We are cruising down the Atnarko River in a Clackacraft drift boat – a rather bulky, tinny affair. It is, we are told, the best in the business. As we set off and clunk and grind our way over the shallower rapids, I wonder about this assertion.
The regal and appropriately named snow-dusted Mount Stupendous casts her gnarly profile down upon us and the reflections of lush and lofty cotton trees and Douglas Fir wriggle and stretch in the calm pools between the busier rapids.
While negotiating his way with ease around vast cotton tree stumps and through churning rapids, our 70-something river guide Les Koroluk waxes lyrical about the great run of ‘pink’ or ‘kap’ay’ this year. He rolls off names like ‘chum’, ‘coho’, ‘cutthroat’, ‘sock eye’ and ‘bull trout’ – all with a delightful, and slightly quavering Canadian lilt.
Vast clutches of gravid females swim urgently upstream, males not too far behind them. The crystal clear water darkens with salmon as they move en masse beneath and alongside us. Occasionally one leaps out of the water and belly-flops back. These remarkable fish face an astounding suite of challenges as they turn their backs on the ocean and make their way upstream.
I notice a few rather ropey looking fish, large white fungus-like growths on their flanks and fins. “Signs of decay”, explains Les, “long before their number’s up, many of them show quite erratic behavior and will flop about. They spawn and they die. Their job is done”.
Despite his advanced years, our guide’s burly arms tweak and tug at the two oars with total confidence. He is clearly well attached to his beaten up old boat – and refuses point blank to guide in the souped-up inflatables favored by his younger guiding colleagues.
We are in the company of a real mountain river man….boiling rapids, feisty fish, charging bears, icy mountains…he’s seen it and done it all. A deep understanding and reverence towards the land and its critters – hairy or scaled – oozes from every pore. He’s a story teller of note.
In the 80’s Les owned and ran a successful guiding company in the Bella Coola valley, where salmon and trout fishing was the main focus. This ultimately gave birth to commercial bear viewing ventures in the British Columbia region of Canada. Les, we find out later, was the brain behind the ‘river drift’ approach to viewing wildlife.
And thus we drift.
We are looking for bears. Big grizzly ones. They have been spotted all week on these drift trips, so we are feeling lucky. Sometimes they are within arm’s reach, we are told. Les tells us about all sorts of bear encounters – ones he has had with clients or on his own. Bears sitting on logs dipping paws into the river, bears mock charging, bears with cubs, big male bears swimming alongside the boat….bears all over the place.
Our rookie excitement mounts with each story and we strain our eyes up and downstream – we would give anything for a hint of hair, a flash of a pointy dark muzzle.
We’re here at the right time. When the salmon start migrating, the bears move up and down the river in a collective feeding frenzy, in a bid to fatten up for winter.
Towards the end of September, as fresh salmon numbers dwindle, the bears become less picky and start gnawing on spawned-out, dead and dying salmon. Very often, the putrid smell of rotting fish is what you will smell before you see a bear deep in the forest, explains Les.
We are in deep wilderness – with no signs of human habitation for many, many miles. The Bella Coola valley cuts through the coastal mountains from the Pacific to the interior plateau. The area has the lowest population density of any habitable area on earth and is one of the few places where ‘natives’ or ‘first nations’ folk outnumber the ‘non-natives’. Because of this, many of the bears that are encountered have not had negative experiences with humans. They are, Les explains, fairly tolerant and allow humans to watch them at pretty close quarters. It’s a balancing act though, he goes on. “There is a degree of trust that one needs to garner from the bears…we have to behave in a certain way that they are able to both tolerate and predict. The guides in the area undergo very specific training and we all adhere to the strict regional and provincial standards.”
I ask about client numbers and whether there is ever a sense of crowding the animal. “That’s very much part of it”, he says “the guide to client-ratios must remain small…we have to almost melt into the background for these bears, for these tours to continue to bear fruit”.
We come to the end of our three hour drift empty handed and a little disappointed. There’s always tomorrow…
The next day we set off with Mad Mike – a 30-something gingery bear of a man who has lived and guided in the area for many years. Mike shares Les’s deep passion for the area, but is also fascinated by the cultural history and tells us some rather alarming tales of how first nations people were mistreated by the Canadian government (enough material for another blog entirely!)
We follow the ‘Tote road’ – a rough gravel road (used by the early settlers in the late 1800s) that winds its way parallel to the Atnarko River for about 11 kays upstream to the confluence of the Hotnarko River.
We are, of course, looking for bears.
We find a pika (a small hamster-like rodent), a garter snake and many frogs. We watch red-tailed hawks ride the thermals and a juvenile bald eagle swoop between the cottonwood tops. We come across Culturally Modified Trees (CTMs) – cedars that have been stripped of a few sheets of bark to make clothing or hats.
But there are no bears in these deep, dark woods. Not today anyway.
We find more than an enough tantalizing evidence to indicate their presence though. Big piles of fresh bear skat peppered with rose-hip pips; fat, dinner plate sized prints pressed into the mud; a broad, winding urine trail along a stretch of tar road (a male bear, we are told – they don’t stop to wee, they swagger and wee); rubbing trees scarred with deep claw scrapes and even hair embedded in the bark. I pluck a hair out and pocket it for my son back home – knowing how much of a treasure a genuine grizzly hair will be!
These trees talk, says Mike. Well, to a bear anyway. The scent left on the tree will tell the next bear who passed before it, their reproductive status and possibly their mood. Marking is usually done by males during the mating season, but some is done by both genders throughout the year. A bear will always stop at a talking tree and read the news, make its own mark.
Mike tells us that marine-derived nitrogen is found in these trees – even though we are about 100 metres from the nearest river. Indeed it is difficult to find a tree that has not been influenced by salmon! In a single spawning season, one bear will carry up to 700 salmon from the river and leave half behind on the forest floor. “The larger tree growth rings correspond directly with the large salmon runs” explains Mike.
Every time we approached the river, we would be warned in hushed tones to quiet down, to be aware. Our guide would go ahead, stop, listen then pick his way through the tall reeds and gingerly check the river banks. Adrenalin levels would soar and I would start to imagine bears crashing out from the dark woods or rising up from day beds, all gnashing teeth and claws.
By now our feet were starting to ache a little, we had hiked the whole morning and into the afternoon. We had lunched on the river bank, taken a dip in the river and now were really starting to think all these Grizzly encounters were pure fallacy…
On our final river bank check, I glance up and spotted a beautiful, massive golden-tinged Grizzly male sploshing about in the rapids. We watched him for less than a minute before he sunk into the water and vanished around the corner. It was enough to get the juices flowing. I had seen my first real live grizzly in the wild!
The next morning our first trip down to the hide revealed a sow and her cub right up close and munching away at a dead fish she had plucked out of the river. We watched through binocular and camera lenses – hardly able to contain our excitement.
The bond between mum and cub was profound – he stuck to her like Velcro, and she constantly made sure he had his fair share of the rotting flesh.
The little guy became quite playful at one stage, jumping up and down on his hind legs playing what looked like hide and seek behind a bush. Mike had explained to us that bears often show a human-like sense of humour in their behaviour – signs of being aloof, scared, friendly, goofy and inventive. We saw all this and more in the way these two interacted. Eventually mum and cub ambled off to disappear from sight leaving us all, slack jawed and star struck…
On our last day we went on another drift – again with Les. This time we were rewarded with an excellent sighting of the legendary “Bent Ear”. This big chap had a floppy bottom lip and a battered ear from too many bar brawls and encounters with rival males or even females.
“That’ll be Bent Ear”, says Les, in his lazy drawl….”he’s fat alright – ‘prolly got a belly full of cubs”, he chortles.
“Cubs?”, I ask, horrified….
“Yip….many sows will give birth to three cubs, but only one’ll make it. They either suffer den death because mum doesn’t have enough milk, or they’ve come across the likes of Bent ear and he’s picked out a cub and gobbled it up in front of his siblings”.
Tough stuff this, but it’s nature – red in tooth and claw and all that.
We watch this magnificent creature for a while. His shiny hippo-like bulk swims for about a kilometre downstream and then he emerges, shakes, glances up at us in our boat and swaggers off up a bank to be swallowed up in the gloom of the woods.