Close encounters of the grizzly kind
The grizzly bear ambled out of the grove opposite us. “Looks like a six year-old male” Tim, our naturalist, whispered.
The bear lumbered along the bear-made trail, while we watched, enthralled. Did Tim have ESP? Or had the bear overheard Tim’s talk on bear habits?
The bear must have overheard, as he proceeded to demonstrate each behavior Tim had just finished telling us about. First, he plucked some Pacific crab apples and ate them. Then he ambled to the rubbing post. Moments before we’d closely examined this cedar tree, noting the wisps of bear hair caught in the bark, and marveling at how bears share our need to scratch that itch.
A mere 100 metres from where we crouched, the bear carried on his daily routine, moving closer to the river’s edge and his true breakfast: salmon. The crabapples were just the appetizer. Cameras clicked, binoculars focused, our group breathed in the fish rot smell and followed behind, tramping through the Lyngby’s sedge, rice-root lily, dock, Douglas aster columbine and other quaintly named estuary plants, our boots sinking deep in the mud.
Could he? Would he? Yes!
I’d always wanted to see a bear swim, having watched many deer gracefully glide across Pacific waters. I knew that bears were Olympian masters, their huge shoulders dwarfing the Thorpedo’s any day.
With a salmon in one hand, the grizzly waded into the cold water and swam to the other bank where he settled into an extended breakfast of champions: salmon sushi and more salmon sushi. (Scientific American ran a fascinating four-part series this summer on grizzly bears and their dependence on salmon in the Great Bear region.)
Beckoned by our guides, we loaded the Zodiacs and motored as quietly as possible downstream to continue our bear surveillance. The grizzly watched us, too. Then he slipped into the water and let the current carry him right past our boat. Only his head was above water; his gaze level at the feeding grounds below. And as he slipped by in the rushing water, our eyes met. A moment of wonder.
I took it all in – the wide swath of the estuary, the wild rivers and streams funneling into Khutze Inlet, the backdrop of forest and mountains. An area big enough for a grizzly to roam free. And on one morning this past fall in the Great Bear Sea, I was lucky enough to share his world.