Saturday, July 15, 2006

Gazing at grizzlies — from the saddle

Silvertip grizzly. Photo: Katharine Fletcher

A horseback expedition into Banff’s backcountry yields close encounters with bears, glorious mountain scenery and respect for nature’s grand plan

Special to The Globe and Mail

BANFF — “Isn't that a bear’s butt?” asked Australian traveller Joanne Bartlett, barely containing her excitement.

“Yes. It's a big silvertip,” replied our grizzly tracking guide, Mike Gibeau, who was leading a party of 14 riders on Holidays on Horseback’s six-day “Year of the Bear” camping expedition in Banff National Park last summer.

Reining in our horses, we couldn't believe our luck: We all got a long look at one of the world's most potent symbols of the wild. Across the Cascade River, the grizzly stared back. Because we were downwind, our horses could identify it, but it couldn't figure us out. It snuffed at the breeze, opted to err on the side of caution, and melted into the forest. Just as quickly, it re-emerged into the clearing, obviously curious.

Sniffing the unco-operative breeze for clues, it reared on its hind legs, sensitive muzzle twitching. Startled, I recognized the truth in native lore, in which legends recount how closely bears resemble human beings. Breathlessly, I alternately took photographs and gazed at the grizzly through my binoculars. Amazingly enough, throughout this seven-minute time frame, our horses remained motionless.

Dropping to all fours, the bear sauntered into the bush, then turned and again reared on two legs, calmly regarding us before disappearing. The spell broken, we broke into excited chatter, then were silenced by Gibeau's intense, "There it is again. Okay. Let's head out and give him some space. It'll be circling behind us to check us out."

Obediently, my horse Rosco turned toward camp at Flints Park, eager for his food. While we rode, we watched the grizzly splash through the shallow turquoise river. Note to self: It is walking extremely quickly.

Nature's classroom provides astonishing teachings, especially if you're with a specialist such as Gibeau. A former park warden who patrolled the backcountry of Banff National Park on horseback, this unassuming biologist has spent 26 years here. He is Canada's leading expert on the habits, habitat and politics of grizzly bears -- and is internationally renowned for his research. In spring of 2005, his government-funded Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project ended.

However, Ron Warner of Holiday on Horseback recognizes Gibeau's unique knowledge. For 43 years Warner has matched horses to people and conducted tours into the backcountry, and he's struck with how popular these grizzly expeditions are. In fact, both men understand how revered grizzlies are.

Warner is committed to hiring Gibeau "for as long as he will join us," so that people can explore the park on horseback, learning about the ways of the grizzly and its wild habitat.

And, like the wild animals we sought, the six-day expedition was one of superlatives: glorious mountain scenery; gleaming and fit horses; brilliant starry nights; plentiful and tasty camp food -- along with fireside chats where tales were spun in the light of flickering flames. The mountains obliged as well, by revealing their moods. One evening, thunder echoed and bounced off ridges and canyon walls in an impressive natural spectacle. The next day, dawn greeted us with that exquisite clarity of light that can only follow a storm.

This trip, Gibeau told us, was memorable for him too. We saw lots of wildlife -- mountain sheep, a mountain goat, several elk, and three grizzlies -- the most he has found on this expedition. Moreover, he added, "Our first bear was unusual. Most of our grizzlies are silvertips: black is rare."

It was Gibeau who spied that first bear. We were sprawled about on a grassy meadow north of Stony Creek, eating our lunch while our horses grazed nearby. Private reveries evaporated when Gibeau casually remarked, "There's a grizz over there."

Where? Those of us with binoculars scoured the avalanche slope across the valley, what we had learned was favourite grizzly habitat. There, eating berries, was a black grizzly. For more than an hour, we watched it casually eating, disappearing from view and then reappearing amid the dense buffalo-berry bushes. Because it was across the valley, we felt secure. The lunch break over, we mounted our horses, crossed a creek, rode up a rise and noted that all of a sudden the grizzly seemed a lot closer.

"Watch how quickly he's descending that avalanche slope," Gibeau said. "They can cover a lot of ground. Grizzlies can outrun, out-walk, and out-climb a human being. This bear's showing us how fast he moves, and he's only walking."

Also remarkable is how these carnivores enjoy dining on tiny berries, consuming 250,000 daily. "That volume translates to about 35,000 calories per day," noted Gibeau, who reminded us that despite their fearsome reputation, grizzlies rarely attack human beings unless they feel that they -- or their cubs -- are threatened.

Before booking this trip, I asked Warner about risk. He confirmed what his website claims. "For whatever reason, grizzlies and horses have some sort of understanding. Plus," and he looked at me gravely, eyes twinkling, "we have electric fencing around our campgrounds. Just in case."

While on the trip, Gibeau added, "There's never been a documented bear attack where horses are involved."

Because food is scarce in Banff National Park, each grizzly bear requires a vast territory to survive. Considering this, I realized how fortunate we were to see three. Our second sighting was a breathtaking 20 metres away -- perhaps too close for total comfort, but it showed us all that close encounters do not have to be frightening.

Regarding these bears' need for space, Gibeau told us that a male has a range of 1,000 to 2,000 square kilometres. Although that's a lot of territory, we human beings are encroaching on wilderness habitat, and it's always the wild creatures that suffer.

Previously, when hiking and tenting with my husband in British Columbia and Alberta, I've been concerned about meeting a grizzly. Who isn't? But while riding from one mountain valley to another for six days, and while listening to Gibeau tell about the animal's solitary ways, the landscape's very vastness became reassuring.

He agreed with me. "We are fortunate to have seen three. It's not just the males that need a large range, either. Although the female's territories sometimes overlap, they tend to avoid one another."

He explained that females particularly avoid males, which sometimes kill and eat the cubs.

"There are a lot of theories, but we don't know why they do this," he added.

Because the Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project ended in spring 2005, Gibeau is keen on continuing these once-a-year expeditions. "It's good to get out into their habitat and see how they're doing," he told me. "And I enjoy helping people learn what grizzlies are really like. They prefer to avoid us."

Whether or not you actually see one, being in the mountain scenery in the company of Gibeau while tracking grizzlies makes a thrilling adventure. As well, this expedition recalls how Banff's backcountry was explored on horseback, by men and women who lost their hearts to the wild.

Holidays on Horseback: Banff, Alta.; 403-762-4551 or 1-800-661-8352; This summer's Year of the Grizzly trip runs Aug. 23 to 28. The cost for the package is $1,336 a person. More information on Banff National Park's website at

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