink water directly from near the shoreline or from creeks or rivers. Many people don’t associate giardia with running water but that can be one of the prime sources.
There are many types of water filters that easily strain out the giardia cysts. Pumps and gravity feed both work well. Iodine or other chemicals will also neutralize them but be prepared to wait for a while and expect some taste to be present. Steri-pens will also work, but I’ve had them fail on some trips, so I don’t like to rely on them. And there’s always the good old-fashioned water boil that will kill them as well. Be sure you have a good boil for at least a minute – better for three!
One question I’ve been increasingly asked over the last few years is if I’ve ever come across something that I didn’t recognize or understand – a footprint, a sound or a flash of something through the woods or across the water. I suspect they’re hoping I might have come across Bigfoot! Sorry to say – no. If I did, I certainly wouldn’t be afraid of it. Nature encounters are one of my favorite reasons for traveling in the wilderness. Enjoy all you can find. With a little care you can see many wonders of the animal kingdom without the need for fear!