The Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary, May 2012

Jul 2012

By: Laura Crawford Williams

May 9th, 2012
I’m writing this to avoid being seasick. It should have the opposite affect when sitting on a sailboat that’s rocking and rolling, but it seems to be working. Normally, I can’t even read in the car. The hard part is keeping the computer on my lap!

Yesterday, we left the port at Prince Rupert, an island along the coast of British Columbia. We’re headed about 40 km northeast to a place called the Khutzeymateen, Canada’s only grizzly bear sanctuary. The sanctuary includes 109,500 acres of rugged peaks, old growth temperate rainforest, and a large estuary. I love the natural setting of British Columbia: dark waters rimmed by huge moss covered trees, set against looming snow-capped granite peaks. I feel age and mystery when in these waters.

There are 9 of us on board, 7 men and 2 women. At this particular moment, it’s cold, we’re crashing through waves, and it’s sleeting outside. The men are crowded above deck under the canopy. I think they’re focused on the horizon and hoping they don’t get sea sick, but no one will admit it! My “room” for the next 9 days is more like a shelf than a room and is located in the bow of the boat. For those of you not familiar with boating, you feel every bump and roll in the bow. So, here we go again. German and I are on another adventure, enduring many forms of discomfort with the hope of returning with unique photos and videos. Maybe we’re crazy, but we’re also excited by the possibilities.

May 11th, 2012
The weather hasn’t improved much and we’re still on our way to the Khutzeymateen. Along the way, we’ve spent time looking for bears in the Kwinamass Valley and have been lucky. We found a male Grizzly that was digging for clams at low tide. He’d find one small clam and delicately open it to reveal the smallest morsel of food. After eating several of these, he returned to the shoreline to continue eating grass. The most exciting find of the day was a mother bear with two cubs. They were feeding on mussels attached to exposed rocks, scraping the mussels off with their teeth. You could hear loud crunching as they chewed – I don’t know how they keep from hurting their mouths. In one moment, one of the cubs broke away from the mother and came toward us. After what looked like an attempt to look casual (I’m not headed your way), he finally crawled on a rock near our boat. He faced us, raised one paw and grumbled. He looked like he was waving hello.

May 13th, 2012
We’re finally at the Khutzeymateen, but our permit doesn’t allow us to enter until tomorrow. We’ve spent a lot of time cruising around in the zodiac just outside the sanctuary. This afternoon our captain spotted a sea wolf walking along the shoreline. Everyone scrambled for their gear and photographed the wolf from the deck of the boat. It wasn’t long before we wanted a closer look, so we loaded up the zodiac and headed out. The wolf stayed right along the water’s edge but was moving fast and we lost it. We spotted a male Grizzly and headed toward him. That’s when I heard German say, “Wolf!” Unbelievable, the wolf was headed directly toward the bear. The bear continued eating unconcerned as the wolf slipped directly behind him and into the woods.

May 14th, 2012
It was 6:45 this morning when I heard lots of activity on deck. I went up to see what was happening and there it was, the wolf, directly beside the sailboat. I ran for my gear. She was beautiful, with light colored fur that stood out from the dark shadows underneath overhanging trees. She stopped and looked directly at us with those yellow eyes. Much to my disappointment she disappeared again. After breakfast, we finally headed out into the Khutzeymateen. It wasn’t long until we spotted the first Grizzlies, a male and female. The girl was at the edge of the woods and the boy heading toward her. When he reached her, he gently bit her neck and pulled her out into the meadow. With open mouths they waved their teeth at one another (something called “jawing”), stood up on their hind legs, pushed, pulled, bit, scratched, and punched – mostly with a gentle touch. They were playing. At one point, the female began walking away. The male simply lay down on his back, ears up and paws on his chest, and she came running back again. The rest of the day was slow and we didn’t see more bears. But, at the very end of the day just as the light was fading, a black wolf with yellow eyes came walking out of the woods. He was impressive and beautiful to see. He disappeared as quickly as he came.

May 15th, 2012
Our boy and girl Grizzlies didn’t disappoint us this morning. The same two that were playing yesterday, started up again just as we arrived in the estuary. We were in a better position for photography and the light was better as well. They were playing a little rougher than yesterday. The female gave the boy a couple of hard scratches. Later when looking at the images on the computer, we could see cuts in his fur. It rained the rest of the day and we didn’t find more bears. We were wet and cold and the day was long.

May 16th, 2012
The bears really came out of hibernation today. They were everywhere. A large alpha male named Brutus was chasing the younger males away, a female was taking a nap on an ice flow, and other bears were eating grass or swimming back and forth between islands.  There were at least 14 all around us. We photographed like crazy. It also rained like crazy. The bears were not bothered by the rain or by us as we cruised along in the zodiac. Often times, they swam quite near the boat. Even Brutus, with his consistently grumpy-looking face, was tolerant of our presence. Actually, he surprised me. We were in a narrow channel watching another bear. The walls of the channel were high because it was still low tide. The bow of the zodiac was pushed up against one of the walls as we sat perpendicular in the channel. I was in the bow looking straight ahead when I heard deep, hollow breathing above me. Brutus came to the edge and looked down at me. I didn’t know what to do. I looked up and talked to him quietly as we were told. After that, he collapsed to his belly like a dog. He just lay down with his head facing me. He was huge and mangy. Patches of fur were missing along his sides. Our captain said he’d known Brutus since he was a cub and it seemed plausible that Brutus came to lie down near his old friend after a long morning of chasing away younger males.

May 19th, 2012
Today’s our last day and I’m sad to go (but I haven’t had a real shower in 9 days so I think it’s time to make my way back to civilization). We’ve loved our time with the bears and have learned a lot about their world and their ways. They allowed us into that world without aggression. There’s no doubt they sit above us on the food chain, but during our time with them we witnessed an immensely gentle nature. Most of the time, bears were more afraid of us than we were of them. We were taught to move slowly and talk softly to the bears. They were tolerant or indifferent, and occasionally curious. Some bears had distinctive personalities while others were very similar.  I wasn’t surprised by the experience but I realize that I’ve lost some of my fear of them. There’s no doubt I have a healthy respect. They’re huge and powerful, I know enough not to be careless. But, at the same time, I’m a little more comfortable in their presence and I look forward to seeing them again someday.


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