By Nico Shaffer (Westminster College)
Grizzly bears have a long troubled past with humans in the lower 48. A stretch of country grizzlies once spanned in its entirety, they have now been maimed and relocated from all but a few of the most “wild” national parks. Substantial populations now only exist in two fragmented ecosystems: the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the high country of northern Montana. This is thanks to a pervasive extirpation by ranchers and hunters alike in an effort to protect their livestock and game from this massive and misunderstood predator. This is not the case in Atlin, British Columbia or really anywhere north of the border up into Alaska, where healthy and vibrant grizzly populations permeate its coastal and boreal forests.
Coming on Round River’s Taku program, I had a few things I wanted to see, the great horned owl and the grizzly topping out the list. I saw four great horned owls on a Common Nighthawk survey, so my thoughts moved on to the Ursus horribilis (or now Ursus arctos). On a side note, the specific epithet horribilis speaks to our troubled history and misguided fears about the beast. But anyways, we were soon leaving for the Nakina River, a tributary to the Taku, which is one of the most vibrant salmon ecosystems on the Pacific; grizzly country, and I hoped more than anything to see one.
After 3 days and 30 miles of hiking to the river, we sat around the campfire with thousand yard stares induced from a deep mental and physical fatigue. Fortunately, the wandering gaze of our most honorable guest, Doug Milek, landed upon a chocolate brown bear meandering up the far side of the river about a 1/4 of a mile downriver. The bear was large, solitary, and based on her gait, Doug speculates, was a female. She walked towards the edge of the river, peering down into the moving water, looking for salmon. After about thirty seconds, she must not have found anything, she waded in and promptly swam across the river, to our side.
While the power of the grizzly is awe inspiring at any distance, it is something to be respected and preferably at a sizable distance. As she leisurely crossed the powerful river and disappeared into the forest, the reality of being in grizzly country set in. No more shit or tracks, just real live bear. We’d seen much sign along the trail, studying the makeup of their scat, outlining tracks and pulling hair off rub trees, but their awesome power cannot be understated, nor properly respected until you watch a grizzly tromp into the woods not 400 meters from you – those same woods you stumble through, half awake, in the middle of the night to relieve yourself. A new sense of fear, awe, humility and respect washed over me, along with a deep yearning to see another.