Hungry black bear boards four boats over three days

The bear brazenly approached several anchored boats in Browning Cove. Photo by Brian Laux.

HEYWOOD ISLAND—Boaters seeking a quiet anchorage in the sheltered waters of Browning Cove, east of Little Current at Heywood Island, have instead found themselves facing a hungry bear that visited four different boats over the course of three days.

“I was down below fixing dinner, a bass I caught yesterday, when I heard this loud strange scratching noise,” says Brian Laux of Walworth, NY.

“I thought it might have been a human swimmer in trouble, someone who was so weak they couldn’t crawl out of the water. But when I went outside there was a bear right in the water—he was trying to climb up the side of the boat,” Mr. Laux recalled. “He sort of gave me a dirty look.”

Mr. Laux immediately got in contact with Roy Eaton, who runs the daily Cruiser’s Net broadcast out of Little Current, to share his incredible story. At the time, he did not consider the bear a major threat because of his timid interaction with it. Mr. Laux says he has heard the bear is often spotted swimming across the mouth of the bay in which he was anchored but more recently it has been seen making trips to Browning Island.

Fortunately, the bear left without much fuss after this first encounter. But it was not finished yet.

Mr. Laux had just finished listening to the morning broadcast when he heard the unmistakable sound of the bear paddling back towards his boat—perhaps ironically named Serenity. This time, the bear was more persistent. “I poked him in the nose with my boat hook,” said Mr. Laux. The bear, although seemingly annoyed by the gesture, swam around the boat a couple times and eventually retreated back to shore.

That morning, Mr. Laux was visited by the owners of a boat called Carandy. Unfortunately, Mr. Laux was not the first person to have an encounter with this bear. On the same day as Mr. Laux’s first encounter, the bear had already visited Carandy, which was anchored in the same area as Serenity. Carandy’s owners did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

When the bear arrived, Carandy’s owners were away on a kayak trip. When they returned, the bear was in the process of tearing apart their cabin. It had climbed aboard using the swim ladder they left down to get into their kayaks. Carandy’s cupboards were ripped off and nearly everything inside was eaten, chewed or covered in fur and bear spit. After making noise by banging on the hull, the bear finally was scared off and retreated to the island.

Carandy’s interior was trashed. With no other options, the boaters elected to clean up their mess and figure out what to do next. But as they were cleaning, the bear came back and attempted to board the boat again from the bow. After a solid whack on its nose from the boat hook, the bear swam back towards land and stared at Carandy from the shore. Feeling threatened by the bear’s continued presence, they moved to the middle of the bay and set up anchorage there.

Meanwhile, after Mr. Laux fended off the bear the following morning, he elected to stay one final night but repositioned himself further from shore. He went around to visit the other boats anchored in the area and made sure they knew of the bear’s presence and to keep their swim ladders up.

Mr. Laux’s warning and an advisory on Mr. Eaton’s Cruisers Net proved useful for Dennis Kirkwood, who had just arrived into the bay on his catamaran. After a late dinner with his girlfriend, they were getting ready for bed around midnight when they heard a thumping and scratching noise under the stern of the boat.

“I immediately suspected what it was,” said Mr. Kirkwood. “I ran out and grabbed a whisker pole and started clanking it around.”

The bear was under the swim platform, between the two hulls. The bear had knocked out the floor plate and its paw was coming up through the opening. After a continued effort, Mr. Kirkwood switched to his wooden oar to hit the bear’s paw. The bear pulled its paw back but remained under the platform, breathing heavily.

“It was very surrealistic,” said Mr. Kirkwood, adding that the pitch darkness of the night added a complicated aspect to the ordeal.

“He’s substantial sized, maybe 250 pounds; not a cub at all,” Mr. Kirkwood says.

Mr. Kirkwood continued to poke through the opening to encourage the bear to leave, but it stayed put. That was a surprise, as Mr. Kirkwood understood bears usually scatter upon hearing loud noises.

“I tried blasting my air horn like a madman trying to get him to leave, but he just stayed on.”

With that, Mr. Kirkwood decided to keep prodding it with his oar to encourage the bear to leave. It worked, but the bear managed to break his wooden oar in the process.

Mr. Kirkwood notified Mr. Eaton of his experience. The bear incidents were turning into a trend.

On Thursday night, Otto Gustafson had what may have been the closest experience yet. He arrived at Heywood Island and had anchored for the night. At about 9:30, he heard the telltale scratching and splashing of a bear next to his boat. His swim ladder was up, so he decided to stay put because the bear should not have been able to make it on board.

He was wrong.

Suddenly, the bear climbed the stern and appeared in the cockpit. The bear started sniffing for something to eat, and the two came within 18 inches of each other. Mr. Gustafson began screaming and making noise at the bear, but the bear seemed to ignore the disturbance. Mr. Gustafson even shone his spotlight into its eyes and sounded his foghorn, but nothing seemed to dissuade the bear.

The bear had put its paw through the screen that separated it from Mr. Gustafson, when a fellow boater heard the commotion and came alongside them on his dinghy. It was not a moment too soon. The presence of the dinghy seemed to scare off the bear which walked to the bow, entered the water and disappeared.

So far, these four boat boardings are the only reports The Expositor has heard of regarding bear encounters at Heywood Island or elsewhere.

“I suspect somebody might have fed it off a boat at one point. That’s a supposition, but he’s certainly learned that boats equal food,” says Mr. Laux.

Jolanta Kowalski from Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) says this year’s wild food surveys have indicated a decrease in natural food availability for bears because of an ongoing drought.

“Bears have a phenomenal sense of smell and if they find food once at a location, they will return. It’s critical for boat residents and the public to manage anything that may attract bears such as garbage and food,” stresses Ms. Kowalski.

The Expositor asked at what point the MNRF would take action, if any, to deal with the situation, and what that action would entail.

According to an email received from the MNRF, if a bear is a public safety risk people should call 911 or their local police. A bear breaking into a residence – in this case a boat  – would qualify as an emergency. (see below from Bear Wise web page)

Police will assess the situation.  They may call MNRF for assistance to trap and relocate a specific problem bear.

The Ministry provides advice and education. The public can call the Bear Wise phone line 1-866-514-2327 for information about avoiding human-bear conflicts.

Who to contact

Emergencies

Call 911 or your local police, if you feel a bear poses an immediate threat to personal safety and:

  • enters a school yard when school is in session
  • enters or tries to enter a residence
  • wanders into a public gathering
  • kills livestock/pets and lingers at the site
  • stalks people and lingers at the site

Generally, bears want to avoid humans. Most encounters are not aggressive and attacks are rare.

Non-emergencies

Call the Bear Wise reporting line at 1-866-514-2327 (*between April 1-November 30) if a bear is:

  • roaming around, checking garbage cans
  • breaking into a shed where garbage or food is stored
  • in a tree
  • pulling down a bird feeder or knocking over a barbecue
  • moving through a backyard or field but is not lingering

* From Dec 1-March 31, please contact your local MNRF District office.