HEYWOOD ISLAND—Doug Baker was anchored at Browning Cove on September 22 when he heard a small noise coming from his hull. He initially thought it might have been a lone wave making the noise but decided to look out the companionway.
All was quiet until Mr. Baker noticed his wheel was turning back and forth. That is not entirely unreasonable; a gentle breeze could cause the wheel to rotate slightly. But there was a problem: Mr. Baker could not feel any wind whatsoever.
It was time to investigate further.
Mr. Baker headed to the stern of his 30-foot sailboat and peered over the transom. He soon discovered the source of the strange noises he had been hearing.
He was face-to-face with the Heywood Bear.
“The massive-looking paws were about 1.2 metres apart on either end of the transom and the nose was just over the top of the transom. The head looked enormous,” said Mr. Baker, recounting his ordeal.
He was completing his annual solo cruise on the North Channel after the close of the racing season. Hoping to get a head start on his trip to the Bruce Peninsula the next morning, Mr. Baker left Little Current that evening and sailed for the nearby safe anchorage at Heywood Island. As Mr. Baker discovered, Heywood might not be quite as safe as once believed.
“I reacted by first involuntarily yelling and then taking my deck shoe off and swatting the paws. The bear was likely amused by my efforts,” he said.
“It was there, inches from my face. The bear looked at me with dark, beady eyes, almost perplexed as if wondering, ‘what is this idiot doing’?”
He struck the bear on the nose several times with his shoe, which the bear bit and dropped into the water. Mr. Baker was caught in a tight space of only a metre between the transom and the wheel, with a bear on one side and a dead end on the other.
“Now ‘unarmed,’ I did a panic retreat into the cabin and put the wood door panels in place,” said Mr. Baker. He noted that he lived and backpacked in the Thunder Bay area for years and is no stranger for bears, but the confined setting of his boat was anxiety-provoking to say the least.
He then employed some of the same techniques that others have tried on the bear, to no avail. First, he pulled out his air horn, but it seemed to bother Mr. Baker more than it did the bear. It climbed onto the foredeck of the boat, so Mr. Baker opened the roof hatch and stuck his air horn out and blasted away from the relative safety of his cabin. He said the bear did not appreciate the noise but was not disturbed enough to leave.
“I was actually amused, or astonished, when the bear placed a paw on the hatch closing it,” he said.
The bear returned to the cockpit area and Mr. Baker prepared his last line of defense: his flare gun.
“I had never used this and did not know what to expect,” said Mr. Baker, but he decided he had to try it out.
“I slid open the top companionway hatch and fired a shot at close range. I reloaded and fired two more shots at interval,” Mr. Baker said.
After several minutes, Mr. Baker stuck his head out of the rear hatch. It seemed he had found his magic bullet. The bear was swimming away.
Mr. Baker was lucky with the outcome of the events. His boat took essentially no damage beyond some scratch marks on his transom. His canvas covers could have easily been destroyed. The wooden boards separating the cabin from the cockpit, at less than half an inch thick, would have smashed easily. Fortunately, neither were touched. Mr. Baker added that he hopes the bear was not seriously injured.
Not willing to endure a repeat visit from the Heywood Bear, Mr. Baker weighed anchor and set sail for Killarney, where he docked overnight. He arrived close to midnight.
When asked about what he learned from his experience, Mr. Baker momentarily fell silent. If there had been a handbook as to the best way of dealing with a bear encounter, Mr. Baker would have certainly been following a number of the procedures.
“It wasn’t a case of having the swim ladder down or leaving food around,” he said. “If anything, I now second guess my own reactions and whether I really had to use the flare. If I had used a fire extinguisher it might have been less harmful to the bear.”
Mr. Baker said he wishes he was calmer during the incident so he could have thought through his actions more thoroughly.
“If you let the bear have his way, it’s guaranteed he’s going to make a mess of your boat. But anybody in a position of authority would say protect yourself first. That’s the first priority,” said Mr. Baker. “You can clean up the boat and replace your supplies.”
Bearing in mind that these incidents have now been occurring for months, it remains to be seen when boaters will be able to claw back their safe anchorage on Heywood Island.