27 Jun A Grizzly Surprise
We can’t remember a spring like it. It seems that every time we turn a corner we come across another bear. There is a grizzly mum with three yearling cubs that we have seen several times. It might just be the same family of bears we saw on the river in the autumn last year just above the ranch, her cubs now a full winter older.
There are two or three grizzly sub-adults nosing around the neighbourhood. One of their number came strolling nonchalantly down our driveway last week and only sauntered off when Masha, the more observant of our two now semi-retired German Shepherds, howled at him furiously, hair standing on end.
There are also any number of black bears. During one short trip near the ranch, Kristin and I saw a single adult black bear and a mum with a cub feeding calmly within 50 yards of each other. The total tally for our midday foray was six bears in an hour.
Ironically, then, it is also the first spring in many that we are not open for business. After nearly a decade running the ranch, Kristin and I decided to hold off on taking guests this spring, spruce the place up a bit, and give it a lick of paint. (More about that later.)
Of course figuring out why there are more bears around this year than in others can only ever be educated guesswork. There is still a lot of snow up high, which might be forcing them to stay lower than usual. Several grizzly mums that we have watched for years have finally booted out their cubs last summer and so they might be searching around for a new home range.
At times like this bear hunters mutter that the bears are taking over and need to be culled. The BC government, apparently in thrall to their lobbying power, often pump up the numbers of hunting tags or extend the areas where bears can be shot. But the truth is more complex. Sometimes it is simply that the bears are lower down in the valleys where we see them more often than in years when there is better food up high.
After eight years watching bears, and more than five as a certified full bear guide, I still find it difficult to answer the simple questions such as: why are we seeing more bears? Giving pat and simplistic answers is always the easiest way out, of course. But not necessarily the most honest. One of the most important qualities in a wilderness guide, in my book, is simply being able to say: “I don’t know.” Or having the humility to recognise that just because you have seen a bear behave in a certain way 100 times in a row, it doesn’t mean it will do the same the 101st time.
I was reminded a couple of weeks ago of the follies of complacency and assumption around bears. And ironically it took a trip to town to make it happen. After a long week working up at the ranch, on Friday afternoon we showered the dirt out of our hair and made the two hour drive to town. We spent an evening with friends at a Mexican bar.
And then, savouring a day off, I headed out on a lone bike ride on a well-frequented semi-urban forest trail. The sun was shining and it was a warm day. Half an hour in I was only a little surprised to see a sign that read “Bear Activity. Beware.” It was written in big bold letters. “Townies,” I tut-tutted to myself. “Scared of their own shadows.”
Then a little later on I saw some bear scat on the path. But it was old and had dried out in the sun. “Bears are long gone,” I muttered, consoling myself with not having brought the pepper spray I always carry when I am guiding.
And then, just as I was at my most relaxed and unvigilant, out of nowhere just down and a little to my left, I sensed rather than saw an explosive blur of brown movement. The young but muscular grizzly bear had been quietly eating grass right by the trail and hadn’t heard or smelled me coming.
He was now barely 20 feet from my front wheel. I gasped in surprise. And then my training kicked in. De-escalate, I thought, calm him down. “Good bear,” I said as soothingly as I could. “Good boy. Good boy.”
For just a moment the grizzly hesitated. And then he turned and fled. He ploughed his way up the mountain, thrashing and kicking through the brush. As he retreated deep into the bush I felt like a fool. For years I had been teaching guests the basics of bear safety: make noise when you are in the bush, don’t leave home without bear spray, be especially vigilant when out alone.
The fact that I had come out of this encounter with only a story to tell was more down to the bear’s good judgement than mine.
On the subject of bears I went to see Charlie Russell last week. For those of you not familiar with Charlie, he is the closest thing we have to a bear guru in western Canada.
For years Charlie, who comes from a ranching background, worked with bears on BC’s west coast. Then he spent several years in Kamchatka in Russia raising orphaned cubs in the wild. His incredible story was recorded in a BBC documentary called The Edge of Eden.
Charlie, now in his seventies, has semi-retired to his family ranch in southern Alberta, just on the edge of Waterton National Park, one of Canada’s hidden gems.
Sitting on his deck looking south to where the Rockies curled away in front of us, we discussed the politics surrounding bears and how incredibly tolerant bears usually are of humans given the violence that we so often mete out to them.
I hadn’t seen Charlie for a couple of years and since our last meeting he had had a bad plane crash when his beloved ultralight went into a high-speed stall and smashed into the ground at upwards of 70 miles an hour. Back broken, passing out with pain, unable to walk, Charlie managed to roll his way to a distant house from where he was eventually taken by ambulance to hospital.
Sadly, Charlie’s lifetime work – spreading the message that humans can co-exist peacefully with bears if they just learn not to fear them – finds little resonance in his own backyard where ranchers and farmers still see bears as their implacable enemies.
“It’s funny,” Charlie said to me recently. “I can go to New York City and have a whole roomful of people listen to what I have to say, but here in the community the local park managers won’t even give me the time of day.”
Nevertheless it was great to catch up with Charlie. Although he lives humbly and spends much of his time in the bush, he is courageous, rebellious and uncorrupted. There is the steel of the settler about him, but tempered by a wry sense of humour and a gentle warmth. His family have lived on the same piece of land since the 1930s, not long after western Canada was first opened up by the railway.
He has promised us a return visit. Last time he came to visit he arrived by plane and made a daredevil landing on our fast-flowing river. This time it will have to be a more mundane, but hardly less picturesque, drive through the Rockies.