I am an avid hiker with a focus on easy to moderate trails in natural settings. I occasionally do harder trails.
Bear Encounters in Western Canada
I've seen hundreds of bears in my life in western Canada, most of them black bears and then a handful of grizzly bears. Honestly, I can't quite pinpoint just how many grizzlies I've seen because, at early points in my life, I didn't know how to differentiate them from other bears (I now know you look for the shoulder hump). Thus, it could be that many bears that I thought were grizzlies when I was younger were actually cinnamon-colored black bears, which are common enough in western Canada.
The huge majority of the bears that I've seen were spotted from the safety of vehicles. Memorable sightings from vehicles include the many on a road trip to Alaska I saw, a trip that produced dozens of sightings.
The largest bear I ever saw was definitely a grizzly that I spotted while riding the VIA Rail train alongside Kamloops Lake. Another memorable sighting was when I was in Saskatchewan in the late 1990s, cruising old logging roads with my uncle. As we drove by a secluded area, two cubs scrambled up poplar trees as quickly as they could run over land. It's true that bears are excellent climbers and if you've ever seen one gallop up a tree, then you'll know just how futile it is to try to escape them that way.
Spotting Bears on Foot vs. in a Vehicle
These were all sightings where I felt very safe because I was in a vehicle of some sort. Spotting bears while hiking feels very different. Fortunately, of the hundreds, if not small thousands of times I've gone trail hiking, I've only ever seen four bears while on foot.
The first sighting I had as a trail hiker was in Jasper in September of 2004. I was hiking alone out in the extensive Pyramid Bench trail network near a place called Saturday Night Lake. I made noise as I walked by banging two sticks together every minute or so. I did that so that I wouldn't surprise a bear with my approach, which is a big pointer that's given out in western Canada.
On one occasion when I banged the two sticks together, a small cub actually jumped up about 15 yards down a slope from me. My first thought was that it was an abandoned dog but I soon realized that I was in danger. I retreated back in the direction I came and then about a minute later, a black bear sow came out of the forest about 50 yards ahead of me. It lead the cub down the trail and I followed at great length for a long time toward town.
Jasper Bear Sighting (2013)
The second sighting I had was in Jasper again but this time in 2013. I was on the Red Squirrel Run Trail and heading toward a place called Old Fort Point.
Two park rangers walked in the opposite direction of me on the same trail and they were carrying what were likely tranquilizing guns. They pointed at a black bear in the distance that could be seen through the trees and told me to be aware of it. They claimed that it was likely starving and wouldn't be a problem to me. I snapped a poor photo of it and kept on with my day, noting that even a starving bear didn't regard me as food.
Port Alberni Bear Sighting (2020)
The next bear sighting I had while hiking, was on a trail called The Fossli Trail out near Port Alberni on Vancouver Island. I was hiking alone and there wasn't much sign of human life in the area. The parking lot was barely full and the trailhead for this trail was pretty secluded. It could only be accessed using dirt roads.
I didn't walk far from the parking lot before I spotted a fair-sized black bear in a clearing. It looked my way and I immediately retreated. I thought to try and catch a glimpse of it with my action camera in a moment of bad judgment. As I filmed it, the black bear fled—in the direction of my parked vehicle.
I decided to abandon that trail for the day, mainly because there was no one else out there. This is the only sighting where I have some video. (Note: The time-stamped date is wrong in the video.)
Fossli Trail Bear Sighting Near Port Alberni
Shoreline Bog Trail Bear Sighting Near Tofino (2021)
As I write, my most recent bear sighting was just two months earlier. It occurred on the most innocent of trails: the Shoreline Bog Trail in Pacific Rim National Park. There is nothing to this trail at all: it's just a set of wooden planks that make a loop out near Wickaninnish Beach between Tofino and Ucluelet.
On this occasion, I was with a friend who was from out of the country. She took an interest in a common slug on the trail as we walked, one that she made a point not to step on.
I strode ahead of her and came to a quick stop when I spotted a black bear maybe 15 yards ahead of me and just a few steps off of the trail. I got my bear spray ready and said "Bear, bear!" to my friend as I came to a stop. For some reason, she didn't comprehend what I was saying until I grabbed her. At this point, the bear dashed into the forest a little ways.
In our retreat, my friend stepped on the slug that she was determined to spare on our first pass. The look of horror on her face was greater over the dead slug than the bear sighting.
Chances of Seeing a Bear Are Low
The chances of ever spotting a bear are quite low on hiking trips in western Canada. For starters, not every single trail I've hiked in the huge region had the potential to produce a bear sighting. I think I could walk the Iona Jetty Trail ten thousand times without seeing one.
Bear spray isn't cheap and you aren't likely to use it. But I was happy I had it when I saw the bear near Port Alberni and the one at the Shoreline Bog Trail. That feeling of some security was worth the $50 I paid for the can.
But when I think about just how many trails I've walked or hiked where I was in bear habitat and measure that against the few sightings I've had, it really highlights the low percentage chance of seeing a bear. That's likely because I am a noisemaker as I walk or hike. Doing this has lowered the risk of having an encounter.
I would say there is a less than 1% chance of seeing a bear on a trail in western Canada because I know for sure I've only seen four and I've hiked or walked much more than four hundred trails. The low percentage chance of seeing a bear combined with the fact that the bears I have seen have all wanted nothing to do with me does speak well to the safety of hiking, in my opinion.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2021 Shane Lambert