Curtis Matwishyn was hoping to snap a few photos of a young black bear in the forest near Waskesiu Lake, in northern Saskatchewan, earlier this month.
But the wildlife photographer soon found himself a bit too close for comfort to the animal.
Matwishyn and his fiancée were driving back to Waskesiu, where he works as a wildland firefighter, looking for wildlife to take photos of. After spotting the bear amble into the meadow, Matwishyn followed it with his camera and phone, as well as a can of bear spray.
After taking a few photos, the bear seemed to sense his presence.
“It was sniffing the air … and it was looking and trying to find me,” he said.
Matwishyn believed the bear — at that point about 100 metres from him — would cross the trail he was on and move deeper into the forest to get away from human contact. Instead, it walked toward him.
Once it came within about 40 metres of him, Matwishyn put his camera away and began backing up, arming himself with the bear spray, and calling at the animal to try to scare it off.
“It looked at me, but it just continued walking down the trail toward me, unfazed,” he said.
Matwishyn attempted to step into the woods to let the bear pass on the trail, but it followed him there, too.
“[It] was at that point that I knew that I was in a different bear encounter than I had ever had before,” he said.
Resisting the urge to take more photos with his camera, he opted instead to take video of the encounter with his phone. It was about three minutes later that the bear came close enough that he released some spray, which immediately scared the animal off.
Matwishyn was able to safely return to his car, where his fiancée was relieved that she hadn’t gone with him.
“It’s almost like time slows down and you’re hyper-focused,” he said.
“I was focused on the bear, focused on not tripping as I was walking backward … and having a good outcome for myself and the bear.”
Matwishyn said bear safety training through his work prepared him well for the encounter and kept him calm. It’s the closest he’s come to a bear while on foot.
The video has since become popular online, receiving over 3.7 million views on popular Facebook site ViralHog as of Thursday afternoon.
“I actually had friends that had seen the video but they had no idea it was me,” he said.
“In a group chat we were chatting and my friend realized, ‘I saw that video — that was you?’ That’s, I guess, how you know it’s gone viral.”
Right steps taken, says park ecologist
The province of Saskatchewan notes on its website that most bears are cautious around humans, but recommends “if you encounter a bear, cougar or some other predator, keep your distance.”
Dustin Guedo, an ecologist with Parks Canada based at Waskesiu Lake, which is located in Prince Albert National Park, says Matwishyn took the right approach when the bear started following him.
“He kept alert, always talking to the bear, trying to scare the bear off,” said Guedo. “The outcome, in the end, was a good one.”
The only thing Matwishyn could have done differently, said Guedo, was use the bear spray sooner.
Guedo says there could be a variety of reasons as to why the bear began following him, but it’s possible that because the bear was young, it was curious. Guedo says bear attacks on humans in the park are rare.
Matwishyn, meanwhile, hopes the video can be used to show others how to handle encounters, even though he knows there are things he’d do differently next time.
“It hasn’t scared me away from the bush. If anything, it’s actually given me more confidence.”