When we step out on a hike, no matter the length, chances are we'll be travelling into some pretty remote territory. Though trail systems and park grounds may be well marked to humans, other inhabitants of forests aren't as well versed in boundaries. It is important, then, to know what types of animals live in the area you'll be travelling, and how to detect, avoid, and protect yourself against these wild neighbors.
The Okanagan is home to thousands of different types of creatures that all co-exist in a very well-balanced ecosystem. Don't be surprised while on your hike to find yourself staring face to face with a deer or moose, or watching the splendid ballet of two hawks performing a mating ritual. Such sights are common and always a treat. But while every creature offers a great performance, or cool interaction, remember that these animals are not tame, and should not be approached under any circumstances.
Most of the animals you will encounter while hiking in the Okanagan are harmless. There are a lot of deer around, and with over 500 different species of migratory birds throughout the year, birdwatching is a popular activity. However, animals such as coyotes, rattlesnakes, wolves, black bears, cougars, and moose also range within the valley, and should not be approached under any circumstances. The best way to avoid the majority of predators is to make a lot of noise while you're hiking, whether just by chatting with your party, or by wearing bear-bells. Noise alerts the animals to your presence, and most often will cause them to run away. Most animals only attack when they are surprised.
One of the valley's most populous residents is the diamond-back rattlesnake, which is poisonous. The rattlesnake is named for a dry calcium rattle on the end of its tail, which it shakes to warn a threatening presence away. If you hear the sound of a rattle while out walking, particularly in hot, rocky areas, stop and try to determine where the snake is located. Give the snake a wide berth, at least fifteen feet if possible. The snake will, generally, not make a pursuit. Rattlesnakes enjoy rocky areas with lots of crevasses and shaded areas, so if you're scrambling or rock climbing, be sure to keep a keen ear out for that rattle. Rattlesnake bites are not instantly fatal, and often do not contain enough venom in one bite to kill a human, but they are excruciatingly painful and require immediate medical attention. If bitten, tie off the area if possible, and contact emergency services as soon as you are able. DO NOT TRY TO REMOVE THE VENOM.
The Okanagan Valley is home to several different species of large wild canine, and several species of bear. Under no circumstances should these animals be approached.
There are three known coyote populations, or 'packs', in the Westbank Area. The largest of these packs has up to thirty individuals, and roams between Westbank and Vernon on the west side of Okanagan Lake. Coyotes have been known to wander into populated areas to seek prey in house animals or the marmots that like to live in landscaped areas. Coyotes are usually brown or grey, and look almost like a skinny german shepherd (minus the black). Though it is common to see one or two 'scouts' along the roads, the rest of the pack is usually not far behind. Coyotes generally hunt and roam at night, so if you are camping in the back woods, please be aware and take measures to protect your food-stores. Because they rest during the day, it is rare to see Coyotes on hiking trips, however please take necessary precautions. Coyotes generally do not approach a noisy group.
Bears are solitary travellers, and are very territorial. Often only three bears will share the same hunting grounds, a dominant male, a dominant female, and any offspring that female might have. The majority of the bears you might encounter in Westbank and area are all members of the blackbear family, though their coats can range in color from honey-brown to red, to black. Further north, a genetic anomaly creates pure white black-bears, often called 'spirit bears'. None of those are in the valley though. Bears hibernate in the winter, and eat copious amounts of food in order to create a fat store that will permit them to hibernate. Bears are omniverous, and like to eat berries as much as any fish. With the number of fruit orchards in the valley, bear sightings are common, and response services are well-equipped.
While hiking, make lots of noise to alert any possible bears in the area of your position. Because of their solitary nature, bears will avoid all instances of noise. The best way to avoid bear encounters are to travel in large groups, or if in small groups, wear bear bells. These bells can be purchased at any outdoor store, and can be attached to any backpack or garment. The bells jingle as you walk, which allows the bears to hear you without you having to constantly talk.
Should you encounter a bear, make yourself as large as possible by standing up tall, and holding your arms out. Talk calmly and levelly to the bear while backing away. Do not turn and run, and do not approach the bear. A useful item to carry with you is a type of fire-cracker called a 'bear banger'. These are also sold at any outdoor supply store, and are easy to use. A bear banger is launched from a small cylindrical tube and can fire up to 150 feet. They make very loud noises which will cause a bear to flee. It is not advisable to use bear bangers unless confronted by an aggressive bear.
Another product on the market as a bear deterrent is something called bear-spray. Essentially, bear spray is similar to pepperspray used by law enforcement, but is much more powerful. Bearspray is spicy, and designed to shut down a bear's respiratory system in order to distract it from pursuit. Bearspray is, however, NOT a good tool to use when deterring a bear, for three main reasons. Firstly, bears enjoy bear spray, and will often be seen munching on canisters, trying to get at the spicy liquid inside. Secondly, the spray is powerful enough to choke bears, so it can choke humans as well, which limits your opportunity of escape. Thirdly, in order for Bear Spray to be effective, it has to be sprayed at the bear from not more than three meters away. (would you honestly wait for a bear to get three meters close to you before you take defensive action???) Some hikers do use and recommend bear spray, but the choice is yours. (Bear Bangers are about the same price, and shoot 150 feet remember...)
One more thing: Black bears, no matter their size, are spectacular tree climbers. In fact, when threatened, a black bear will choose to climb a tree. I do not recommend climbing trees in an attempt to escape a black bear. Stay on the ground, and back away from the bear slowly while speaking to it, keep eye contact, and never turn your back on a wild animal.
Woodticks come out in the spring (March through June) and may be very easily picked up after walking through grass, or thick bush. They are small, reddish, buglike parasites about three sixteenths of an inch long that may bury their heads into your skin and cause an infection called Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. If one enters your skin, application of heat from, say, a lit cigarette will cause the insects to surface. If you are unsure about what to do, stop in a medi-clinic and seek attention. Dont try to force the parasite out with your fingers or the head may break off and leave you in an even worse predicament. Once again, If worse comes to worse, seek medical attention. Always check your clothing and make sure to take a shower or bath after hiking through bush in the spring.
There are several other species native to the Okanagan Valley that hikers should be aware of. As in many other parts of Canada, blackflies and horseflies are dominant in the valley, and are known to bite. Though the bites aren't poisonous, they are painful, and bugspray will usually keep them off. There are some mosquitos in the valley, particularly when the weather has cooled off in the evening. Though there have been no reports of West Nile Virus (which is transmitted through mosquito bites), this far west yet, biologists are remaining vigilant.
There are several poisonous varieties of spider in the Okanagan Valley, all of which make their homes predominantly outdoors. The first, and most famous, of these is the Black Widow, often identified by the bright read hour-glass or 'X' marking on her underbelly. Though the spider bite is poisonous, it is unlikely to kill an adult. Children bitten should recieve immediate medical attention. The bite is, however, exceedingly painful, and immediate medical attention should be administered. A second species of spider that should be watched for are called Wolf-Spiders. They are usually very large, light brown spiders that enjoy dark, cool places. These spiders have a minimally poisonous bite that will not kill a human, but may make small children ill. Should a spider bite be suspected, please seek medical attention.
Along with the predatory type of animals, there are several others hikers need to be aware of, and take measures to avoid. One such is the Moose. Most people don't really think about the Moose as a threat while hiking, but during mating season, both bull and cows have a tendency to charge. Warning signs that a moose is about to charge come as physical changes to the animal's appearance and behavior. Generally, a good indicator of an eminent attack is when the animals ears are pressed flat and turned backwards, and the hair on the whithers (upper shoulder) is raised. Another indication of charge is if the Moose starts licking its lips.
Moose charges are not common, but they are very protective, and territorial animals. Make sure to never cut off a cow from a calf, and always make lots of noise to let them know you're in the vacinity.