Black Bears are pretty much everywhere. They are shy of in areas where they are hunted (along the Mackenzie River), and less timid in more remote areas, like the Great Bear Lake, where they have less experience with people. Regardless, black bears are likely to get into your food if you are not careful, but are very unlikely to attack a person. Grizzly Bears are less visible and more dangerous; unpredictable and as liable to attack as run away. We have never seen a Grizzly along the Mackenzie, but have seen their tracks in the mud, so yes, they are around. If you suspect you are near a Grizzly, for instance you see fresh tracks in the mud, leave the area immediately. You are unlikely to encounter a Polar Bear, but it is possible, especially in the Mackenzie Delta. Like Grizzly Bears, Polar Bears should be considered very dangerous and unpredictable. Leave the area rather than risk an encounter. We have seen Polar bear tracks in the delta mud.

Bear avoidance consists mostly of selecting your camp location carefully, and keeping camp clean. Avoid camping at established sites where humans camp regularly, especially the native summer fish-camps and campsites at the mouths of tributary streams and rivers. Almost all the bears that I observed, during four river trips, were at such locations, and bears are smart enough to find these places. Campfires may attract bears, who associate fires with food. We stored our food in waterproof plastic barrels, and because of the way that they sealed shut, they would been difficult, but not impossible, for a bear to get in to. Every night we piled our dishes and pans on top of these barrels, so any bear trying to get the food would have made a big noise. The trees along the lower Mackenzie are generally not high enough to effectively hang food, so don't count on doing that..

There seems to be a season for bear visibility. We saw no bears at all in June, and have repeatedly seen many during a two-week period near the end of July. We suppose that this is when the berries ripen, as berry patches are common in the burned open areas along the shores of northern streams and rivers. You may even encounter a bear swimming across the river!

Should you carry a gun for protection against bears? I'm not sure that this is critical, and have changed my thinking on this. I brought a legal 12-gauge shotgun four river trips, but have only used it to discourage bears once, on the east end of Great Bear Lake, and the bear could have cared less that I shot in its direction! We left the area, rather than shooting the bear. My option was to leave or kill the bear. I chose to leave.

When carrying a shotgun, I load it with two shot cartridges, followed by a slug, which is the legal three loads. The 12-gauge shotgun, loaded with shot, would also be a good survival tool, as ducks and other waterfowl are plentiful along the river. Oil you gun regularly to prevent rust. Guns are a good target for the thieves prevalent in all the towns, so stow your piece before going into town. Pistols are illegal in Canada, as are the short-barrel (less than an 18" barrel, l think) black riot shotguns available in the U.S.

I won't take a gun on my next Mackenzie river trip. It is more trouble than it is worth. I would want a shotgun on an extended trip to Great-Bear Lake or to the barrens for bear protection and to get food in a pinch. A rifle would be much less effective in my opinion. Guns are also likely to be stolen when you visit a town and leave you canoe unattended.

When we last traveled to Canada from the US, the only restriction on shotguns was barrel length, color (black was not allowed) and number of rounds in chamber (three or less). Current regulations may or may not be more restrictive. We had no problems at the border, crossing in either direction, but this was in 1998.

The best ideas on bear-avoidance that we have seen are in a useful book on wilderness travel called "The Pacific Crest Trail Hikers Handbook", by Ray Jardine. Check out his website. Particularly good is his concept of a stealth campsite. Ray has a great deal of experience with paddling in the north.

So my thoughts are:

  • Do not camp in established camps and at river mouths,
  • Keep a clean camp,
  • A gun is not really a necessity on the Mackenzie.

Your mileage with bears may vary…