Day Of the Grizzlies
by Stella Vaccaro
The anticipation is killing me and although I tried not to have any expectations it was hard to control my excitement. I am on a three-day bear-viewing trip, which is run by Silvertip Eco Tours (firstname.lastname@example.org) and promises to be a unique experience. Besides the bear viewing they also incorporate fly-fishing and other tours for all enthusiasts. An hour and a half northwest from Vancouver lays the town of Terrace and as you fly in, the stunning Coast Mountains with their white peak caps welcomes you as one would with open arms!
It wasnt long before I found myself immersed in the thick of Kitimat forest surrounded by western hemlock, red cedar and Sitka spruce. Our guide is Greg Knox who has a Natural Resource Management degree and several years of tracking grizzlies under his belt. He assures me that there have been several sightings of brown and black bears in the last few days. Although I arrive mid August, where the weather is normally mild (12°c -18°c) I seem to have hit a freak hot spell so a sighting maybe a little difficult. Would you go out in the middle of the day with a fur coat on when the weather is above 30°c? Greg states.
I am still eager to investigate the possibility of that ever-elusive sighting. Greg is very focused on the job and makes sure I am too as he hands me some berrys to smear on my waders and body to deter the bear from picking up our scent. The bears eyesight and hearing might not be as good as ours, he says but their smell is one hundred times better. Keeping as close to him as possible we make our way through the forest ever so carefully as so not to disturb the habitat. One thing you quickly realise is that your surroundings are very untouched and Greg wants to make sure that it is kept that way. The main reason is to keep the viewing areas as pure as possible, the other being so as not to interrupt the bears routine. They like to revisit their favourite spots for feeding I am told as one does their favourite coffee spot. This is a far cry from the viewing platform that I expected. Being in the thick of it made it all that more exciting. Patience was going to play a big part in this trip, I quickly realised.
The odours of cedar, spruce and dampness seep into my pores and the coolness of the forest is a nice welcome. It wasnt long before we spotted a fresh pile of bear poo. Greg determines from the colour that the bear has been feeding on berries. Given the heat they are reluctant to venture out to catch fish. Cranberries, elderberries and various types of roots are a welcome change from the fatty pink salmon, Chinooks and trout that are abundant this time of year.There are thousands of fish that are spawning as they make their way down the Skeena River and into other rivers that run off it. I am assured that we are not really considered a meal to the bear, which is a relief! As we pass the bushes I am encouraged to try the berries.
Wading through beaver ponds that are at chest height and thick foliage still doesnt deter me. I am also led into the bears lair where we find evidence of fresh salmon that the bear had skinned with utmost precision, as one would carve a piece of turkey with a carving knife. Taking only the fattiest parts (and the most nutritious) they leave the rest for the maggots. Traces of the culprit having rubbed up against the nearest cedar were also evident!! It is all too daunting knowing that the resident could return at any moment.
It is not until the second day that we make our first sighting of a mother and her cub. These are a far cry from the cuddly bear that you would keep at home. From where we stood, the cub growled and groaned with excitement waiting for its mother to return to shore with her catch. If I had any expectations before we left for this trip they quickly disappeared.
Nothing prepares you for the rush you get when you sight one of these magnificent animals.
It is obvious that the heat is not a favourable climate for them as it was only a few minutes later that they make their way back into the coolness of the trees. They have the luxury of fishing whenever they feel the need with the abundance of fish available. I am told that they need to increase their body mass by at least 40% for the hibernation stage to be able to survive the winter. Everything you hear or read on encountering bears in the wild would not prepare you for this. Greg gives you a clearer understanding of them and makes you more comfortable being in their territory.
Apart from the bears, Greg also showed us his fly-fishing techniques. That afternoon I try my luck with the fish as opposed to the bears. Making it look far easier than it is Greg shows me the ins and outs and stands back to observe. Standing knee deep in the river I could feel the slimy creatures swimming between my legs. I thought that it would be a cinch. They were literally jumping out of the water. It would have been easier to just reach down and grab one with my hand! I quickly realised this too was a game of patience! Getting many a bite but nothing on the hook, I was certain that I was doing it right. Finally figuring out my mistake, I managed to hook my first fish, a pink salmon. Since it was catch and release this time of the year Greg offered to hold my prize catch so I could snap it, but not before he accidentally realesed it. Diving in to retrieve his credibility and my catch he managed to save both! After a quick snap we released it again. That was the first of many that were happy to jump onto my hook. The afternoon was a great success.
The three-day trip was one that wont be forgotten quickly. Not being an avid hiker or having done any major walking on previous holidays this was certainly a change of pace that I can highly recommend. No viewing platforms can give you a one on one experience like this, which will stay with me forever.
Copyright © Stella Vaccaro 2005