Bearspotting – The making of a nerd

We had just made it down to the river shore, scrambling and ducking under branches and around stumps, when the young grizzly bear appeared without warning just upstream.

We stood mesmerized as he moved towards us, clearly oblivious. With a bound he started in our direction, before stopping to pounce on a red salmon in the river.

We stood there, hearts beating hard, pepper-spray canisters in hand, weighing the next step. Was he alone? Was his mum around? If we sprayed him would she rush to his defence? So many unknowns.

Then the training and all those hours of studying bears kicked in.
“Never surprise a grizzly bear at close quarters.” The mantra flashed through my mind. “Always make sure the bear knows you are there.”

By now the grizzly was barely 100 feet away. We raised our arms and clapped and shouted. The bear came to a sudden and surprised halt. He circled this way and that. Then slowly he moved off into the bush.

As bear encounters go, this was an exciting one. Coming face to face with a wild grizzly fishing for salmon in the wilderness, unarmed, on foot, and on its own terms is an experience to be savoured.

On the BC coast some bear-viewing operations offer the commodified experience of watching bears from purpose-built viewing platforms. But the bears are habituated to people, predictable, and somehow distant.

We prefer the less consistent but more varied viewing that comes with operating around totally wild bears. Some are indifferent to humans, some not, but each has its own personality, history and behaviour.

The encounter with the young grizzly today somehow represented a culmination to months of learning about these icons of the wilderness.
There’s more to bears than just watching the animals themselves.

There is the scat – slightly smaller than a horse’s produce but significantly larger than a human’s. Some are red and heavy with berries, others green and apple-scented.

When the bears begin to gorge on the salmon the scats take on a grey colour and a pungent fishy smell.

Then there are the tracks. On a grizzly print the claws are further from the toe-marks than on a black bear and the ball of the foot less curved.

There are less obvious signs too: scratches and bite marks on trees that the bears like to rub and urinate on leaving their scent for the next animal that comes along.

There are bear paths through the bush and tiny snips of hair caught on twigs (black bear hair tends to be uniform in colour, grizzly hair usually varies throughout its length).

Wherever you find bears in our valley you also find sign of other co-residents. In the last few days we have spotted the tracks of elk, moose, a porcupine, a bobcat and several wolves.

Of course learning the lore of the wilderness does not happen overnight. For the past three years I have been studying the forest floor, consulting books and steadily learning.

When I came here I could scarcely tell a willow from a Christmas Tree. Now I can reliably spot a hemlock, cedar, fir, pine, aspen or birch.

I can identify Devil’s Club, thimbleberry, mountain ash, cow parsnip, horsetail and a host of other spring bear foods.

I can tell a juvenile bald eagle from a golden eagle at several hundred feet, separate a Steller’s Jay from a Clark’s Nutcracker, spot a kingfisher, an American dipper and some of the various kinds of hummingbirds.

Kristin, who was always better-versed in these matters than I was, watches the birds in our yard avidly, binoculars in one hand, Sibley field guide in the other.

Her list, which she started in the spring, includes the Downey woodpecker, black-chinned hummingbird, yellow-headed blackbird, evening grosbeak, yellow-rumpled warbler and slate-coloured dark-eyed junco. There are doves, finches, waxwings and pine siskins.

When I was younger and more callow I used to laugh at birders and biologists and their anorak ways. Politics, philosophy, wars and conflicts seemed infinitely more interesting than the natural world.

We still listen avidly to the BBC World Service, have a subscription to the Economist (surely the only one in our valley), and try to keep up with the New York Times on the web.

Georgia, Russia, Iran, Iraq and, of course, Sarah Palin are never far from our dinner table conversations.

But wilderness talk is slowly taking over: the weather, the winter, the leaves, the trees, the garden, the wild animals and, of course, and especially, the bears.

In a bid to better understand them I travelled to Knight Inlet on the west coast of BC in May and have brought experts to the ranch to train Gillian (our other guide) and me in ursine ways.

I have read studies, ploughed through books and listened to those who know more than I do.

At this time of year all that work and patience finally begins to pay off as the grizzlies appear in our valley. After the lament of my previous blog entry, nature is now making up for her former parsimony.

In the last few days, even before the latest encounter, we had seen five different grizzlies in our valley, as well as a mum with two cubs. Two of them have been really showy bears with attitude and character.

Those of you tracking my transmogrification from vodka-swilling city-slicker into turd-sniffing bear nerd will also be pleased to know of another small accomplishment.

I have recently been promised promotion to Full Bear-Viewing Guide (as sanctioned although not yet formally endorsed by the Commercial Bear Viewing Association of British Columbia).

It’s not exactly a pensionable profession, but it is certainly a new direction. Hopefully the bear encounter related above will be the first of many such thrilling meetings with these wonderful animals.