Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Canada part 5: what the bears really do in the woods

So finally we get onto the thing we went to Canada for in the first place - the bears!!! We were hoping to see two different types, the smaller black bear and their larger cousin the grizzly. At this time of year both should be feeding up in preparation for their hibernation and relatively easier to see.

The first bear we saw wasn't quite what we wanted

but it was at a very pleasant foodstop on the Icefields Parkway that served a delicious brownie!!!!
Still, that wasn't what we were after. Despite seeing many signs for bears and meeting people laden down with bear spray and bear bells we didn't actually get to see one till we got to Jasper. Talking to the lady on the cable car she said the Maligne Lake road was good for bears either early or late, so about 5pm after an early supper we set off down the road. Most of the cars were coming in the opposite direction, leaving the park, so we could drive slowly. We didn't need to. In a few miles we came across a "bear jam". About 15 cars were parked watching a black bear munching berries.

It's amazing that an animal so large can get fat by eating such small berries. Apparently their lips are as agile as our fingers and they pluck individual berries off the bushes!! We watched this bear till it moved off into an area where we couldn't see it, so first bear in the bag!!!
We then had to wait till the Great Bear Lodge to see any more bears, and boy did we see bears. You fly in on a seaplane to the lodge which is actually floating in the Smith inlet north of the north end of Vancouver Island, in the middle of absolutely nowhere.

It is a small lodge, with up to 16 guests though there were only 10 when we were there. In the high angle shot you can just about make out the yellow school bus. This is used to run you down the old logging road beside the river to one of 4 blinds or hides where you basically spend 3 hours in the morning and 3 in the evening waiting for bears to come past, and come past they do! The reason is, they are after the salmon.

These toothy beasts are migrating up the river to spawn and the males use these teeth to defend prime areas where the females can lay their eggs. You can't get an idea of size, but they are big - up to 3 foot long. Well, a bear isn't going to bother with a tiddler is it!!!

We had actually got a bit nervous before we got here, as we kept reading reviews on TripAdvisor from people who saw no bears whatsoever. We knew we were on the cusp of the salmon migration and that it was weather dependent - not enough water and the salmon can't come up river. The run actually started about a week before we got there. Getting off the plane, the departing guests settled our minds with tales of multiple bears.

I won't chronologically go through every bear we saw. It was probably 30 or more bears over 6 days, but every time we went out we saw them, sometimes up to 15 bears, sometimes fewer and on multiple occasions.

A typical view was like this. A great big grizzly bear ambling down the river looking for fish.

On the first two days the river level was relatively low, and we saw bears catching and chasing the fish, or found them already eating kills.

Apologies for the quality of some of the pictures - many were taken when it was VERY dark and raining so I was pushing the ISO on the camera up to ridiculously high numbers!!!
Most of the time of course the bears were not successful in their hunts, and this got harder over the next few days as we moved into a very rainy period, the river level rose and that made the salmon much harder to catch. Still, the bears enjoyed trying.

 One thing we noticed was the variation in colour of the bears. Some were almost black, but not black bears, whereas others were a beautiful blond colour, the typical grizzled look from where they get their name.

Of  course, large animals in close proximity don't always get on, and we often saw behaviours where one bear would drive another off. Normally, this happened as a distance, one bear would see another approaching some way off and just leave. Once there was a massive chase where one really went after the other bear.

The bear being chased really wasn't having a good day. First of all we saw it being sick, you can see foam around its mouth, and then it was driven off a good stretch of river. The chase was still going on as they went out of sight, at an incredible speed, so we never did see what happened.

You can also go out on boats from the lodge, and on one of those occasions we were down a quiet little backwater when the guide suddenly pointed out movement ahead of us. This bear just swam quietly across the front of our boat. They are actually very good swimmers and can cross large stretches of open water, probably at a speed greater than you can kayak! This one just wanted to get to some better feeding areas though.

When we got to the lodge they had not yet seen any COTY's, or cubs of the year yet. We were therefore very lucky to come across this mother with two very young cubs one morning.

They were actually on a relatively small island which had been almost cut off by rising floodwaters so were quite worried for the cubs as many drown in swollen rivers. On the way back to the lodge we came across them back on dry land, so mum must have somehow found a quite crossing point for them.

The final thing we noticed was how dog-like they can appear. The muzzle shape can really lead you to think they're just a big dog. They are a big dog with a very large set of claws and a disposition to not give you the best of days if they found you alone in the woods. Fortunately our guides, who were genuinely wonderful and extremely knowledgeable kept us safe.

Overall, a truly magical place to stay, some superb sights and marvellous experiences. We were very sad to leave, but our final highlight was flying out on the "goose", a DeHavilland goose seaplane from the 1940's flown by a real character. WE had to get out before a storm and he took us below the clouds and only just above the tree line. Never had a plane flight like it and a marvellous way to end out Canadian adventure. Im sure we'll be back.