Monday, July 18, 2011

The Garden of Grizzlies

Cloudless blue skies and warm sunshine greeted us as we weighed our gear and loaded two DeHavilland Beaver float planes for the short 30 minute flight into the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary.  Routes into the British Columbia backcountry are often not as the crow flies given weather conditions.   We put Prince Rupert in the rear view mirror climbing over the Tsimpean Peninsula and crossed Work Channel.  Shortly after we passed Mount McNeil, the dark water of the Khutzeymateen Inlet appeared on the horizon.  As we banked to land, the gold masts of the Ocean Light II glistened against the emerald green landscape.  I was back in the Garden of Grizzlies. 

The Khutzeymateen Inlet stretches 25 miles to the Northeast from Chatham Sound. The steep granite mountainsides rise from water level shouldering the entire passage.  The Sitka spruce, alder, and yellow cedar forest soften the rugged terrain giving the entire area a sculpted, almost manicured appearance.   Logging, more than 50 years ago, changed the composition of the forest.  Old and new growths collide along divisible lines showing the diversity in age of the forest.  Hidden under the dense canopy, more than 200 active log slides remain. They deliver trees, stumps, and thin topsoil down narrow, steep, chutes to the inlet.  The head of the valley holds a wide grass covered estuary cut by several tidal creeks.  Clumps of lupine and indian paintbrush offer a pallet of pastel color along the edges.  The renewal of spring makes this an amazing time to be here. 

It takes a couple of days to find a rhythm when photographing grizzly bears.  Estimates put the resident population at 50.  During late spring those numbers climb as other bears move into the area to compete for mates.  We explored the tidal estuary in a small Zodiak, when the 20 foot tide allowed passage.  The balance of our time was spent on alluvial flats scattered along the inlet.  The intensity of mating season illustrates the pecking order in the social network.  The larger, older males wander the entire area.  Sub-adult males become satellite members of the ecosystem residing in outlying areas, laying low, looking to avoid conflict, by any means possible.   Sub-adults females become nervous and anxious with the sudden attention.  They seem to be constantly on the move, not knowing how to handle the social interactions.  The prime females know they are the main attraction.  They snub all callers until the most dominant partner is available.

Access to the Khutzeymateen is highly controlled.  Only two outfitters have licensed access from the BC government and the First Nations people.  Add in the remote location and you have the opportunity to witness a top keystone predator whose behavior is completely natural and not shaped by man in any way.  We photographed more than two dozen bears in a little over a week.  Some we approached on foot, others we drifted to in a small Zodiak.  It’s a magical moment when you are only a short  distance from a grizzly, staring into each other's eyes, and feeling as if  the animal is granting you access into a day in their life. The most remarkable experience was when we had was with a sow and two cubs.  Normally a female with cubs are absent this time of year steering clear of large breeding males.  They tend to isolate in dense cover until the mating season passes.  We found this female on a secluded alluvial beach near the estuary.  Dense forest covered one flank, a fast flowing creek the other.  Over the course of a couple of days we became familiar and predictable to this family.  By the end of my visit the sow would bring her cubs in our direction when we motored to the shoreline.  They would saunter the water’s edge chewing tops of sedge grass, digging clams and swimming a short distance from our positions.  One afternoon she exited the shadow of the tree line walking directly toward us.  She stopped, nose in the air, checking her surroundings and then collapsed, spread eagle across a log for a short nap.  The cubs scampered around their sleeping mom, occasionally throwing us a quizzical stare, posing for our rapidly firing shutters.  Her comfort in our presence made us wonder if she saw us as a little extra protection for her growing family.

The past couple of years I’ve traveled to British Columbia several times to photograph wild, remote bears.  Each visit  has been transforming, almost spiritual, in nature.  The Great Bear Rainforest and the Khutzeymateen are dramatic proof points that wild faces thrive in wild places.

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