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Grizzlies in the mist  |   Bear facts |  Living with grizzlies |  Grizzly stories

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

THERE 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.

KHUTZEYMATEEN 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."

watching bearsLater, 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 are.

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.



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