Rafting with Bears

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.