Day 4 – Kayaking has become breakfast, followed by food on the boat. Mid-morning, we visited a lighthouse station, still manned, on a small gull-covered isle named Green Island. These seemed all to be Glaucous-winged Gulls, and we found two nests. The island also hosted scarlet-legged Pigeon Guillemots and Black Oystercatchers, with a few Black Turnstones. Beds of Bull Kelp, generously populated with Harbor Seals, wreathed its rocky shores. Fireweed was in flower, along with wild peas and Chocolate Lillies.
Early evening we ventured into a fjord-like bay, Kwinamass, at whose head was a marsh estuary and its river. The slopes reared high into the mists, but they’d seen more than a trivial amount of clear-cutting within perhaps a decade. I wondered how the local wildlife would have taken that racket and disruption. And I was glad to learn that the place has been newly protected.
The bears need protection too. Barrie Gilbert, who survived an incredible accident with a Grizzly he’d surprised, reminded us that here is continual pressure from hunters to kill British Columbia grizzlies (also called Brown Bears, especially the huge salmon-gorging coastal ones). Most of the motivation, of course, is money. Hunting guides earn big fees.
We went ashore on a wide mudflat and where from the boat we’d seen a bear with 3 cubs, plus two other bears, probably sibs, gorging on sedges and occasionally sparring spectacularly on hind legs. The mother had been on the mudflat digging clams and she and her family left it pocked with deep holes and criss-crossed with impressive tracks.
The mother with cubs wasn’t comfortable with us and took them into the forest. We consoled ourselves watching a mink negotiating the mudflats. Then for a while we watched the crows and the Bonaparte’s Gulls that awaited the salmon, and the eagles that landed atop moss-draped conifers. The tide quickly obliterated the mudflats and seemed to send some salmon upstream (we could see their splashes). In a light rain and a cloud of biting sandflies, we patiently watched bears for about three hours. I was impressed with the patience of my Canadian companions, who never let our discomfort interfere with our interest. And so, we were amply rewarded with excellent views.
Eventually, with the small inflatable boats, we got pretty close to the other bears, at one point within about 100 feet. That was close enough for my binoculars to bring me into the bears’ thick, brown fur. And we could hear the sound of them ripping up mouthfuls of salad. We watched them sparring in a tight bear-hug. Later, Barrie told us he’d never seen that kind of tight embrace, in 40 years and thousands of hours of professional bear-watching.
Wet and chilled and satisfied, we headed back to our boat at around 7 p.m.
Onboard, Barrie gave us a presentation about bears. He patiently answers the many questions about his accident and how he was patched up afterwards. Briefly: He’d topped a ridge almost right on top of a sleeping bear. The surprised bear attacked in its own perceived defense, getting its canines into Barrie’s skull above his brow and between his teeth. That bite scooped away his left eye, cheekbone, and the left half of his face. It also sent his right eye dangling, pulled his ears away from his skull, destroyed his nose, and exposed a small section of his brain. Incredibly, he says he never lost consciousness. His student, 100 yards behind him, did not see the attack but scared the bear off of Barrie’s body. While he radioed for help, Barrie was aware that he was in a pool of his blood and the fact that flies were already landing on him. He was airlifted to a hospital that ran out of sutures while performing a highly unlikely stabilization. Numerous skin-grafts, loads of antibiotics, and weeks later, it became apparent that against all odds, Barrie Gilbert would survive.
Bears remained his main love and the subject of his research. After a lifetime, he says, he’s come to think of them, “as kind of another kind of people that are learning machines. Their individuality, their ability to develop distinct habits—I think of them as the chimpanzee of the carnivore world.”
Also with us is Dr. Andy Wright. He’s been working on bear conservation in British Columbia for a number of years, and as a philanthropist has been pivotal in preserving land for B.C’s bears. Most recently he’s been working against bear trophy-hunting.
Hunting guides and the government argue that the science shows there’re more than enough bears for the 4 percent of the population that are allowed to be killed out of an estimated 16- to 17,000 grizlies in British Columbia. But Dr. Wright argues the estimates are crudely derived based on a habitat analysis that adds up patches of land in which many, in reality, are too small and disjointed to support bears. In Alberta, he says, the same kind of modeling was later shown by DNA analysis to have overestimated the bear population by several times. The hunting guides also argue they are stewards of the land and proponents of grizzly conservation. But Wright worries about illegal poaching, estimated to equal the legal take, and a bear population being fragmented by roads and development, unable to travel or interbreed. And he believes the economics of trophy hunting are dwarfed by the economics of bear-viewing. As with whale-watching and other wildlife pursuits, the animals are worth much more to the economy overall if they’re alive than if they’re killed. Andy says a shot bear may be worth about $30,000 in hunting fees, while a live bear is worth boatloads of tourists and their cameras coming again and again for the decades of the bear’s life—potentially millions of dollars. He also believes bear hunting is simply cruel. And, that it is an ethical abomination; we don’t kill other humans for sport so why would we kill another sentient being for pleasure? People get convicted for mistreating their dogs, he points out, but killing a bear for fun is widely regarded as normal. He doesn’t think that’s logically consistent. Nor, for that matter, do I.