04 Dec The Sunday Times
Spotting grizzly bears in Canada
Step one: fly to Canada. Step two: check into the Grizzly Bear Ranch. Step three: look out the window. Easy.
By Mark Franchetti
Deep in the remote wilderness of British Columbia, I was in the back of a 4WD as it negotiated its way along a mountain dirt road. A spectacular view opened up in the abyss below, across an emerald-green lake ringed by infinite thick forests. Mesmerised by the unspoilt beauty, I was almost day-dreaming when the car came to an abrupt halt. “Bear!! Bear to the right!!” cried out Julius Strauss, my guide.
I have seen bears before, but either caged or as tasteless decoration before a fireplace. This was entirely different — my first live bear in the wilderness. The animal, a hungry mid-sized black bear recently out of hibernation, was nibbling grass by the side of the road, its back turned to us. Slowly we edged closer, killed the engine and stepped out of the car to get a better look. The bear turned and spotted us. We froze. It froze.
“In the unlikely event that a wild bear charges you, stand still. Do not move. Whatever you do, don’t run away!” Those were the strict instructions Julius had given me. Easier said than done.
Briefly, I wondered if I was about to go down in the annals of bear-viewing as a chicken-hearted coward who tried — and failed — to outrun an enraged black bear. But as I learnt in my four days with Julius, not only are bears intelligent, they are also shy and generally good-natured. They need a good reason to attack, let alone eat you — more later on what to do in this case, other than panic, obviously.
Some 30yd apart, we and the bear by the roadside stared at each other for a few minutes. It sniffed the air to make us out, took two final mouthfuls of grass and then yawned — a mild stress sign, whispered Julius. Then, with a few agile steps, it was gone, vanishing in the thick forest. It was truly a lovely moment.
If you are inclined towards experiencing pristine wilderness, you will be hard-pressed to beat a few days at the Grizzly Bear Ranch in British Columbia’s Selkirk Mountains. Or if, like me, you are an urban beast whose love affair with the wild is limited to watching David Attenborough, then you should try it, for it is quite an eye-opener.
The ranch is owned and run by Julius, a British former war correspondent, and his Estonian wife, Kristin, also a former journalist. Before I go on, let me come clean: they are friends of mine. I promise, nonetheless, to remain unbiased. Three years ago, Julius and Kristin — both self-confessed “townies” — turned their back on a life of urban comfort, financial security and high-flying jobs to move to British Columbia.
If you’re thinking of one of those television programmes — say, about a family from Milton Keynes packing up and moving to sunny Spain to open up a restaurant — well, think again. This is the real thing, because the spot they chose is stunning, but it’s also very, very remote. The ranch — several wood cabins — sits on the banks of a fast-flowing mountain river at the top of an enchanting valley covered in thick forests of firs, cedars and hemlocks that stretch as far as the eye can see.
Towering above are snow-covered ridges and peaks that reach 9,000ft. The closest hamlet — population a few hundred — is an hour’s drive away. The nearest proper big supermarket is two hours. The area is off-grid: there are no phone lines and no mobile coverage. In winter, when the two-lane dirt track to the ranch can turn treacherous, there is up to 4ft of snow and temperatures drop to -20C. Skip snowploughing for a few days and you risk being stuck until spring.
For all its beauty — and, trust me, this is untouched wilderness at its best — I would end up insane and divorced in less than a week were I to move to such isolation. That, of course, is why the bears like it so much. They are not into people. Both black bears and grizzlies — whose numbers are dwindling — populate the forests around the ranch, alongside moose, deer, wolves and coyotes.
Between late May and late October, Julius and Kristin take in six guests at a time for three days and three nights. They stay by the aquamarine river in simple but comfortable wood cabins, which are supplied with fresh linen and fitted with a wood-burning stove, a hot shower, composting lavatory and electricity — supplied by the ranch’s independent power system. They have also installed satellite internet, so if you really don’t want to get away from it all, you can always e-mail and Skype.
Kristin, whose formidable cooking talents make her as special as the bear-viewing, serves guests a hearty breakfast, a very generous packed lunch and a two-course dinner — or a barbeque feast. All food, which is nearly all organic, is freshly cooked and every meal is different. Breakfast and dinner are served at a communal table in the hosts’ cabin.
The place is so remote that you can walk for hours without coming across a single person. “We keep the number of guests down to keep the experience more personal and to disrupt the bears as little as possible,” said Julius. “Our bears are not usually habituated to humans. Some may never have seen a person before. It’s not bears on tap, it’s not a safari park, but we have never had a guest during bear season who has left without seeing one.”
Julius has seen up to 10 bears a day. In my four days at the ranch, at the very beginning of this year’s season in early May, I came across six. We climbed up old logging and mining tracks on foot along steep gorges and clear mountain streams. Julius looks for bear prints and scat, which he attentively examines like some rare delicacy. What did the bear eat and when did it relieve itself?
I very much got into the spirit of things and by the end of my stay found myself becoming excessively excited at the sight of fresh bear scat — too much pure air, clearly. Another guest was soon taking bear-scat snapshots. To my bitter disappointment, on day four, when I thought I knew enough to put Julius out of business, I found myself carefully poking a stick into some mud I had mistaken for poo and lovingly studying it.
The bears proved shrewder, for while I was trudging heavily in the snow, looking for them high up, they were lazily feeding by the roadside, which is where all my six chance encounters took place. Late May to the end of June is when you are most likely to see black bears. Grizzly-viewing season runs from mid-September to the end of October, when bears weighing up to 800lb and measuring up to 8ft — standing — descend to the valley to catch fish as they spawn in the river that runs past the ranch.
If that sounds worrying, don’t be alarmed. You are far more likely to get run over by a car than mauled by a bear. Every year in Canada and America only two or three people are killed by bears. While minor attacks are more frequent, in most cases an unprovoked wild bear will not attack a person if you stick to a few basic rules.
Bears are very fast runners, reaching speeds of up to 35mph. So if you come across one face to face, do not run — unless you are in tights and matching vest, on an athletics track and your name is Usain Bolt. Running away from a bear provokes its hunting instinct. It is sure to run after you and almost certainly spoil your holiday. They can also swim rapids and are great tree climbers.
Talk to the bear. Try “Yo, bear”, “Good bear”, “Nice bear”. Seriously, that’s what the experts teach you. And walk away slowly. If, however, you are exceptionally unlucky and the bear charges you, then you are taught to distinguish between a bluff charge and a predatory assault.
The first and most common of the two could give you a heart attack, but will come to an abrupt end without ever reaching you. Here, too, you must not run. Yeah, right. I know. But as part of his ABC of bear-viewing, Julius shows a safety video with footage of people doing just that, and they are all Canadians, so it must be possible.
If, however, the charging bear is determined to have you for lunch and does not stop, then you should first fall to the ground and pretend to be dead — so advise the experts, who also say that if it continues to attack you, then you can always grab a stick and try to fight it off.
No, the video does not show anyone pulling this off, so good luck. Remember, such attacks are exceptionally rare. Julius has never been charged by one, but for safety he always carries a can of bear spray — a powerful form of pepper spray.
He and Kristin disclose the exact location of the ranch only to guests who have prepaid part of their holiday, to avoid attracting bear hunters from other regions. Shockingly, hunting of both black and grizzly bears is still legal in British Columbia.
This, even though most of its residents are in favour of a ban, at least to protect grizzlies — some 400 of which were killed in British Columbia last year. Commercial bear-viewing also now generates more revenue than bear-hunting, which Julius is lobbying the local authorities to ban. So forgive the less than detailed map. But believe me, the Grizzly Bear Ranch is not a Nigerian money scam. It’s real, as are the bears. I’ve been there and saw them. And I loved it.