BENEATH THE WIND-SCULPTED CORNICES crowning the massif beyond the tree line, long, purpling shadows had begun to pool.
Rock faces slid from battleship grey towards steel blue. Even gleaming snow fields had begun to take on a softer, burnished hue, offset by flushes of pastel where they fell away from the slant of light.
It dawned abruptly in my distracted 12-year-old brain that this signalled a problem. First, it was late enough in the day that it would soon be getting dark farther down the trail where it wound beneath the already gloomy old growth. Second, that the shouts and laughter of the other boys I’d come up with had fallen into silence. They were already on their way back down the mountain.
Off in hot pursuit, I came pelting around a very tight, very steep corner and slammed full-bore into the backside of a small black bear. The bear was as shocked as I. It streaked up-slope and I ran even faster downhill and didn’t slow until I reached the bottom where my companions had just noticed my absence.
We all seem to have stories about bears
I have other bear stories. Polar bear stories. Grizzly bear stories. A cinnamon bear. But none quite so intimate as that one.
Sometimes it seems that everyone in British Columbia who ventures beyond the limits of the cities where most of us spend most of our time has a bear story.
My brother Mark recalls paddling through a rain squall on Bowron Lake to set up a soggy camp with his wife and two young daughters. They’d be sharing the beach with a young moose browsing in the willows behind. Except, the next morning Maggie quietly informed Mark: “That’s no moose.” They’d spent the night next to the biggest grizzly he’d ever seen. But it gave no trouble, just sauntered away.
My wife’s bear tale is from a fishing trip to the Atnarko River up the mid-Coast. I was fussing with a rucksack. She suddenly declined to take the trail with me.
“A bear just walked behind the car,” she explained. Now, Susan doesn’t scare easily. I must have raised an eyebrow. “It was bigger than the car,” she said. The car was a little Vega but a bear that big is pretty big. “You go if you want. I’m staying here.”
Call me foolhardy, perhaps, but after enduring 500 kilometres of gravel road, I wasn’t about to let a bear chase me off, so down the trail I went. Before I could open my fly box, I heard a splashing. Up a side channel, shoulder to shoulder, swaggering like hockey fans on a game night pub crawl, came three young grizzlies. I went back to the car. The fish could wait for another day.
And, now, with seven sightings of grizzly bears around Sayward, a black bear and cub in Beaver Lake Park, a bear in Thetis Lake Park, bear sightings in Saanich and Central Saanich, the entire Island has bear stories to share.
It’s not surprising, really. There are an estimated 7,000 black bears on Vancouver Island, a small proportion of the 150,000 in BC but a dense concentration nevertheless. And, now, with maybe seven grizzlies on the North Island, the adrenaline factor for hikers and anglers will be jacked right up. Of course, maybe it’s just seven sightings of the same grizzly; bear stories do have a way of taking on a life of their own.
Historically, there have been almost no resident grizzlies on Vancouver Island except for the odd adventuresome cherchez la femme specimen who returns to the mainland when he discovers that Island life means flying solo.
Still, seven grizzly sightings is a lot for the Island. And, judging by the sad ending for the bachelor wolf from Victoria who was relocated only to be shot by a hunter, then the wandering grizzly from the Broughton Archipelago who was relocated at the request of First Nations elders only to later be shot by a frightened householder, things may yet go badly for the bears.
Part 2 of this story is here; watch for Part 3, coming soon. Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.