Written by Bob Melrose.
I heard a swish and looked up just in time to see the yellowish cloud. It caught me full in the face. I dropped gasping to the ground, eyes and throat on fire, struggling for air. My buddies thought I was playing around. Not so.
The chain of events leading up to this started the week before on the Babine. Fishing buddy D.B. was walking upriver from fishing down by Nichyeskwa Creek. He noticed a sow grizzly and yearling cub down in the river and unholstered his pepper spray just in case. Suddenly feet in front of him was the other yearling cub. D.B. flipped off the safety on the pepper spray and they stood looking at each other. The cub whimpered and DB thought, "Oh great, that should bring Momma up in a hurry". The sow woofed and the cub scurried down to join the rest of the family. After his heart returned to its proper location DB replaced the safety and beat a hasty retreat back to the bridge.
Now, a week later, we were on the Skeena fishing for Sockeye. Companions that day were D.B and G.C. We were rigging up and D.B. was rummaging around in his kit bag when it happened. He had touched the trigger of his pepper spray. Unfortunately in the excitement of the moment in last weeks bear encounter he had put the safety on the bear spray upside down. With my luck I just happened to be where that burst of pepper was going.
The reaction was instantaneous and unlike anything I've ever experienced. For about half an hour I was a mess. My buddies, while worried, soon started asking "Are you OK, can we get out fishing"? I joined them a hour later.
At least now I have direct, although involuntary, knowledge of the effect of pepper spray on humans.
How does it work on animals?
The US Fish and Wildlife Service did a study on 27 Grizzly Bear incidents in and around Yellowstone Park. Yellowstone has many visitors and lots of interaction with the various wildlife. Many Elk are hunted around the boundaries of the park and the Grizzlies have a nasty habit of claiming the kill. Of the 27 incidents studied 93% of those using pepper spray sustained no injuries, however 58% of those using firepower to stop an attack sustained injuries. In other words when you have PO'd a grizzly you are likely to need a trip to the nearest medical facility. Consider also that many of the guides involved in some of those encounters are likely to be a little calmer than the average person.
In another study in Alaska of 258 bear-human incidents, those involving firearms were effective in only 68% of the cases. However in 75 incidents involving pepper spray there was a 94% effective outcome.
The best bear deterrent of course is being bear aware. Looking for bear sign, making lots of noise, good camp and food practices, and not being stupid. Keep the bear spray in a holster on your belt or chest. It is amazing to me how many people will buy bear spray and won't buy a holster. When YOGI or BOO-BOO are coming at you at 30 mph believe me it is no time to be looking through your pack for the spray, might just as well spread gravy all over yourself.
As you can see from the above studies a good dose of pepper spray might make that bear forget he wants to eat you.
We can easily encounter blacks or grizzlies anywhere here in Northern BC. We have very few bad stories considering all the anglers, hunters, hikers, forestry and mining workers as well as the native people in the fields and streams. Let's keep it that way.