Day One of the Project
It’s been a hectic year at the ranch.
It was ushered in, in early April, by a D6 bulldozer pummelling its way down our driveway through four feet of snow. In charge of the beast was Ron, an old-timer who lives locally, whom I had asked to clear us a path in to the ranch.
To make matters difficult it had been one of our snowiest winters on record.
Ron fired up the rusty old dozer, a machine that had long since seen its best years, and pushed and shoved huge mounds of the white stuff this way and that for hours and hours.
And finally, as night began to fall, we had a network of rudimentary paths through our yard. (Click here for dozer.)
Most years we allow nature to do the heavy lifting for us when it comes to snow removal.
It has always seemed pointless to me to shovel snow around and place it in orderly piles, when it will all melt anyway in the spring sunshine.
But this year was to be different. This was to be the year the ranch was reborn.
A whole new floor on the main house, two brand new cabins and one extensive rebuild, and a new power, water and heating system.
Grizzly Bear Ranch 2.0.
If we didn’t make a Herculean effort to get in early, I knew, there would be no chance we would be ready in time for our autumn grizzly-viewing season, a mere 24 weeks away.
The man we chose to spearhead the rebirth was local timber-framer Hans.
A rangy man with large feet, a booming voice and an easy smile, Hans came recommended by Forest, one of our best friends in the valley and occasional wilderness guide for us.
As those of you who have been to the ranch will know, the social topography of the valley delineates firmly along the hippy-redneck fault-line, two communities divided by a vastly different world view and a fast-flowing river.
West of the river the social architecture rests on the traditional pillars of logging, mining, road-building, machine-driving. The cultural totems are Carhartt clothes, large American pick-ups, guns and Budweiser.
The east bank is the realm of small Toyotas, tofu, home-made waistcoats and herbal tea. The mainstay of the economy is homesteading. The stimulant of choice organic BC bud.
Many of the east bankers (“hippies” to the outsiders) trace their lineage back to a Quaker community that set up in these remote parts in the 1960s.
The community has since been bolstered by waves of draft-dodgers, artisans, musicians, back-to-the-landers and potheads, all seeking communality and a quiet, rural unhurried life.
When Hans arrived, he brought with him a veritable clutch of hippies.
His sidekick was Christopher, a likeable chatterbox and master carpenter with long wayward hair and a deep love of 1980s pop.
Framing the roof
Throughout the long hot summer snatches of Duran Duran, Soft Cell and other best-forgotten bands could be heard over the din of his planers and saws.
The mechanic and master-of-all-trades was Spring, who was to become a good friend.
The son of a Mountie who had fled his father’s ordered world at a young age, Spring built a house in the woods – not a straight line in it, he often said with pride – and, with his young bride, raised two children.
On one memorable weekend, Spring and I drove a 24 foot trailer the nine hours to Calgary and spent an entire day stuffing it with IKEA sofas, cupboards, mirrors, side tables and other accessories of modern life.
Others in Hans’s team included Noah, Lorne, Will and Jerome, a Quebecois who turned up with two teenaged sons and spent the summer living in a small caravan in the corner of the garden.
There was also Sean the plumber, Sean the digger, two electricians, and a propane installer, a middle-aged version of Pieface from the Beano.
And, for the next five months, five days a week, 10 hours a day, they worked their hearts out to try and ensure we reached the finishing line in time.
The crew even managed to take in their stride a last-minute decision of mine to pick up and move two major buildings to different parts in the yard.
One of them we moved on a flatbed trailer. The workshop, a 20-tonne behemoth, we slid on beams coated in shortening, usually used to make pastries. (Click here for more.)
In the hands of such an eclectic and capable crew (Pieface excepted), and with Hans pushing for Stakhanovite efforts from his workers, the project came in over budget but on time.
The woodwork, when all was done, was simply beautiful.
The electrics worked, the water flowed, and the new cabins were well-insulated, nicely-finished and cozy.
We had a new off-grid power system and a 500 foot ditch of electrical, propane and water lines that linked the house with all the cabins.
Kristin had a new store room, a rebuilt woodshed and a new kitchen.
So what of the old eclectic Grizzly Bear Ranch? Has it been swept away by the furious tide of progress?
Hardly. It is true that we are now more organised and more legal than we have ever been.
We have a Park Use Permit, an Adventure Tourism tenure, and pay an assortment of government taxes we had not even heard of a year or two ago.
Our maximum capacity has gone from eight guests to 12. We have added one new 4×4 to our stable of off-road vehicles.
Much of my plumbing has been replaced. (Surely a good thing.) The generator is now automatic, and the windows don’t stick when it gets cold.
But for all the improvements, the big picture has barely changed. The ranch is still a very small wilderness lodge, tiny compared to some of the big wilderness bear-viewing operations on the coast.
And that’s how we intend to keep it.
As the winter comes down again this year – we’ve already had minus 15 degrees and there is snow in the forecast for this week – the year of big changes is drawing to a close.
It’s time to hibernate again.
The grizzly bears, which turned up in good numbers in October, have now left for their lofty mountain dens.
Kristin, I and the dogs are in town for the winter, drinking Americanos, reading books and cleaning down our skis.
Of course there is the usual serpentine bureaucracy of running a small business to attend to. Accounts, permits, marketing, bookings.
But the investment we have made in the ranch, both in capital and effort, is, I suppose, a new commitment to our adopted home.
When the snow begins to melt next spring, it will mark the beginning of our 10th year in Canada.
It hasn’t all been easy, what with the hillbillies, the trophy hunters, and a seemingly endless string of small disasters to contend with.
But for all the frustrations the valley is now in our blood. The grizzly bears and wolves, the giant cedar and hemlock trees, the vibrant spring wildflowers, the rushing blue-green water.
For two city slickers, who could barely change a light bulb and didn’t know one end of a bear from the other a decade ago, its been a wild ride.
The finished product (with Masha the dog)
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.
As insular as our little world is in this idyllic corner of British Columbia, I realise, of course, that my great backcountry skiing venture – largely a retail event so far – is not exactly headline news.
That accolade probably goes to Putin’s homophobic extravaganza on the Black Sea, which will kick off in a few weeks.
The ex-KGB strongman has, I hear, put several hundred Cossacks on the Kremlin’s payroll to ensure that the entire Olympic venue resembles a multi-billion dollar Potemkin village.
Russia’s finest have long since traded in their horses for white panel vans. But their state-sanctioned mission is still the same: to clear the south of Muslims and other undesirables.
Ironically that mostly means rounding up and deporting the very workmen who have build the stadia and other facilities that are designed to wow the world.
I can’t help but chuckle as western democracies, meanwhile, outdo each other in sending as many gay and lesbian high-level ambassadors as they can muster to the games.
If Putin greets them in his holiday outfit, perched on a horse, stripped to the waist, with tight leather trousers on, we could be in for quite a spectacle.
Several years ago, when a Russian Olympics was first mooted, I travelled as a Moscow-based correspondent to Krasnaya Polyana, setting of many of this year’s ski events.
Back then there were only rusting chairlifts and a few mud roads. I hear that has now changed and that the little mountain valley has been transformed into a veritable nirvana for the skiing glitterati.
So why all the fuss about skiing? What is its unique allure? And – back in BC now – what is it about the backcountry variant that makes it so special?
In my days as a new Canadian I thought that skiing is skiing is skiing and about as interesting as that other national obsession in the Great White North, ice hockey.
I still think that hockey is a bit dull (I offer my heartfelt apologies to my Canuck friends reading this) but with a decade in Canada now creeping up on me, I have changed my mind about skiing.
There is, of course, not one type of skiing but several, each with its own hard-line following.
First off, there is downhill skiing. Also known as alpine. You get a ride to the top of a slope on a chair lift and then either howl (or whimper) down a run until you reach the bottom.
Do this three, four, five or six times and then its off the bar for a few drinks and a bit of boasting with your with mates. Good honest skiing with a strong social, and sometimes alcoholic, component.
Then there is its slightly nerdier cousin, cross-country skiing (sometimes also known as Nordic). This is what Kristin grew up doing and is still irritatingly and effortlessly good at.
A firm favourite among flatlanders, it is considered a little safer than its more mountainous cousin sports. (Though I hear that Angela Merkel broke her pelvis doing exactly this.)
During our early days in Canada, Kristin and I would sometimes head out on a frigid prairie Sunday mornings, occasionally a little fuzzy after a heavy night, for a bit of Mr-and-Mrs Cross-country.
But watching my Nordette slither her way towards the horizon as I puffed and panted in the rear did nothing to endear the sport to me.
(There was one particular little bottom shimmy that Kristin used to throw in which seemed to gain her several yards and was especially infuriatingly.)
And then, proud and alone, marooned like Noah’s ark at the pinnacle of winter sports, is the black sheep of the family: backcountry skiing.
It may not sound like much. It is sometimes even known by the rather mundane (and therefore misleading) sobriquet of ski-touring.
But the reality of it is this:
Pick a mountain, glue skins on your skis and then beast yourself upwards through thick virgin powder snow for hour after hour after hour until civilisation and people are but distant memories.
Then, when you finally summit the mountain, wrung out like a wet rag, lock your heels into the bindings, chose a tract of powder never before touched by man and launch yourself off the ridgeline.
Floating through several feet of feather-like powder, trees rushing at you left and right, you hunch forward, push your skis skywards and twist and swivel like a hyperactive rockabilly.
This past weekend, thanks to Kjell, a friend I met at the ranch and a talented and sympathetic ski guide, who agreed to baby me through my first run, it all finally came together for me.
The uphill slog was certainly punishing. But the downhill, a kaleidoscope of fresh powder, looming trees and heart-stopping vistas, was, as the younger aficionados say, sick, man, rad.
I fell a dozen or more times, got snow down my neck, up my back and behind my ears, but made it down, in no small measure thanks to my excellent guide, without injury.
So, I hear you ask, is it all worth it? The endless boot-fitting, the hours spent fiddling with the bindings, straps and bleepers, the outlandishly awkward skins, not to mention the outrageous capital outlay.
Dude! Are you a mountain man or a flatland mouse? A trailblazer or a born follower? A player or an also-ran? Own those hills! Shred that pow!
I might not be with Putin on the Botox, the ecdysiastic horsemanship or the homophobia, but emptying out the piggy bank for a few weeks of skiing, I can see eye-to-eye with him on that.
I had been mulling over the decision for weeks. It’s not, after all, a small commitment to make.
The skis are the least of it. All wood and pastels and go-faster stripes, you fork out several hundred bucks for them.
Then come the boots. Great misshapen hunks of plastic adorned with buckles, clips and screws that cost more than my first car.
“Yo. Like wicked in the pow,” said one young salesman as I handled these huge shiny objects at a store. “Great value, man, like a thousand-dollar boot at like half the price.”
I knew enough of the BC Kootenay culture to know that pow was powder, as in light fluffy snow. Still, $500 for boots, even heavily discounted? I asked for cheaper ones.
But in the world of high-tech gear, the bargains just never seem to make sense. No heat-mouldable liners. No hollowed-out lightweight buckle-systems. No easy-fit clip-in feature.
After nearly an hour strutting around the store with these shiny appendages on my feet, Kristin, a genetically patient Nord, finally lost it.
“Do you know how long we’ve been here?” she asked peevishly.
“I have to make sure they fit,” I said, rather pathetically.
Kristin looked at me witheringly and left to attend to more important matters. The staff at the store, clearly frequent witnesses to such gear-induced marital vicissitudes, looked away discreetly.
Once the boots and the skis are in the bag – another $200 or so if you get one of those – there are of course the bindings.
Small but critical little contraptions made of metal and plastic, they connect the ski to the boot, need the hands of Swiss watchmaker to operate, and cost more than a Third World monthly wage.
“Aren’t they included with the skis?” I had whined when I first started checking out newski gear at the beginning of the winter.
The lady in the store looked at me as if I was an alien who had just landed on PlanetSki, which, I suppose, I had. “Like yeah! Sure. Yo. As if. Dude.”
Nor are the bindings the end of the story. There is a high-pitched beacon to find your buddy when he disappears under an avalanche, all-too-frequent occurrences in the mountains of western Canada.
(I was tempted, selfishly, to skip on that one, but realised that if I did nobody would be able to find me either.)
Then you need a fold-down probe to prod your unfortunate friend post-avalanche as he lies in mortal panic under several feet of snow.
“You’ll know when it’s a person you’re prodding,” one friend, who is an experiencedbackcountry warrior, told me matter-of-factly. “It feels different from rock. More squishy.”
Last but not least, you need a shovel to dig the poor bugger out. Best case scenario, you have something under 15 minutes. That is if there is no secondary avalanche. And if he (or she) has survived the avalanche in the first place.
I must admit that after watching a video of a botched avalanche rescue, I nearly gave up on the whole ridiculous idea.
It all seemed a little overwhelming, and when I told Kristin that I was thinking of abandoning the project she seemed pleased for the first time since the whole saga had begun.
I let a couple of weeks slide by. It’s not like I don’t have enough going on already, I told myself.
As well as running the ranch, looking for bears, guiding guests, baby-sitting two permanently-delinquent German Shepherds, and doing the odd stint in the pay of the British government in far-flung places, I hike, bike, and mountaineer (a bit).
On top of that, I’m trying to reactivate my schoolboy French, finish off a book still only half-written, and keep up my flying skills and all the nerdy aviation stuff and paperwork that goes with that.
Furthermore, I already own a perfectly serviceable (if unfashionable) set of hand-me-down skis and boots. They may have been made when Canada was still young, but they work well enough.
But those skis are for downhill. Alpine skis. The stuff of ski resorts where visitors are carefully shepherded to pre-prepared slopes with all the hazards carefully marked off and arrows pointing which way to go.
The bug that had bitten me was of an altogether different beast – backcountry skiing. Out on your own. In the wilds. The preserve of those living on the margins.
“Are you a freedom-addicted, adrenalin-pumped, cowboy-wild outdoors dude?” I asked myself rhetorically. “Or just a keyboard-tapping nerd happy to live the thrills of the mountains vicariously?”
There were, of course, counter-arguments. I have just passed my 46th birthday, my muscles and ligaments have aged (though my brain, Kristin tells me, less so). And I have the skiing skills of the average Canadian toddler.
But no sooner had I framed the question so winningly in my own mind, than the answer was obvious.
And my credit card, which had sat all summer in my wallet as undisturbed as a hibernating bear (retail opportunities are rare in the bush), was in and out like…what’s an appropriate analogy….. a backcountry skier in the trees?
NEXT WEEK: A Canadian friend, much overestimating my miserable skiing abilities, takes me on my first foray as a backcountry ski dude.
Who would ever have thought that the great white north, land of snow, ice and endless frozen tundra, could get so excruciatingly and relentlessly hot?
As I write this I am stripped to the waist, sweltering in the shade, with two fans whirling above my head and the dogs strewn across the floor nearby like two limp rags.
The temperature, which has been inching up for weeks, is right now holding at 35 degrees Celsius, with 37 degrees somewhere in the forecast.
Kristin, doubtless informed by some sixth sense that warned her of the approaching heat, packed up some two weeks ago and headed for the cooler climes of Scandinavia.
A true Estonian, whose optimal operating temperature is well below freezing, she is not genetically adapted to deal with intense heat and her thermo-regulation is little better than that of our suffering canines.
Even she has been caught out, though, as she tells me that in London there are emergency protocols on the tube and signs urging people to take water with them wherever they go. Not a happy traveler.
As for me, hiding out in Nelson right now as I wait for the heat wave to subside, my days have turned upside down.
My afternoon bike rides now take place well into the evening, the twice-daily doggie walks have become twice-nightly walks, and in the afternoon I keep as far from the sunlight as possible.
There has been one positive development, however, to come out of this Afghan-style summer.
I have made an unlikely but happy discovery: Masha (the female partner of our two-dog-family-unit) can swim. Not only that, but she is something of a natural.
At the age of seven with a chin full of greying hair and dodgy hips, she’ll never be the Michael Phelps of the canine world. She also makes odd, slightly panicky, little chirrups as she kicks her way through the water.
But she is graceful enough. And her delight, as she has finally found something that she can do that her far beefier brother can’t, is more than evident.
As her little furry head ploughs through the current, I swear that her lips have a certain insouciant curl to them – the closest thing I have ever seen to doggie schadenfreude.
For poor old Karu, a landlubber of a canine if ever there was one, this new discovery is, of course, far from a happy one.
Terrified of the water, he stands on the shore and yelps, barks, growls and howls, his face a picture of anguish. When Masha finally heads jauntily to shore, he charges at her, snarling and impatient to re-establish dominance.
But there is no disguising the fact that she has pulled a fast one on her more powerful but dull-witted litter-mate.
Not every aspect of these new aquatic explorations has been painless.
Masha is far too fickle a dog to swim of her own accord and she demands encouragement, gentle coaxing and copious amounts of praise. All this must be delivered waterside, as it were.
When she does finally kick off from the land, she heads straight for the most stable looking object she can find and that, invariably, is me.
As her flailing claws come slashing through the water, I try and dodge and weave away from her but often without success.
But if the dogs are suffering in this heat, pity the bears. Even better insulated and with even loss opportunities to lose heat, they will be up in the high country seeking out the rare wallows and pools and shaded patches of melting snow.
It’s going to be several more weeks before they begin to head down to our valley to search out the spawning salmon that arrive at the end of August.
I have spent much of the last two weeks in Nelson, attending to admin, meeting lawyers and officials and doing a dozen other things needed to keep a small business running.
But tomorrow Kristin and I head back to our little valley and the ranch and start the long preparation for our autumn season, due to begin this year on Sept 8th.
We are almost completely full, but if anyone fancies a last minute impulse holiday, I still have two excellent spots available in October, when it should be far cooler than now.
And because they are now late availability for us, we are offering a quarter off the regular price.
Next spring, we are planning to revamp the ranch. For that reason we will not be offering our usual early summer bear-viewing. But we are already taking bookings for Autumn 2014 and the spots are beginning to fill.
In the meantime, wherever you are, enjoy the heat wave. Before you know it the temperatures will be dropping, the autumn will be upon us, and Masha’s swimming career will go on hold for another year.
It was a cold autumnal morning, not long after dawn, and I was with our tracker, the two of us edging along river banks and poking through thickets of trees, in search of grizzly bears.
Our guides were already out with guests and it was our job that morning to scout and report in our findings on our hand-held radios, allowing them to position as the bears moved quietly on the river.
We thought we had seen Apple earlier and that she was heading upstream. A bear in her teens that we know well and have been watching for several years, she had two-year-old cubs in tow.
Every grizzly bear is different, some more tolerant of people, others less so. So much depends on their personal history and the lessons they have drawn from their previous experience with humans.
In the years that we have been watching bears we have had some pass only a couple of dozen feet away with barely a raised eyebrow, while others have become stressed at several hundred yards.
Apple, by any measure, is on the tolerant end of the grizzly spectrum, but even so, when she emerged unexpectedly with her cubs only 50 or 60 feet from where we standing, we both caught our breath.
We had been waiting for her on the river side of us but now she and her sizeable offspring were between us and our natural point of retreat.
One of the cornerstones of staying safe around grizzly bears is not to surprise them at close quarters, something I try to ensure that our guests understand before we head out into the bush.
But that was exactly what was just about to happen.
For a second or two we waited in silence, but as she quickly advanced towards us, in that sauntering but deceptively fast pace that a grizzly bear employs as their default pace, I realised she was still unaware that we were there.
“Hey there!” I called out, keen to get her attention before she was right on top of us. “Hey Bear! Hey Bear!” For a few seconds she ploughed on regardless, clearly fixated on the fish. The sound of my voice must have been drowned out by the river.
Finally when she was only a few yards away, she became aware of us and stopped abruptly in her tracks. She turned sideways and began to huff, a classic warning sign a grizzly will use when it feels threatened.
We would have liked to have backed up but there was nowhere to go except into the river. For a moment we stood stick still, wondering how this minor wilderness drama was going to unfold.
Then, after a second or two, the bear visibly relaxed and began to slowly circumvent us.
But just then a new problem arose. One of the cubs, the female, decided that as a self-confident two-year-old she would come and check us out too. Curiosity, perhaps, or even an attempt to dominate.
Being approached by a cub is possibly the most challenging advance a bear guide can face. If they respond too aggressively, mum may wade in to defend junior. Too timid, and it may fail to stop the advance.
“Ok, bear, stay there bear, that’s far enough,” I said sternly as the youngster approached.
“Good boy, good boy, go on, back to your mum,” my tracker colleague soothed.
The good cop-bad cop routine seemed to work. The young bear advanced for a few seconds, then stopped and sniffed theatrically, and finally wandered slowly off, upriver.
Not every grizzly bear encounter is as exciting as this – or at such close quarters. With guests we make sure we maintain a decent safety margin, eschewing the more unpredictable encounters.
But one thing that strikes me again and again with grizzly bears is just how tolerant of humans they tend to be.
We had clearly given Apple a bit of a shock and she had signalled her resulting alarm back to us, but at no time had we felt that she had any interest other than finding a peaceful way out of the bind.
Here was a grizzly mum with cubs – a formidable family grouping that any number of people will tell you is one of the most ferocious in the wilderness – and yet she exhibited nothing more than mild alarm.
In the seven years we have been viewing bears we have learned a lot about their behaviour, styles and moods. They are not always entirely relaxed and can certainly be testy if provoked.
But learning to respect their space and read their body language goes a long way to understanding and managing such encounters.
Without wishing to tempt fate, in all the time we have been watching bears – we have had thousands of sightings and hundreds of encounters – we have never had to use the pepper spray we all carry.
We move around them on foot, float between them on our specially-adapted rafts and sometimes, inadvertently, bump into them at close quarters in the forest.
For next year, to make the experience even more outdoorsy for our guests, we have bought a Jeep that we can strip the roof and doors off for moving through bear habitat.
We have, meanwhile, began a serious endeavour to catalogue the bears in our valley, the first of its kind.
This autumn, our tracker recorded 224 sightings of 27 different grizzly bears in our valley, many of them mums with cubs. At least three of the adults were males – they tend to be more shy than the females around humans.
All in all it was a great bear year.
We will never have the bears on tap that some of the large coastal operations, with their managed attractants and artificial salmon spawning channels, do.
No two weeks at the ranch are ever the same and while with some guests we are spoiled for choice, with others we struggle for viewings.
This year we had several bears that we saw right from the decks of the cabins without ever having to leave the ranch, but that is not something that happens every year.
I suppose a lack of uniformity will always be part of the equation. That is the way it is with nature.
But as we closed up this season with the first snow on the ground and headed to Europe to catch up with family and old friends, we realised we wouldn’t have it any other way.
There is an enduring magic to coming across a totally wild grizzly bear in the great Canadian wilderness that predictability would only diminish.
So thanks again, guests, friends, guides, staff and supporters, for another stellar year. We hope you have as peaceful a winter as the grizzly bears curled up under a dozen feet of snow.
We’re already looking forward to the next one.
I’ve always been a bit wobbly with serious heights.
I don’t know when the phobia dates back to, but despite much time spent in mountainous countries, hours in small planes and several years now as a trekking guide in the sub-alpine and alpine, I still get the willies when the drops around me become too vertical.
And so – muttering to myself that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and other manly aphorisms that I unfurl when my natural timidity threatens to overwhelm me – I decided to bite the bullet this summer and head for the upper reaches of the Canadian alpine.
These were not to be the nice wide trails we occasionally take our bear-viewing guests on that lead to eye-pleasing snowy approaches and gently ascending summits. Built for loggers and their vehicles, I can often drive a 4×4 up those with several feet to spare.
My chosen destination was instead the rarely-climbed peaks where the North Selkirks butt up against the Rockies – snow-capped giants interspersed with glaciers and with long exposed approaches named after the early 20th Century mountaineers who made their first ascents (or sometimes died trying).
I had a number of possible entry points into the world of mountaineering. Forest, our sometime guide, has climbing skills. But he is away right now working in northern Alberta. There is a friend in Nelson, too, but I hadn’t spoken to him for a while.
In the end I went with the Alpine Club of Canada. An impressive outfit of professional mountain guides, excellent amateurs and dozens of volunteers, it is surely one of the most impressive and well-run mountaineering clubs around.
I forked over my cash and, a couple of weeks later, was helicoptered onto rocks below a noisily-calving glacier where I shared a tent with a fine and bearded man from Toronto called Eric for a week.
There I discovered, to my horror, that I was the only member of the 20-odd strong group who had no mountaineering experience at all. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. On the very first afternoon I remember looking around the camp at the – to my eyes – almost sheer walls of rock, snow and ice and feeling my stomach begin to churn.
The first day the guides laid on a refresher course of basics. Knots, glacier travel, crevasse rescue, how to use crampons and other rudimentary skills. There was much talk of prusiks, discussions about different breaking weight of ropes, clove and munter hitches and other fancy terminology, but I lapped it all up and was soon throwing around the lingo as if I had always talked that way.
After a longish walk on a glacier, four of us roped to each other, I learned to self-arrest: you close your eyes (or at least I did) hurl yourself down a slope and then try and slow your fall by thrusting an ice axe into the snow and digging in your elbows and knees. It doesn’t work if the snow is too steep. And it’s not recommended on rock.
Our guide for the day, Jenn, had been voted, one of the other climbers whispered to me, one of Canada’s top 20 sportswomen (rock climbing was her niche) and she looked the part with sinews of steel and a confident step. (At the end of each day, as I lay exhausted in my tent, she hung from the roof by her fingers for an hour to keep them in climbing shape.)
That was the extent of the training. The following morning it was into the gear at 6.00am and up the mountain. My first mountain. Alpina Dome. Something above 9,000 feet. At times I barely dared looked down and when I did was overcome with horror.
One old-timer who had been coming to the annual camp for decades described my feeling accurately when he said mountaineering amounted to “hours of fear interspersed with moments of sheer terror.”
But on Day Three I was up another mountain. Belvedere Peak. A little over 10,000 feet. Glaciers, steep snow and then a rocky ascent to the summit with a vivid view over the Adamants. Still the weakest in the group, I was nevertheless beginning to feel a little less jelly-legged.
And coming down I was so euphoric that I slid several hundreds yards on my bum (on purpose) – glissade a derriere I think is the technical term for it – and did a headstand in the snow to celebrate.
On Day Six it was Mount Azimuth. Lower than Belvedere it nevertheless included a mile of clambering along an exposed ridge. At one point, with the mountain falling away on both sides, you had to sit astride the ridge like you would a horse and sort of bounce your way along a 20 yard stretch. A whole new frontier of fear. Blindly terrifying.
If I am giving the impression that I was hanging out with the top 10 percent of the world’s mountaineering fraternity, would-be Olympians and twenty-something-year-old adrenalinised BC mountain dudes, I don’t mean to.
Most of my fellow guests were my age or a little older and respectable professionals from different parts of Canada and Europe. Once a year, for a week or so, they leave their offices and homes behind and give themselves over to the mountain.
Every year a small handful of climbers are killed in western Canada. There are more broken bones. But the climbers shrug off the inherent risk, talk down the dangers, and dwell instead on the incredibly vistas and the sense of serenity that rules at the top of the world.
And after a week in the company of the mountains and my new alpinist friends, I was completely taken by the whole experience. I don’t know if it’s the endless cycle of terror and relief, or the sweet physical exhaustion at the end of a long day’s climbing, or just the sense of escape from the small frustrations that plague our everyday 10,000 feet below.
There’s something almost meditative in the fact that your worst-placed footfall counts not your best, because that will be the one that kills you. In our modern world where threats are exaggerated and dangers ring-fenced, I love the understatement when the mountain guide says: “Not the best place to slide.” He could equally say: “You slip, you die, and, what’s more, you will take the rest of us with you”.
There is certainly something cerebral about the long hours spent picking your way through the hazards of ice, rock and snow. An experienced British climber killed this year in the Alps harkened back to the Romantics’ talk of the Sublime and, at the risk of sounding hugely precious as a complete novice and after barely a week in the mountains, I shared some of that awe.
Of course, the summer season is drawing to an end now and the grizzlies will soon be on the river. (I hear the first salmon are only a few miles away.) Time to switch gear. So I’ve put away my ice axe and my crampons for the year. But come next July I’ll be whipping them out again, dressing up like an extra in a cheap S&M flick and getting on the blower to my new climbing buddies.
Wobbly I still may be, but I’ve definitely got the bug.
I don’t have a ski photo, so here is Karu napping in the snow
I must admit I had never really understood the fascination.
In the Kootenays, where we live, as autumn turned each year to winter, it was if the locals fell under a sorcerer’s spell, real enough to its victims, but inexplicable to the unaffected.
The initiated were still physically present and even capable of conducting simple tasks and holding basic conversation, but you could see that they were no longer really with the rest of us.
“It’s gonna be an awesome season,” otherwise down-to-earth types would enthuse to each other breathlessly, gazing up at the mountain peaks with vacant, dreamy eyes. “The powder… the powder…”
Skiing, I came to realize, is the closest thing we have in our valley to religion.
To a point, the fascination is understandable. Within half an hour’s drive of our ranch, we have two of the world’s leading heli- and cat-skiing operations and within two hours a half dozen more.
I have had the occasional ski bum friend from Europe turn green with envy when I mention that I now live in the Selkirk mountains, an area that among the cognoscenti is synonymous with vistas of deep virgin powder.
But in the time we have lived here all the snow talk has left me, well, cold.
When our friends packed up their winter gear and headed upwards, I would wave them off from my doorstep, quietly grateful to be left behind.
My winter activities were mostly restricted to shoveling snow or trudging through cloying drifts in my wellies to give the dogs some much-needed winter exercise.
Even though I professed to like the winter, I found myself slyly sympathizing with the snowbirds, those well-off retired Canadians who head to Florida or California at the first sign of frost and don’t return until the sun shines out in May.
But this year, after nearly six years living in this skiing paradise, Kristin finally forced me to give it a try. Despite my grumbles, she booked us two beginner ski lessons at Whitewater, a world-class ski resort a couple of hours down the road.
I had been on skis before, but it had never ended well. When I was a tot, my father once took me skiing in Austria. A macho Hungarian, his attitude was hardly of the modern caring-sharing tactile variety.
He dumped me in the morning in a ski school full of older Austrian school kids, each and every one of whom had grown up in the mountains, and disappeared off to cavort alone on the mountainside.
Apparently I sat on the back of my ski boots, which were several sizes too big, ignored the instructions thrown my way in a language I couldn’t comprehend, and wept quietly.
When he arrived back at the end of the day with a “Learned to ski yet?” I must have looked at him with glowering hatred because he never took me skiing after that.
For much of my adult life, I managed to avoid the dreaded ski hill. “My knees just aren’t up to it,” I would mutter sadly, if invited, as if there was nothing I would have liked better than to join in.
Marrying an Estonian might have been asking for trouble, but, it turned out that Kristin, though an excellent cross-country skier, had little experience on slopes.
Once in a while, when we lived in Russia, we would head off for a circuit or two around Moscow’s Sokolniki park after an outdoor lunch on a Saturday, but the vodka helped calm my nerves and the prospect of a proper Russian sauna at the end of the day made the humiliation and the bruises somehow more palatable.
So when Kristin raised the subject again this winter, at first I resisted. My knees hurt, I whined. It’s just not for me, I wheedled. But finally, one day, I ran out of excuses and she dragged me off to the bunny hill for our first formal lesson.
As we pulled into the snowy car park at 5,000 feet, I saw dozens of people hammering down almost vertical slopes at death-defying speed. My stomach churned. My knees wobbled. If Kristin hadn’t been there I would have turned and fled.
But, of course, few things in life are as bad as our fears would have us believe. I was hardly a fast learner, but after a couple of hours I was snow-ploughing well enough with the five-year-olds.
Kristin, with genuine Nordic blood coursing through her veins, was, of course, a natural. While I was sadly bereft of any technique and spent much of my time falling over and trying to get up again, she quickly developed a jaunty rhythm that kept her upright and looking good.
The following day, another instructor took us up for our first green run. At one point I was so scared I simply sat down in terror at the prospect of a gently sloping section.
At that point Kristin disappeared to Europe and I was left to my own devices. At first I prevaricated, but eventually forced myself back up the mountain. And as the days went by, I slowly improved. First there was skidding, and then carving, tight turns and traverses.
At lunchtime I would hang out in the lodge, surrounded by snowboarders. They were a showy lot with lanky hair and garish lime trousers. They communicated in code.
“Yo, dude, gnarly.”
“Sick, man, supersick.”
I thought about learning the lingo but decided that it was a language too far for me, much more challenging than the Helmandi dialect of Pashto I struggled with last year.
The grown-ups were scarcely better, though they sought to impress with dress rather than vocabulary. Many of them paraded in gear that must have costs in the thousands, every available flap sporting a designer label.
For my part, I got a pair of nice though slightly old-fashioned used skis from a friend for a hundred bucks, some old but serviceable boots for a hundred and fifty and a ratty old helmet from a second-hand bicycle shop for about twenty.
There were other bumps on the road of my development, more profound than my linguistic and sartorial setbacks.
Several times, after a couple of runs without falling I would get too cocky, speed up and my descent would end with a bone-jarring fall or a nose full of snow. I broke two poles in short succession.
But overall I was on an upward if lowly trajectory. I went out with two friends one day and managed to crack a couple of blue runs. By my last day I was even nibbling at the heels of the black diamonds.
I returned for an hour’s lesson with one of my earlier instructors and he professed himself pleased with my progress. During our check-out I had one spectacular when I dug my tips into the powder at the bottom of a steep vertical and flew 12 feet through the air onto my face.
A passing snowboarder commented: “Yo, man, buddy just bailed.”
Of course, the winter is departing now and the ski hills are preparing to close for the season. Even at altitude the white stuff is turning to rain.
But this year, for the first time, as the chairs grind to a halt and the groomers head into the workshops, I, like the other locals, will be going into collective mourning.
During the summer, if I can find a quiet moment, I may even hang out on some of the snowboarding forums and try and pick up a little of the lingo.
And, come next November, I too, with the rest of the Kootenays, will be gazing skyward and muttering in a dreamy voice: “The powder, man, the powder.”
Arriving at the ranch in mid-winter, however much we steel ourselves ahead of time, is always a bit of a jaw-dropper.
The silence and the remoteness at this time of year always impress, but it is the sheer volume of snow in our small mountain valley that never fails to take our breath away.
When we first moved in – six years ago this month – we stared speechlessly at the towering mounds of white that threatened to overwhelm us as we inched down the narrow driveway.
We had only ever seen the ranch during the salad days of summer and the russet-browns of autumn when the verdant grassy lawn stretches voluptuously down to the beautiful turquoise river.
That was how our wilderness dream was etched in our minds when we gave up our former lives, prised a mortgage from a reluctant bank, and headed into the bush on a wing and a prayer.
When we finally arrived on that cold February day the palace of our dreams was as barren as Baffin Island.
Even the gentle tinkling of the water was gone, muffled by the unforgiving snow. Our spirits sank as we surveyed the entrance to our new home, separated from us by a barrier of ice.
Of course during the intervening years we have got used to the Kootenay winter.
We are no longer wilderness newbies and even neighbours that had predicted that we would be gone by the end of that first summer accept now that we are probably here to stay.
Even so, as we once again inched down our driveway earlier this month after a short holiday in Europe, we couldn’t help but stare at the huge, white lozenge-shaped slabs that silently embraced us.
Crucially Ollie, our septuagenarian neighbour who lives alone a few miles away, had been there first with his orange 4WD tractor, and cut a slender track to our front door.
We always knew that if there was a decent dump of snow while we were away our broken-down plough truck and consumer model snow-blower wouldn’t be man enough for the job.
But even though we had only been away two weeks, there was a full four feet of fresh snow that greeted us on our return. “It’s been snowing non-stop since you left,” said Sunny, our neighbour, looking exhausted. “I haven’t stopped shovelling once.”
Needless to say, days of fine boozy meals with friends and family had softened us up a little.
Air Canada had upgraded us (thanks to my myriad flights with them last year) and sipping on champagne and nibbling at rack of lamb at 39,000 feet was hardly the best preparation for the wintry tribulations ahead.
The first of many was that our main water supply had frozen solid. Then we discovered that the box where we store our firewood was under eight feet of ice, leaving it unreachable.
More worryingly we noticed that one or two of our buildings, weighed down by tons of frozen snow, were tilting ominously to one side or another, threatening to give up the structural ghost.
And so, with a long sigh on my part and a matter-of-fact Scandinavian shrug from Kristin, we set to work.
(Kristin’s Estonian heritage and hard-working forefathers have left her better genetically prepared for dealing with adversity than me with my work-shy and sybaritic crew.)
Kristin cleared a path to the woodshed, brought in fresh wood and set a fire. I made a fuss out of playing with the settings on the pressure tank in the well house to try and get the water flowing, a task I managed to stretch out until dark.
By the next morning, however, I really had run out of excuses. And so, strapping my red hiking crampons onto my wellies, I clambered up on to roofs and began to dig.
My poor body, soft and fat around the edges after the easy living and over-eating of Europe, protested horribly. I groaned theatrically whenever I thought Kristin was nearby.
Inch by painful inch, building by snowbound building, I slowly cleared the roofs. First the Sunny cabin, then the little outside storage shed and finally, half of the stable block. (The other half, I told myself, had a stronger supporting beam in it and would surely bear the weight.)
The dogs, enjoying their all-time favourite pastime, hollered, howled and yelped down below as they fought to see who could take the chunks of snow and ice falling my shovel full in the face.
The building that needed my ministrations most of all was the garage where we keep our 4x4s. Asymetric and poorly designed, it was listing like a ship in high winds threatening to capsize.
I did try some desultory digging around the edges. But there was, I reasoned to myself, simply too much snow. And anyway, climbing on the roof of the tilting giant was surely far too perilous.
Instead I took the cars out and parked them in the yard – two crushed Land Cruisers would have been a sore, possibly fatal, blow to our wilderness existence – and left the fate of the building in the lap of the Gods of Winter.
I cautioned Kristin not to go too near it. I worried the dogs away if they got too close. I pointed its lean out to (admittedly rare) visitors. Despite the fuss I was making, however, after two or three days of watching carefully, the garage was still standing.
And then, while studying the long slope from the apex of the roof to its base where the boat trailer was buried under several feet of snow, I had a brainwave. The slope would actually make an excellent sledding run.
“Ah, it won’t come down,” I ventured to Kristin in a remarkable U-turn. “Looks fine to me,”” she countered. Through such unfounded mutual reinforcement are great ideas born.
And so, tossing the shovels aside and giggling like schoolgirls, we gleefully scrambled up onto the garage roof and careened down its snowy side, again and again.
Yesterday while visiting the nearest town, we even upgraded our rudimentary sleds – little more than a circles of plastic with a handle – for sleeker more aerodynamic models.
And today we tried them out. Faster, much faster, we came hurtling down the roof of the garage past the amazed dogs, before crashing into the icy bank of the woodshed.
I lay there dazed for a moment, my head spinning and my tongue hurting where I had bit into it while coming over a particularly brutal bump, in total happiness.
I don’t think I’ll ever totally get used to living cheek-by-jowl with General Winter in the Canadian bush, but it certainly has its compensations.
Even at a distance its sculpted feline features were distinct. A roundish head, attentive ears and that unmistakable tail with a small black brush on the end. For 20 or 30 seconds, the huge cat just stood there watching us. And then slowly, slowly it moved sideways off into the forest.
As cougar sightings go, this was a good one. People who spend time in the bush are lucky if they catch a fleeting glimpse of one of these shy predators, as they slide away to safety. After five years living in the Canadian wilds, it was my first ever cougar sighting.
Only days earlier Oli and Tamara, two of our guides, saw a mountain caribou, our most endangered ungulate. We had also seen a multitude of elk, a spectacular bull moose at close quarters, a wolf, and, of course, lots and lots of grizzly bears, many of them mums with yearling cubs, born of the bountiful huckleberry crop that carpeted the west Kootenays two summers ago.
In rafting terms, it was a fine season too. For the first time since we moved here more than five years ago, we ran two rafting trips for each of our guests, with Oli, a 16-year-veteran of British Columbia rivers, at the helm of one raft, and me at the other. After several days of intensive training and practicing in early September, Oli and I learned to finesse the boats unobtrusively alongside grizzly mums and cubs as they fed on the spawning salmon.
As the season went on, both the bears and us became better at these thrilling encounters. By October, the grizzly mums would barely glance up at the large blue boats as they bobbed quietly by the river’s edge. The cubs would occasionally stand up on their back legs for a better look, before scampering after their mums, but were mostly happy to take our presence in their stride.
It seemed that every day there was some new bear behaviour to study and discuss. We had known for years about bears huffing and mouthing and other signs of low-level stress, but with our two other guides, Lily and Tamara, at the front of the boats, and all of us glued to our binoculars, we began to pick up the tiniest shifts in bear behaviour.
As the days went by our other skills developed too. We learned to overtake bears moving downstream without interrupting their flow. We learned that the mum with the two smallish black cubs needed more space than the others. We began to appreciate the extent to which bears trusted their nose over their eyes, even though they see well enough.
We spent hours watching Apple and her cubs, and the Blondie family. Later in the season, Twofish, a delightful young female grizzly who is probably five-years-old (we have been watching her for three), returned, scatty and disorganised as ever in her fishing.
With four guides available, we could also double up for more adventurous viewing on foot. It’s one thing to see a bear from a stand, a road, or a vehicle, but there’s nothing quite like being down in its world, sharing its space as equals.
If all this sounds a little vanilla and self-congratulatory, I apologise. Beating your own drum is not an attractive trait. Nor does it make for engaging reading. Failures and disasters, whether comical or not, are doubtless more entertaining fare.
But after eight months sitting in a metal can in the southern Afghan desert, starved of all meaningful sensory input other than the heavy-calibre thumps of modern battle, coming back to the ranch was like returning to a Garden of Eden of fast-flowing rivers, gorgeous mountain vistas and awe-inspiring wildlife.
There have, of course, been glitches and mishaps.
One day we threw the raft into the river off a bridge – my idea of a good launch point – only to watch it float away in the frigid waters.
After a moment’s hesitation I realised there was only one thing for it and launched myself bodily in its wake. I caught it, but spent the next two hours trying to still my chattering teeth, keep my toes alive and feign indifference to my sorry sodden plight.
Then there was the time at the end of October that we set out for a float, predicting improving weather, only to have a snow front move in. We sat under a bridge, sipping hot tea and eating sandwiches as our stoic guests fought to keep feeling in their hands. To their credit, they opted not to cut the trip short.
The end-of-season party, attended by our bear biologist friends, was a bit more raucous and vodka-soaked than usual and culminated in a messy pentathlon of barefoot running in the snow, wonky headstands, wobbly pull-ups, tuneless solo singing, and a dunk in the freezing river.
But, all in all, it was a great season. We had wonderful guests who were patient when the bears were snoozing in the woods, and fulsome in their praise when they emerged (which, thankfully, they usually did). Some were back for the second or third time, which we took as a vote of confidence.
And, to be honest, with such excellent guides, cooks and helpers, and a schedule skilfully choreographed by Kristin, I felt increasingly superfluous. Which is doubtless as it should be.
We hope to repeat it all next year. Oli and Tamara have promised to come back. Bree, Mel, Lynda and Lily will be here. (For those of you who have been tracking our fortunes for some time, Gillian is now working full-time on bear conservation and Forest is away in Alberta for a while).
Meanwhile, the cold is finally moving in. We have all our firewood ready to go, the boats and rafts have been put to bed, and I have supported the sagging stable roof with an extra eight-by-eight inch prop of fir just in case we have another heavy snow year.
Time, then, to get out the guitar, don a woolly pullover, pick up my Transylvanian epic which has been gathering dust since the late summer, let the dogs stretch out in front of the roaring fire and enjoy the Canadian winter.