I was browsing some blogs this morning and I found a post where someone commented that it was worth it to spend the $40 a night for a campsite at an organized campground because you wouldn't run into any bears. Now, I wasn't sure if this person was deluded or just inexperienced because there's no way any camper can guarantee a bear free trip.
I've never seen a bear though I've been awoken at night by someone running past my tent screaming "I saw a bear! I saw a bear!" Once, after walking to the dumpsters by myself after dinner, I saw someone had posted a bear sighting on the park wildlife spotting board at the exact time I'd been there (I need to be more observant.)
Anyway, it got me thinking, are you more likely to have a bear encounter in the backcountry or in an organized campground?
First of all, I think this depends entirely on where the campground is. I'm going to guess that you're less likely to see a bear at a park like say Darlington, which is close to a major city. So lets base this discussion on the difference between Algonquin back and front country.
More people in an organized camp ground might mean less bears in the actual campsites, since bears are usually pretty timid and want to avoid large groups of people, but on the other hand, more people means more chance of having someone who leaves their food and garbage out, thus drawing curious bears in. Areas like dumpsters are usually a good distance from sites, so you should be extra observant around them.
I would think campers who head into the back country are a bit more experienced and so know to not leave food lying around camp, and all the other safety precautions widely published to avoid bear encounters. That's pretty naive of me, I know. I've read enough trip logs of campers coming up to a site and finding it littered with old food, fish guts, garbage and human waste to know not all campers are good campers. Our first and only (so far) back country trek, we had no choice but to stay at a site where there was a half case of empty beer bottles, and a huge pile of trash (including a scary number of used condoms scattered on top of the fire pit.
Bears are going to be attracted by the smell of food cooking, and whether you're in a cozy site next to a group of partying college kids, or alone on an isolated lake, you're going to have to eat. Does the concentration of lots of food being cooked offer a bigger draw to bears, or the isolated campers frying up their morning catch? What's more appetizing to them, fresh caught fish, or spicy sausages on the grill? I would imagine either would be likely to have more appeal than freeze dried stew...at least they would be more strongly scented.
The truth is, bears aren't hiding behind every tree and thicket, waiting for some hapless camper to fire up their stove or leave a crumb on the ground. They leave that to the chipmunks. In a busy campground, you can't control what your neighbours do, so if they get drunk and leave the scraps from their steak dinner on the picnic table, well there isn't much you can do but hope the wildlife doesn't wander into your site after it finishes cleaning up next door. In the backcountry, provided you aren't forced to use a site where past campers have left a buffet of trash behind, you can follow the safety precautions and be mostly assured you won't have problems. If your neighbours aren't so cautious, you can take comfort in the fact they are most likely half a lake away, and their carelessness won't affect you.
Anyway, the point is, fear of bears is no reason to avoid heading out into the bush, whether in a park or on crown land, and even if you pay hundreds of dollars for a campsite, you aren't buying a guarantee of a bear-free getaway...unless the site is surrounded by electric fence, and really, that's not what camping is all about.