Tag Archives: Johnstone Strait

We Bear It Well

Thursday 26 August 2022 – The plan for the day was to get to Thompson Sound, up the Kakweekan River, a salmon river (aren’t they all, round here?) where it might be possible to see more bear action. As the day before, the start was a boat journey for some 90 minutes with the lovely Sylvie at the wheel and James generally leading and giving us the benefit of (a) his knowledge and passion for the local ecology and (b) his dry-as-dust sense of humour.  The two of them kept an eye out for shore-based wildlife as we went

and I tried not to worry about the driver taking her eye off the road. Actually, the chance of a traffic accident was, of course, pretty remote.

We passed a couple of salmon farms on the way,

and James explained the negative impact these have had over the years they’ve been established here.  It’s impossible to farm salmon without diseases affecting them.  If you put 100 people in a room for an extended period, for example, eventually sickness will spread; imagine that with salmon, but of course with vastly greater numbers of fish.  The problem comes not with the farmed salmon infecting wild ones coming upriver to spawn, but with the smolts coming down-river after hatching; these catch the diseases and inevitably spread it among the wild salmon population.  The wild salmon population is thus drastically reduced, which affects all the animals for which the salmon are prey; eagles, dolphins, orcas and, of course, bears.  Fortunately, the number of salmon farms is decreasing as environmental activists, including the First Nations, exert pressure and even big business is beginning to understand that the environmental downside is worse than the commercial upside.  The result has been (as seen everywhere where this has happened) an inverse correlation between salmon farms and the health of the local ecology.

We also passed a school of dolphins, who came over to investigate us and entertained us with their exuberance and skill.

The next stage of the journey was a short ride in a (heavily modified) four-wheel drive truck

Where I took the chance of getting a team photo – Sylvie on the truck, James on the right.  After the ride, and some safety briefing from James about how to minimise the risks in case we came across a bear unexpectedly (stay together, no buggering off on your own to take photos, no screaming if you saw a bear, that kind of thing), we set off on a short hike

which led to a river that had to be crossed by a small boat on a rope system.

A few more metres along the track, Sylvie led us off to a place where we had a decent view of a decent view.

It’s interesting to note that, as free-flowing as this river seems, it’s very low, because there hasn’t been enough rain to supply it.  We could see salmon – pink salmon, the small ones – making their way upstream, and while the river is alarmingly low, this is extremely good news.  In previous years there were no salmon, so the bears couldn’t feed.  The unique nature of grizzle bear biology concerns foetal development.  A pregnant grizzly bear will maintain a foetus for a while before implanting it so it can develop, to feed up in order to support the coming cub.  If there’s not enough to eat, the foetus will not implant, but instead will be terminated.  The result has been a couple of years with no bear cubs at all, which is why seeing salmon in this river is such good news.  James mentioned later that we were not, erm, out of the woods yet and that it needed to rain immediately, long and heavily in order to sustain the environmental cycles.

Anyhoo, our time in the spot by the river gave us the tiniest insight into the nightmare world of wildlife photographers.  We sat there for a good two hours and nothing happened, beyond the odd salmon or two leaping up the falls. We took a short break for lunch at a nearby spot – once the abode of “Trapper Rick” but now shared by Farewell Harbour and a couple of other interested parties.

and then returned to where we were, where nothing continued to happen for another hour or so.  Sylvie came round our group trying to establish a “should we stay or should we go” consensus.  Had she suggested that we all leave, I would have happily taken up on it; but the feeing among the group was to stay, so I kept quiet.

Two minutes – two minutes – later….

Which just goes to show that I have lessons to learn about patience. A bear appeared and calmly walked by, just below us, and crossed the falls in search of salmon.

We hastily – and quietly – moved to a lower viewing spot so we could watch the bear fishing. This spot had been occupied by another group, led by a couple of First Nations guides; but they had followed us to the cabin and were eating their lunch, so we had their spot to ourselves!

We were phenomenally lucky.  Not only did the bear walk closely enough for some great photos, but then we were able to witness this.

It was spellbinding.  The other group, alerted by James (there is constant communication between groups, sharing wildlife sightings and other information by radio) came hurrying back, so we moved out of the way to let them carry on the viewing.  At that precise instant, and before the other group had a chance to get the same view we had, the peace and quiet were cataclysmically shattered as a helicopter came over.  It didn’t just fly over, it swept sideways up the river at very low altitude, making a hell of a racket.

The bear, of course, was utterly spooked

and shot off into the woods on the far side, never to return.  So the second group never got the chance to see what we’d seen and, more importantly, the bear lost the chance to eat salmon.  It seemed that it was a government-sponsored flight for the purposes of counting fish.  One understands that These Things Must Be Done, but this individual episode cast a bit of a pall over the proceedings.

There was clearly no point in staying there, as the chance of seeing the bear again was minuscule, so we headed back, now in sunshine. Sylvie showed us a bear rubbing tree on the way back.  Bears will use a tree for a variety of purposes; scratching that elusive itch, of course, but also as a way of communicating with the local ursine community.  Scratching leaves scent and the higher the scent, the bigger the bear – a warning to others about who’s the boss around here.  Bears tend to choose sappy trees, and if you look closely, you can see individual hairs stuck in the sap.

On the way back, we passed the school of dolphins again and they obliged by entertaining us once more

and Sylvie spotted a black bear on a distant shore.  Quite how she was able to do this is beyond me, as I could hardly see it even when I knew where it was.  But there it was

looking for berries to eat.

A day which at one stage looked like it would be a dead loss (I had envisaged a post called “Doesn’t Bear Repeating”) had turned out to be richly rewarding.  I felt really privileged to have witnessed today’s episodes, particularly the fishing, and hugely lucky to have scored the photos and videos now safely ensconced on my laptop.

The dinner back at the lodge was, as ever, absolutely delicious, and was followed by an interesting talk by Sylvie about “Heroes of the Forest”, by which she meant fungi and mycelia, essential components of an arboreal ecosystem.

And that, beyond a certain amount of drinking and conversation, was that for the day – richly rewarding, deeply interesting and hugely enjoyable (my earlier boredom has been largely forgotten).

This was our last evening here, and so we have to prepare to leave tomorrow.  We travel to Port Hardy, thence to Vancouver and onwards to Whitehorse for another three-day adventure.  The ever-excellent Tim has ensured that we have some entertainment laid on to divert us from the tedium of simply sitting around in an airport awaiting a flight.  So come back tomorrow (or thereabouts – the internet connection here is not something one can rely on) to find out how our day and our journey went.