We never forget our first encounter with a wild animal in its natural habitat.  In this article, I’ll tell you about the first time I came across a bear, tell you how to differentiate between a Grizzly Bear and a Black Bear, and tell you about a few places where you, too, can revel in this magical experience!


In Montreal (where I’m from) bears are not something you see everyday.  During my first summer in Alberta, at Banff National Park, I learned that sightings are so regular an occurance that somtimes certain hiking trails are even closed down because of the bears!  Hikers are advised to carry bells and pepper spay, to always travel in groups, and garbage is thrown into special bear-proof containers.  No, bears are not the only imposing creatures you might happen upon in Canada’s National Parks, but because of how dangerous bears can be they’re the ones we usually talk about!

trash for bears and grizzly bears

Photo: Bear-proof garbage container, Banff National Park

It was in November, just shortly after moving to Whistler, that I saw my first bear.  It was smaller than I thought it would be, but I was hypnotized!  The animal was right there, right next to the ski run, diggin around in the bushes, less than 20 meters away.  It didn’t notice me, and didn’t raise its head.  Several people gathered around, no one daring to move.  Sadly, I didn’thave my camera with me as I was just on my way grocery shopping.  Over the next few weeks I experienced the same event over and over, until they all disappeared, hibernating away for the winter.  Moments like these, they’re unforgetable!

If you ever head out west, be aware, the entire province of British Columbia is considered “bear country”!

black bears

Photo: Black bears in Whistler


What do you think the distinctive characterisitcs are between a black bears and grizzly bears?

Color? Grizzly bears can be blond or black, while black bears are often brown!

Size?  Grizzly bears are usually much bigger.  However, the female grizzly is the same size as a male black bear!

Shape?  One of the easiest ways to tell the difference is that a grizzly bear has a bump on its back, right between its shoulders.

Facial Features?  Black bears have a norrow, elongated snout, while a grizzly bear’s head is rounder with an angled, concave snout.

Ears?  Black bears have longer, pointier ears.

Claws?  Grizzly bears have longer claws, giving them distinctive track marks.

Habitat?  Black bears prefer forests and can climb trees.  Grizzly bears  prefer open spaces and prefer to climb melting snow piles rather than trees.

For more information, visit Parks Canada’s website.

For those of you who are a bit more visual, here is a comparative table showing the differences described above, provided by British Colombia’s Ministry of Environment.

black bear or grizzly bear ?

Could you tell the difference between a grizzly and a black bear?  Click here to test your skills!



Centuries ago, black bear’s and grizzly bear’s natural habitats coverered the entire continent of North America, from Mexico all the way to Alaska.  The former found mostly in forests, the latter living in the open plaines.  Since the 20th century, however, the number one threat to their dimininishing environments is due to rapid human growth.

Where do bears live today?

Black Bears

  • Canada : In all the Canadian provinces, except prince on Prince Edward Island
  • USA : On the west caost, in the Rocky Mountains, the Appalachian Mountains, and around the Great Lakes.

Grizzly Bears

  • Canada : Alberta, British Colombia, the Yukon, and the Northwest Territoeis
  • USA : Alaska, and a few areas throughout the Rocky Mountains

Don’t let their adorable faces fool you, however!  Bears are predators and can be aggressive!  They can run very fast, are curious, have a highly developped sense of smell, and their eyesight is as good as a human being’s.  It is not advised to walk up to a bear should you meet one in the wild.  With luck, you’ll be able to see one from afar, preferably from the safety of a vehicle.

For example, you can instead opt to observe the bears from a tour bus window in Alaska’s Denali National Park, or joining a guided bear watching tour in the Laurentides Wildlife Reserve  (La Réserve Faunique des Laurentides – SEPAQ).  For a guaranteed encounter, consider visiting Kicking Horse Mountain Resort’s Grizzly Bear Refuge!

Plan you visit today! (And follow this safety advice!… J)

By Caroline Asselin

Translated by Julie Rotharmel 

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