There has been a lot of news about problem bears lately in Northern Ontario. Specifically, these are problems with black bears or “Muskwa”, as they are known in the Cree language. People I talk to say that many bears are hungry this time of year as they are preparing to bed down and hibernate for the coming winter. As well, this has been a poor year for berries and the bears are going hungry. Instead of foraging for berries, as they always have, bears are resorting to visiting our homes and neighborhoods in search of something to eat.
I have seen black bears only a few times. The Muskwa does not seem large on its four legs but it is a huge creature when standing upright. It can easily overpower the strongest man and outrun and out climb the best athletes. Even with all these strengths, a black bear is not known as a hunter of smaller or weaker animals. Actually it is mostly a vegetarian that feeds on insects, wild berries and some plants. However, bears also eat small rodents and dead animals. The bear’s taste for rotting food is the reason why they raid garbage and dumpsites in search of an easy meal.
There has never really been a problem with bears on the James Bay coast. One reason for this is that the mushkeg and tundra does not provide a good place for bear habitat. Black bears enjoy roaming for food in large areas but the mushkeg of the James Bay coast is impossible to travel over. The mushkeg bog is not a solid surface for any walking animal. The hordes of flies and mosquitoes also make life miserable for any creature out on the land.
I remember about four or five visits by black bears to our local dumpsite in Attawapiskat. It was an unusual event when a bear came to visit our community. At first there was cause for concern, as every hunter knows how powerful and deadly a bear can be, even though this animal can look cute and cuddly. When the bears came to town we all avoided the dump for a long time but finally curiosity got the best of us and these animals became a bit of a spectacle. I remember taking the family truck with my brothers and dad to drive out to the dump to catch a glimpse of Muskwa. However, our bear visits were short and sweet as the trappers and hunters in the community at some point got fed up and simply killed Muskwa. Sometimes things in remote First Nations are pretty basic. If there is a large and potentially dangerous animal roaming about then it is removed.
Our biggest problem with bears came when we ventured out onto James Bay to our traditional hunting and trapping grounds. Out on the shores of the bay there is always the chance of running into a Polar Bear or “Wabusk” in the Cree language. They are more numerous and common further north closer to Hudson Bay. These are intelligent and bold creatures that are larger and more powerful than a black bear. They are usually attracted by the scent of fresh animal or fish kills made by hunters on the land. Polar bears travel fast and whenever one is spotted in the distance, everyone knows it is only a matter of time before the bear will arrive at camp.
Most of my bear sightings were further south from my home community. I first started seeing black bears in numbers when I began driving on the highways and roadways of Northern Ontario. It is common to run into bears along the roadside and where there is a dumpsite nearby.
I actually came across a bear once south of Timmins on Highway 144 near Gogama. It was a lonely stretch of highway and far away from any communities or camping areas. I was on my motorcycle. A bear walked out in front of me on the asphalt at the high point of a hill and sat right there in the middle of the highway. He seemed confused and traffic had to slow to a stop and then proceed around him. I was really careful, as I was more vulnerable on my motorcycle.
I was happy to put the miles between the big black Muskwa and me. When I pulled over for gas at the service station in Gogama, I mentioned the bear to the gas attendant. He laughed and then told me that this was no dumb bear. In fact, the animal had figured out that if he sat right in the middle of the road people would stop their vehicles and more often than not toss out some food or treat. That Muskwa had figured out a new angle, albeit a slightly dangerous one.
All in all I am not terrified of Muskwa but I do respect this animal’s strength, speed and unpredictability. We all need to give them a lot of room.