By Steve Hubrecht

Snow sits on the ground in the Columbia Valley, and subzero temperatures have become the norm in recent weeks. With true winter just around the corner, Invermere and other valley communities will no longer need to worry about bears wandering around town and getting into garbage bins, as the bruins begin their long seasonal hibernations.

But the bears were a big issue this fall, well into November.  When the Pioneer spoke with local senior conservation officer, Greg Kruger, in mid-November, he noted, “We still do have some bears up around Westridge and down into the Wilder subdivision”, although he was quick to add that “day by day, the (bear) complaints are starting to drop off” and that arrival of colder weather would only hasten that trend.

But one valley local — Harrogate resident, Cindy Sousa — is guaranteed to remember this year for a long time to come. Earlier this fall, Sousa experienced the fright of her life one morning: when she arrived very early to work in Invermere, she was charged by a bear.

Nobody else was in sight, and no other vehicles were on the road. Sousa got out of her vehicle, then reached into the back seat to grab her bag. Suddenly she heard a noise.

“I turned around, closing the car door as I did, and saw a very large black bear running — charging — directly towards me,” related Sousa. The bear was moving fast and Sousa realized she had mere seconds before it would be upon her. 

“All I could think was to get to the other side of the vehicle to put something between the bear and me,” she said, so she darted around behind her car. Sousa fumbled with her fob key, desperately trying to unlock the front passenger side door. She tried once. It didn’t work. Starting to panic, she clicked the fob again and this time the door opened.

Certain the bear was mere feet from her, Sousa jumped in the vehicle and immediately tried to slam the door shut behind her, but it wouldn’t latch.  

“In my panic I still had my bag (looped) over my shoulder and it caught in the door,” she said.

Sousa knew she wouldn’t be able to open the door again — even a little bit — to pull in the bag, without the bear sticking its head or a paw in.

So she clutched the door handle as tightly as she could, pulling with all her might to make sure the bear couldn’t pry its way into her vehicle.

“I waited, but the bear must have veered off in a different direction—it was no longer in the parking lot. It happened so fast, I didn’t think I had time to get out of its way. I was shaking so much,” she said.

Sousa stayed in her car wondering where the bear had gone. After several breathless minutes, she hastily scurried across the parking lot, up a flight stairs and through the front door of her workplace.

It was scare unlike any Sousa had experienced before, despite having grown up and lived in B.C.’s northern coast region and having been an avid camper and outdoor enthusiast for decades.

“I have experience being around bears and having bears in my neighbourhood and yard,” she said. “I currently live on an acreage at the bottom of a mountain, and up north I also lived on acreage at the base of a mountain. I’ve had bear encounters camping, in particular, but I’ve never been charged by a bear. It was absolutely terrifying! They move so fast!” 

Sousa echoed Kruger’s concern that valley residents need to do a better job at reducing bear attractants and pointed out that it in the end, it is the bears who pay the ultimate price – getting euthanized by conservation officers – for humans’ carelessness when it comes to keeping ripe fruit off their trees and keeping their garbage indoors until the morning of curbside collection.

“This bear incident didn’t happen out in the bush camping – it happened in a residential neighbourhood in town,” said Sousa. “It is so important for people to realize that garbage and fruit on trees and bushes attracts bears to these areas, making it unsafe for people and the bears alike.”