Safety in Bear Country
A trainer’s perspective
“The best bear encounter is one that never happens in the first place.”
The following article appeared in the employee newsletter for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, June 2010:
There were a lot of nodding heads. Employees from Fisheries & Oceans Canada (DFO) Central and Arctic Region had all been there. Most had worked in bear country; some had encountered bears up close and a few had even survived bear attacks. “The best bear encounter is one that never happens in the first place,” adds Brown.
So began the opening remarks at the latest DFO live-fire shotgun workshop. All non-enforcement personnel are required to complete this workshop every two years if they venture into remote areas with DFO-issued firearms. (Many attend every year.)
The skills they will learn in one afternoon at the local shooting range were designed to be simple, practical and able to be used by the average person under stress. Like many other training courses, these outdoor professionals are learning and practicing skills that they hope will never be used but if they do need them, they know they must be imprinted into the subconscious in order to be automatic reactions.
Gone are the days that shotgun training at Fisheries & Oceans consisted of the local officer setting up a silhouette target at 50 meters and shooting until everyone could put five slugs into the scoring rings.
“Out there in the real world,” says Brown, “there are no ‘scoring rings.’ Bears don't politely stand 50 meters away just to get shot. When an attack happens, it will be close, fast, violent and over in a heartbeat. What will feel like minutes will actually be over in seconds. How you respond in those next few seconds can literally save your life or the life of your co-workers.”
One DFO scientist agreed. “I heard a snort, turned around and this huge polar bear was arm's length away. He snuck so quietly I wouldn't have stood a chance if we didn't have this level of training.”
Another DFO employee related, “We didn't know we were being attacked until the instant the polar bear landed on top of our tent.” She added, “THEN it got interesting because he also landed on top of our shotgun!” (Thankfully, there were other shotguns, and everyone was trained on what to do. Nobody panicked.)
These are not video or paintball games. In remote areas of this country, guns are a lifestyle. They are not some prop from a Hollywood movie, they are serious business, and these professionals keep loaded shotguns arm's-length away 24 hours a day.
Before the live-fire even starts, there is a review of the different bear species and what to expect if encountered. Various options in bear defence are covered and employees learn to watch for danger signs in bear behaviour. While the emphasis is on safety, accuracy and responsibility with a firearm, the goal is to NOT have to use the shotgun. All the options in the world do not replace common sense and proper safety practices in bear country.
That being said, workshop instructor Dave Brown warns that every bear encounter is different. “Bears are individuals. They are highly intelligent, very curious and life-long learners. Every bear encounter will be different. There is no way anyone, even myself, can tell you exactly what will happen when you encounter a bear.”
Brown then voices what everyone is thinking. “No one wants to shoot a bear,” he says. “We are the ones trespassing in their back yard. Bears are just doing what comes natural to them. All of us are dedicated to conservation and the environment. The last thing anyone wants to do is to have to use this shotgun.”
But he reminds them, “If a bear attacks, it suddenly becomes you or the bear. There are no second chances. When life is at stake, the bear has to lose.” The reality is that few people without good training or proper defence plans ever survive bear attacks unscathed.
Before they even pick up a shotgun, the workshop instructor talks about one other option in particular. “Bear spray has a well-documented record of success in preventing injuries from bear attacks,” says Brown. “But,” he adds, “you need to know how to use it; how close to get; where to aim, and - just as important - how to decontaminate yourself or others if you get a whiff in the face.” It must also be carried very close and ready for instant use, not buried in a pack somewhere.
In many areas of Canada, bear spray is not an option though. This is where the need for practical shotgun training comes in. While firearms statistically don’t have the same record of success as bear spray in preventing injuries, much of this is because bear attacks that result in firearms use are the most serious encounters people will ever have, and it is usually with a predatory bear who comes out quickly, silently and with little warning.
Brown points out that the shotgun carried by DFO employees is ideal for bear defence. It is simple, fast into action and uses very few fine motor skills. Unlike a rifle typically carried by very experienced outdoor professionals such as bear guides, a shotgun loaded with slugs can be fired accurately at short range by almost anyone with good training.
Since Central and Arctic Region began their structured program of classroom safety training (with the Canadian Firearms Safety Course offered to employees on a regular basis), a series of ongoing safety seminars and the practical live-fire shotgun workshop every two years, not a single DFO employee has been injured in a bear attack.
“I’m very proud of these folks,” says Brown. “Some of them have never shot a gun before they come to this workshop, and by the end of the day they are shooting far more quickly and accurately than they would have ever thought possible. You know their basic technical skills are falling into place when they shoot better and better the more we ramp UP the stress level. Everything we talked about at the beginning of the day - stance, aiming, the physiological effects of stress on the human body; it is now all falling into place.”
The final exercise of the day is referred to as a ‘confidence drill.’ It involves a 60 meter run up in order to get the heart rate elevated, a simulated bear spray attempt, grabbing a shotgun from the table, chambering the first round and firing a careful accurate shot at a distant bear target, then systematically shooting six more reactive targets, fiendishly stacked one on top of another so that the top target must always be shot first. The instructor is behind them every step to push them to their limits and show them how well they can still shoot with their hearts racing and the adrenalin pounding.
At the end of the day, Brown announces each person's time. It is a simple demonstration of a complex physiological process where the whole world seems to slow down under stress; the entire exercise that felt like two to three minutes was actually over in seconds. Called the ‘tachypsychia effect, it is only one small part of an integrated scientific approach to modern shotgun training for these outdoor professionals.
In spite of the stress, nobody misses; everyone reloads without thinking and all attendees walk away with a smile on their face.
Brown says, “I call it a confidence drill because I specifically designed it to show them how well they can perform under stress and, just as important, to show them how well their coworkers perform under stress. Some day, if a bear ends up on top of you, you need to know that the person behind the trigger can safely deal with that threat.” He glances back at multiple hits in the center of his bear target, and adds, “I think we accomplished that goal.”
It is unlikely that bears will recognize DFO employees out in the field, but one could speculate that the smart ones know enough to stay well away.
The following article appeared in the Manitoba Hydro employee newsletter, fall 2009:
Dave Brown is a professional firearms trainer and has been traveling the north country to teach shotgun safety and shooting techniques to Manitoba Hydro employees. We asked him to report a bit on his experiences.
This is his story.
Conawapa field camp - June 14 2009 - On the map at least, one can drive almost a perfectly straight line from New Orleans to Kansas City, up I-29 to the Canadian border at Emerson and then up Highway 75 north to Winnipeg. If you keep going, the highway apparently ends up in Thompson Manitoba, but if you have a good map or GPS, you will find a thin trail that curls from Thompson to Gillam Manitoba and thence to the Manitoba Hydro dams at Spruce Rapids and Limestone. If you continue up that road, it ends at a solid concrete barrier at the absolute farthest point one can physically drive north in Manitoba.
That end-of-the-road is the Conawapa field camp and I am here to teach the local Manitoba Hydro employees how to shoot guns.
Bears are a constant occupational hazard at this field camp. Black bears have been known to stroll right down the line of tents and ATCO trailers, a few grizzly bears have been sighted this far east and even the odd hungry polar bear has wandered down from Hudson's Bay, only 60 miles to the north.
The night before I arrived at Conawapa, five bears walked through the camp. The entire week I was there, not one single bear emerged from the bush. Whether this was by luck, circumstance or reputation, I don't know.
Still, nobody goes anywhere without a shotgun loaded with slugs, a satellite phone or a helicopter nearby as they work. An armed bear guard watches over the camp at night, and even when the helicopter pilot shuts down the turbine to save fuel, I notice as we chat that his eyes constantly sweep the bush beside the icy northern river and his hand never strays far from the ignition switches.
The people of the camp are warm, friendly and professional; the showers are hot and the food is both plentiful and good. The kitchen/dining room/lounge/training room is open all day and all night and people wander in at all hours to grab a snack or some hot coffee. This is northern Manitoba and nobody asks for decaf.
Even in June, the mile-wide Nelson River has 30 feet of ice smashed up along its banks and it and all the surrounding streams where these researchers work every day are only a few degrees above freezing. The bears seem to like it though.
We spend four days on shotgun training and have some fun with bear defence techniques and awareness. Everyone gets a kick out of the practical live-fire exercises I have invented for them to learn how to shoot a shotgun quickly, accurately and under stress. (Being eaten by a bear tends to do that to you.) We have fun, but they all approach the training very seriously, especially here in the north where people work, eat and sleep with shotguns within easy reach.
The course relies heavily on understanding the physiology of the human body under stress and the dynamics of a real-life encounter with a hungry bear or what we here in Manitoba might simplify into ‘common sense.’ I think this is why the course is so popular even with the locals, most of whom grew up with a gun in their hands. The techniques are a bit different from what hunters are used to, but in the end they just plain make sense.
Safety, accuracy and responsibility with a firearm is not just something they demonstrate only at work; they become a lifestyle commitment. Range safety and training course safety rules become life safety rules.
On the way home from one of the most unique training experiences of my life, I drive four hours down a rough washboard gravel road just to get to the nearest pavement, and the only bears I saw all week are standing at the side of the road watching me as I head for home. I slow down for a moment and offer to them a silent thanks for not dropping around the camp to visit while I was there.
They ignore me and lumber off into the scrub; pretty much what bears do around here.
Another 12 hours of driving brings me back to cell phone and email territory and I have a dozen messages waiting for me on my phone.
I almost turn around and head back north.
- Dave Brown, firearms trainer