Close Encounters

Watching a grizzly bear from the deck of the Volga Cabin

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.