FEATURE - GRIZZLY BEARS
Grizzlies in the mist
In the magnificent Khutzeymateen Valley on the northern coast of British Columbia, grizzly bears are letting us into their lives, changing our perceptions of what wild means
By Brian Payton with photography by Bob Herger
ARE MOMENTS OF CLARITY IN LIFE, instances that so completely focus
the senses, there is no yesterday or tomorrow — only the absolute
here and now. Such a moment came for me last April when our guide
Tom Ellison slowly lifted the oar from the bottom of our Zodiac
and accidentally spooked a grizzly cub on shore.
The cub let out a whiny cry at the unexpected sight and temporarily
lost his footing. His mother, grazing nearby, turned around, looked
up and stopped in mid-chew. We were so close, I could see the foamy
green saliva in the corners of her mouth. So close, I could hear
the wheels turning inside her head.
Several heart-pounding seconds passed as we stared face to face,
then she turned around, sat back down and continued grazing — obviously
concluding that we were not a threat. Her cub scrambled back onto
his perch and acted as if he had properly scared us off. A few minutes
later, they slowly ambled away from the water’s edge and disappeared
into the forest.
WE’VE BEEN MEETING THEM in the wilderness, and in our dreams, since
the dawn of human history. Ursus arctos, commonly known as the grizzly
or brown bear, has been celebrated in art and literature throughout
the northern hemisphere since we began drawing on cave walls. No
animal casts a longer shadow over our collective subconscious. It
is at the very heart of our concept of wilderness.
The hope of seeing grizzlies in their natural habitat has brought
us here to the mouth of the Khutzeymateen River (pronounced KOOT-suh-mah-teen),
a 45-kilometre flight northeast of Prince Rupert, B.C. We want to
get up close and experience the power of being in a place where
we humans are not the masters of all we see — a place where
we are at least one link down the food chain.
Our group consists of seven paying visitors, including two women,
Susan Parke and Johanna Dock, who work at Seattle’s Woodland Park
Zoo but haven’t, until today, seen a grizzly in the wild. Only a
few hours earlier, we had climbed out of a float plane and onto
Ellison’s 22-metre ketch, the Ocean Light II. We then jumped straight
into his Zodiac and motored to the sedge marsh at the upper reaches
of the estuary. It took only a short cruise up and down the still
channels before we came upon the female grizzly and her three-year-old
cub, which was nearly as big as its mother. Ellison turned off the
motor, and we drifted in close to shore. We sat frozen, mouths agape,
mesmerized by the sight and proximity of a wild animal that could
charge at any moment.
Ellison greeted her with a soft, "Hello there," and she
sniffed the air in response. She seemed completely unconcerned about
our presence, turning her back to us and continuing to chew away
on the stems and blades. The cub grazed by her side but was more
curious. He sat up on a large rock for a better view of the viewers.
He yawned, licked his paws and even fell asleep for a while. The
cub seemed like a young royal, aware of the flashing cameras but
only vaguely interested in the beings behind them. That was when
Ellison had innocently reached for the oar.
INLET reaches 20 kilometres in from Chatham Sound, forming an arm
of the Pacific Ocean that ends in fingers full of rich green Lyngby’s
sedge (Carex lyngbyei). This grasslike plant forms a major
part of the bears’ diet in spring. After emerging from hibernation,
grizzlies make their way down to the marsh to feast on the bounty
of fresh green shoots and blades that offer up to 28 percent protein.
A place of plenty, the marsh attracts dozens of bears that, after
establishing a pecking order, graze in relatively close proximity — something
which rarely happens elsewhere in the wild.
Ellison has anchored the Ocean Light II in the forearm of the inlet,
where snow-capped mountains form a protected fiord. The boat will
serve as our base for the next four days. It offers room enough
for his partner Jenn Broom, their three-year-old daughter Sarah
and seven guests. After watching a pair of otters dive and breach
in the fading light of a crimson sky, we all head below deck to
get better acquainted over dinner.
"People have different names for that female you saw this
afternoon," Ellison says, "but I don’t like to attach
names to the bears. It’s all a part of our need to humanize them.
She’s a wild animal — they’re all wild animals — and
I prefer to think of them that way."
Even reclined, Ellison strikes an imposing figure. His weathered
skin betrays a long association with the wilderness and the sea.
"Over the years, we’ve developed a special relationship with
that bear," he says. "She played a huge role in saving
this place, and she has an amazing life story. Not many people know
it, but I think it should be told."
tucked into my cozy berth, I remember a dream I had when I first
landed this assignment. I dreamt I was walking in the wilderness
and saw something, or someone, sitting on a log in the distance.
It had its back to me, but I knew it was a grizzly. It was wearing
tattered overalls and was only slightly furrier than a hairy man.
It turned around and acknowledged me with a grunt reminiscent of
human speech. As I approached, I saw that it held a magazine in
its handlike paws. It was trying to sound out the words as it squinted
through old, broken spectacles. I sat down next to it and taught
it how to read.
From the time I was a child, popular culture has burned two competing
images of the grizzly into my subconscious: the Disneyfied clown
of the forest and the relentless killing machine that stalks the
night. We anthropomorphize or demonize the grizzly. I have come
to unlearn all that and get a glimpse of who these creatures really
Vancouver-based writer Brian Payton’s first novel, Hail
Mary Corner, is to be published in September by Beach Holme.
Photographer Bob Herger lives in Maple Ridge, B.C. His books include The
Coast of British Columbia and The Forests of British Columbia.
FOR THE REST OF THIS STORY, VISIT YOUR LOCAL NEWSSTAND FOR THE MARCH/APRIL
2001 ISSUE OF CANADIAN GEOGRAPHIC.
Do you agree that Canada should have a national bird?