You think you’ve seen it all. You think that you know about animals by seeing them in a zoo, digesting the paragraph or two of information in front of their cages, jostling with the crowds to see the more exciting creatures. You read about the natural habitat, where they live, feed and breed. You think you know it all.
You know nothing. Less than nothing.
Until you have experienced animals in the wild, you might just as well read about them in books. I’ve seen any number of animals in zoos (let’s not go there – that’s an issue for another day) and been fascinated by successful breeding programs, appalled at inappropriate habitats and uncomfortable in the presence of some, especially the higher primates.
Nothing, but nothing prepares you for meeting grizzly bears in the wild. No television box, picture book or Youtube film prepares you for the experience of meeting these mighty creatures in one of their natural habitats on the Bute Inlet, just north of Orford Bay, country they have shared with the Homalco first nation people for millennia.
The grizzlies collect on the Bute inlet, in August and September, when the river is bubbling with salmon making their way upriver to spawn. As determined as they are to spawn and prolong the species, so too are the grizzlies, determined to have one last fish supper before hibernation.
And yes, grizzlies do hibernate. I believe, without sounding like David Attenborough, that they are the largest animal to hibernate, a process that even today we have made little progress in understanding. The diet of the grizzly is predominantly fruit, berries and roots for most of the year. But in order to hibernate, a grizzly has to increase their body weight by around a third. You can’t do that on berries – you need protein. And lo and behold, what should come swimming up the rivers at that time but salmon. Lots of salmon. And big ones at that.
The bears descend on the rivers like crowds at the first day the Harrods sale. Stuff their faces with fresh salmon. Couldn’t care less about the berries when there is salmon on the menu.
This single-mindedness ironically helps keep human viewers safe. As long as the bears can smell fish, they will always go for that first. Of course anyone foolish enough to climb out of the bus with a tuna mayo sarnie in hand may find themselves equally attractive. But then, anyone foolish enough to do that should probably be eliminated from the gene pool anyway. And nature can help there.
But assuming you don’t try to walk among their number smelling of salmon or wearing a salmon costume (why would you?) You are in actual fact fairly safe. The guides make a point of emphasising the need to stay together and not to use flash photography or any sudden movements likely to spook the bears.
You don’t want to spook the bears. They have claws 3 inches long, sharp teeth and a bite strength that would crush steel. They are also notoriously shortsighted I understand. And they don’t like surprises. So as long as you bear these facts in mind, you are (relatively) safe. But at the end of the day, you have to remember that these are wild animals. And big wild animals at that. And you are there with their permission.
The Homalco people run small excursions up the Bute River Inlet. We were a party of seven, bristling with cameras and expectation. Previous excursions had seen very few bears so we were prepared for disappointment. But around the first corner beside a popular viewing point, we saw our first grizzly – a mum with two cubs. On the one hand, a magical sight, on the other a potentially very volatile scenario. Grizzly mothers are notoriously protective of their young, not least from other male grizzlies. If you are admiring the cubs, you do well to keep an eye on the movements of the mother. You do not want to come between the mother and her cubs. Situations can deteriorate very quickly under such circumstances.
We whispered amongst ourselves while the cubs frolicked in front of the mother. It was one of those moments of connection, absolute connection with another living thing. I can’t even begin to put into words the sense of oneness with these amazing beasts. There is something absolutely primal about meeting such creatures in their own habitat. I felt blessed that they would allow me in. I will never forget that first encounter as long as I live.
We moved further up country to another favourite viewing location, a bend in the river where the salmon leapt. And the grizzlies were there to offer them a warm grizzly welcome, principally consisting of biting their heads off. In the spawning season an adult grizzly will typically eat around 50 salmon per day.
But perhaps the most edgy encounter was our last that day. Coming round a corner, we noticed a large grizzly male in the middle of the track. We waited a minute or two for him to leave before getting out of the bus. Only then did we notice another bear walking past us below the near riverbank, upon which we were standing, and separated by some scrub brush. He hadn’t noticed us and seemed oblivious. But it was closer than we might have liked. The guides had their cans of bear repellent out ready if necessary so clearly they perceived danger. At its closest, the bear was no more than 5 metres away from me. I stood stock still until he had passed. Only then did I exhale. It was beyond exciting.
After three hours at perhaps half a dozen locations, we had seen 13 different bears, some young some old, some plump and ready for winter others emaciated. The whole of life was here.
We sat in the boat having our lunch. Hardly anybody spoke. We were simply in awe, taken aback by what we had seen. Nature had put on a show. And there is no show more majestic than these magnificent creatures.
As I write, I’m transported back to the riverbank and the sight of the bear cubs playing with their mother. I struggle to articulate the connection I felt with nature and its other inhabitants at that moment. Words fail me. And if you know me, they don’t usually.
Outside of experiences with my own cubs, it was the best ever. Simple as that.