Expert advice on the dangers of North Island wilderness

Home / WRITING & EDITING / Nature & Environment / Expert advice on the dangers of North Island wilderness
Coastal black bears like this one are generally docile, unless they have cubs, said local biologist and forester Megan Hanacek at her wilderness skills course in April.
Photo by Darrell McIntosh.

By Trish Weatherall

Published in the North Island Eagle newspaper May 19, 2017

In Part 2 of the series on the wilderness skills course, outdoor experts Megan Hanacek and Carleigh Fairchild offer advice on the dangers of the North Vancouver Island wilderness and emergency first aid. The pair survived in the Patagonia wilderness for more than two months last summer on the History Channel’s Alone TV series, where local predators were wild boars, foxes, and pumas.

On Vancouver Island land predators include cougars, bears, and wolves.

Hanacek said that Vancouver Island has the highest density of cougars in North America, with an estimated 800. “They tend to travel on waterways,” she said. “And are generally solitary and territorial.”

Though the average islander has never seen a cougar, Hanacek, a Port McNeill forester and biologist, has run into 13 cougars in her life and recommends that people maintain eye contact and slowly back away. “Never turn your back on them and run and scream,” she said.

She has also encountered many black bears and several grizzlies, in her work as a forester and biologist. She says coastal black bears are usually docile, unless they have cubs, while inland bears are genetically different, and have been known to circle around and then charge.

Though not their usual habitat, Hanacek says that grizzly bears may be on Vancouver Island by island hopping (swimming from island to island from the mainland).

She also pointed out that, “The idea that bears can’t run well downhill is a myth. They can still run up to 60 km per hour,” she said.

Hanacek recommended carrying multiple bear bangers, which emit a gunshot sound, and additional flares.  

The best way to avoid dangerous wildlife is to make noise to alert animals of your presence and to be aware of your surroundings.

Other animals can give you signals if a predator is near. Hanacek said, “Birds are really big indicators for tracking and warnings. If you hear many crows calling out, it’s a sign of a disturbance in the territory – whether it be an evading predator or injured animal.”

She says certain large dogs can be beneficial when hiking, if they are well-trained. They can smell, hear, and sense a predator long before a human can.

Areas of the North Island, like Cape Scott, prohibit dogs on the trail. Hanacek confirmed that dogs and their urine will attract wolves, if they are in the area. “The wolves will want them off their territory.”

But she said in most other areas there is little risk of encountering the estimated 180 coast wolves on Vancouver Island.

A very real risk in the cool, wet coastal rainforest is hypothermia. “You can get hypothermia quickly, even on land, without realizing it,” said Hanacek.

“It’s a gradual thing,” said Greg Ovens, another Alone show contestant at the course, who tapped out of Patagonia due to hypothermia. “You don’t even know it’s happening. It plays with your mind.”

If someone has hypothermia, Hanacek said, “It’s important to warm them gradually, starting with warm (not hot) pads under the arms.”

To prevent hypothermia, change wet clothing immediately, put on all your dry clothes, and seek shelter.

Fairchild notes to be aware of warning signs that something is wrong. “Remember the ‘umble’ family. If you start to grumble, fumble, or stumble, pay attention to what it can mean.”

Dehydration can cause symptoms of weakness, nausea, dizziness and hallucinations. The average person burns about 2 litres of water per day, but you can survive for 3-5 days without it.

To handle back woods situations like these and injuries, Hanacek and Fairchild gave the class guidance on emergency supplies.

“Firstly, have a routine, so you’re always putting things in the same spot,” Hanacek said. “A fishing-type vest with pockets is also great for storing things on your body. It’s good to think about the worst-case scenario, and what you’ll need on you.”

Fairchild says to know your emergency kit, and to keep it for emergencies only. “It shouldn’t be the first time you see what’s in it. And it’s not for regular use, or you will be missing things when you really need it.”

In Fairchild’s emergency kit, she carries: paracord, band-aids, swabs, pads, a tensor bandage, a safety pin, handwarmers, alcohol, wax fire starter, condensed towel, waterproof matches, and a whistle on a lanyard.

“An emergency whistle is an important tool, it’s louder and will last longer than your voice,” said Fairchild. “The recognized signal is three short whistle blasts, pause, and repeat. The response is two whistle blasts.”

Fairchild also revealed a handy remedy available in your spice rack, “Keep cayenne pepper in your first aid kit. You can rub it on your hands for emergency heating, or sprinkle it on a cut to coagulate blood.”