24 May When the Bear Gods Smile
There are days when the Bear Gods frown upon us.
The bears are always one step ahead of us, their favourite feeding zones are disappointingly deserted, and the guests and guides return from a day out bear-spotting empty-handed and just a little glum.
And then there are other times when the action just doesn’t seem to stop. These past few days have been just such a time. By the time our guests left this morning we were at a collective total of 45 separate wild bear viewings and counting.
There were black bears, grizzly bears, shy bears, bold bears, stroppy bears, a bear we watched dig up a rodent, and even a bear who took exception to the off-road buggy we left parked on the trail and tore its seats to shreds.
Of course when you are viewing wild bears in wild places you never quite know what you are going to get. If it was predictable it wouldn’t quite be nature.
When Kristin and I set up Grizzly Bear Ranch in its present iteration way back in the mists of time (Spring 2006) one of the things we decided was that we didn’t want to use viewing stands and managed attractants to view animals.
Even though such infrastructure can lead to more predictable viewing by enticing bears into a fixed location, we decided we preferred our bears wild and natural and in their chosen habitat, not ours.
And so, over the years, we have spent inordinate amounts of time and effort to get as good as we possibly can at tracking and locating wild bears even as they go about their business in their own world.
We comb through dusty old bear books assiduously for tips from the old timers, have endless discussions about the minutia of bear ecology and seasonal feeding patterns, and slog our way through arid scientific studies.
All our current wilderness guides – me included – are trained animal trackers. In fact we have an annual assessment coming up in the US at the end of June when we will have those skills examined by a master tracker and be given new grades.
And then there is our trail camera project – partly funded by the federal government for the last two years – that we conduct in collaboration with the University of Victoria. We currently have 20 trail cameras out in locations that we think are promising.
The main aim of the project is to develop facial recognition software for grizzly bears, something that, if successful, will cut the costs of counting their populations by a factor of ten or more.
But a huge side benefit is that we not only get to better identify the individual bears in our valley but we can also watch the behaviour of other animals: everything from wolves to cougars, bobcats and moose.
We take all the academic ingredients and mix them up with thousands of collective hours of viewing bears in the wild and studying their every movement. And all this experience and knowledge comes together when we take our guests out to look for bears on foot.
This past week, from the first day when we ventured up a hidden rainforest valley far off the beaten track, everything seemed to click.
One of our first spots was a large bear in a cottonwood tree munching on leaves. If his aim was to stay hidden it was his large brown bottom, protruding from the foliage, that gave him away.
For a while we just watched as he moved his enormous bulk up and down the tree to reach for ever more succulent greenery. (The photo is of some of our guests watching this bear).
The next day Graham, a multi-talented and unflappable second-year guide with us, took a group of guests up a distant valley in our off-road vehicle to look for grizzly bears feeding on avalanche chutes.
Our holidays are mostly walking-based and so – as per the protocol – he parked up at a certain point and walked deeper into the bush with the guests. When they returned to the vehicle a couple of hours later they were a little surprised to see a self-satisfied black bear standing next to it.
It soon became obvious why the bear was so pleased with himself. While Graham and the guests had been exploring he had bitten and scraped huge chunks out of the front seat and gnawed on one of the back seats.
And then, to add insult to injury, he had made off Graham’s much-loved 1970s-style motorbike helmet, replete with aquamarine go-faster stripes on the side, and hidden it somewhere in the bush.
Just to make sure we knew he was the offender he had left a large dusty ursine paw print on the upholstery.
As the returning party pulled into the yard late that afternoon and I took in the ravaged buggy, Graham just stood there mumbling to himself: “He stole my helmet. The bloody bear stole my helmet.”
But the guests didn’t mind. They had seen a total of 15 bears, including a mum playing with two cubs, and were all smiles.
Another group – this one with Sage, our endearingly eccentric and enthusiastic third-year guide – returned with six bear sightings, a couple of them up close and personal.
Meanwhile I had taken two of our more energetic guests and my just-about-trained bear dog Katya snow-shoeing to the top of a mountain ridge, nearly 5,000 feet above the valley, where we could look down onto the local lakes and alpine slopes.
As the days ticked by, the viewings continued. There were two moose, one with a calf, three beavers and, of course, more bears, including a grizzly we had seen before and call Flat White.
Yesterday, on the final day, I decided to head up a different valley – one that that had just opened up as the snow retreated.
We stopped to watch an enormous brown-coloured black bear feeding on grass and shoots. When we edged a little closer to get a better view the bear first began to bolt, but then thought better of it, and swung around and took a few steps towards us.
He exhaled loudly through his mouth, a classic sign of a bear challenging for dominance, dropped his head and stared at us intently.
“I’m getting a bit scared,” one of my guests said to me quietly.
“It’s all good,” I reassured. “He’s just testing us.”
We backed up a step or two just to show the bear we weren’t intent on a fight, and then stopped again to emphasise that, equally, we wouldn’t be intimidated by him. For a long-time he just stared hard at us, before eventually returning to feed.
An hour later, the first people this year to make it deep into a gorgeous snow-laden valley, we watched a grizzly bear emerge on the other side of the river. She was completely oblivious to us and moved in that slow, lumbering way that grizzlies often do.
When she found what appeared to be a wasps’ nest she tore it apart. Then, a little further on, she used her powerful paws to dig a small rodent out of its hole. For a while she chomped on it happily.
To top the holiday off we spent the last night around the barbeque and the campfire. The weather – cloudy and sunny all week – held and as the wine began to flow the bears, of course, got bigger and closer in the telling.
“This bear-spotting thing is pretty exciting,” one of the guests said to me, after a while. “I could really get into it.”
Now a 13-year veteran of watching bears in the wild, I smiled to myself. I knew exactly what she meant. It doesn’t happen every day – life is no fairytale after all – but when the Bear Gods smile, there’s not a better job in the world.