One week before heading to the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast in BC Canada, I had this show up in my inbox:
“The Chinook Salmon are showing good numbers but it is the Sockeye that the Grizzlies key in on. The Sockeye run is a little later than usual and at this point smaller than some predicted. In theory this could mean less bear traffic and that is potentially a concern from Peggy and Gary’s perspective from two points. First is the health of the eco-systems and all that the salmon bring to it. Second is that they want to deliver you a most excellent experience. If it turns out that Mother Nature does not cooperate and go as planned, they can offer you a return visit.”
You might be wondering – why do I care about Sockeye Salmon? It’s quite simple…
If there are salmon, there are bears.
For the past 3 years I’ve been trying to view Grizzly bears, and have had no luck. And not just no luck, but crazy bad luck. I believe I’m the unluckiest person in the world when it comes to viewing Grizzly bears – which maybe that means I’m lucky?
The Bear Curse Facts:
Attempt 1 – While in Golden BC Canada I went to see Boo an orphaned grizzly bear they have in captivity at a refuge – and in the two days I went to his fenced in area he never once was visible. Even though people just minutes before me had seen him.
Attempt 2 – I traveled to the BC’s Great Bear Rainforest to go bear viewing for 3 days. In addition to looking for them on the coast, we went deep into the forest and perched ourselves at a river with salmon swimming and leaping upstream for 4 hours and no bears showed up.
So let me just recap, over the course of 2 days I didn’t see a bear that was in captivity, and I never saw a bear in a forest named after bears where there were salmon jumping up the river.
Grizzly. Bear. Curse.
Now I was ready to embark on Attempt 3 – a practically guaranteed bear viewing with Gary Zorn, the Bear Whisperer of Canada. I set out to the interior of BC Canada, a place few tourists visit, to the Cariboo region during the height of the Fraser River system Sockeye Salmon run.
I arrived in the tiny community of Likely, the home of Ecotours BC and Gary Zorn. It is a small family business they run out of their home essentially, it’s laid back, rural, and completely sold out every fall season for grizzly bear viewing.
I sat in Gary and Peggy’s personal living room with other guests. A fire aglow in the fireplace to take off that little edge of cold, the TV is on but the volume low. There are beautiful photographs of bears above the mantel; in the river, feeding on salmon, majestically standing in the woods. It sort of builds the anticipation for me, yet I have this weird feeling – I’m anxious, but also cynical. It’s not that I don’t believe in Gary, but there’s a part of me that really thinks this curse is real; I never will see a grizzly. I don’t know if even the Bear Whisperer can turn around that curse.
“Wildlife viewing can be a dangerous thing,” Gary starts to lecture us. He talks about what to do if you unexpectedly see one. Always remain calm. Move slowly. Never turn your back, and never run.
Gary continues, “You can read all you want in a book [about how to deal with bears], but most of it is Hollywoodism and BS. You need to know their body language; it takes years and years to learn. You need to know if it’s an adult or juvenile, and get to know their personalities. A few of them are intimidating, and you always need to give them room, and a way out for yourself. Let the bear set the distance and respect their space.”
He explains that he doesn’t carry a gun, only bear spray, but he never has had to use it. “However I probably should have a few times,” he reminisced.
From Hunter to Bear Whisperer
Gary has always been involved with bears and the region’s wildlife. He grew up on a local ranch where they had to deal with bears occasionally. Then, as an adult, for 25 years he had a game touring business. However, he didn’t want to be involved in big game hunting any longer and decided to go the opposite direction into ecotourism, protecting the wildlife he once hunted. All of that experience hunting has given him the necessary understanding of the area and the bears to run a bear viewing business.
Gary got his designation as the Bear Whisperer when someone on one of his trips called him by that name after a shocking incident. An aggressive juvenile grizzly started to charge Gary and the group, but Gary started talking to the bear and was able to turn the bear around. As Gary told me this story, he smiled and admitted that people in the group thought it was some sort of miracle, but the bear most likely turned around because the water between the bear and people got quite deep, so he wouldn’t have charged all the way. In reality Gary knew the area and the bear behavior so well, he knew the odds of the charge would be low in the deep water. But it gave him the name, which he trademarked a few years later. And his “Walk with the grizzlies” pitch has been quite successful.
Grizzly Bear Viewing in Cariboo
Walking with Penny – Day 1
We can’t guarantee a sighting, we just put you in the right situation and area to have a chance to see wildlife.
Ryan, our Ecotours BC guide for Day 1 drove his van through the thick layer of fog as his Border Collie, Penny, stood on her hind legs and had her front paws on the dash looking out the window and wagging her tail. Penny was clearly ecstatic to be going out into the wilderness today. I on the other hand was a bit nervous. After all, we were going to be walking around in the woods during bear season with only a can of bear spray.
But we were in great hands with Ryan and Penny. One of the cornerstones to the ‘Walk with Grizzlies’ strategy is the presence of their dogs. Gary has a way to train his dogs to get the scent of the bear – but not bark. The dogs are essentially an early warning system. Penny is still young and learning, but she’s been trained well enough to come out with us on our walk. And strangely I feel much safer having her there – and I have no idea why. She’s so excited to be outside and so happy to be by Ryan’s side it has me daydreaming about being a dog owner! Ryan keeps her on a leash at first as we follow a grassy trail into the woods. The walk was stunning on this foggy, cool autumn morning. This whole area was incredibly picturesque and bear sighting or not – this was pretty sweet to be hiking around in the forest in this beautiful region.
Ryan pointed to an area in the grass. Penny was sniffing around it and Ryan said – you can tell a bear was there. I looked at the grass and to my novice eyes it just looked like grass. Huh? I sort of felt like this was more of a ghost hunt than a bear hunt at times. Ryan went on to point out how flat the grass was in that little circular area – explaining that a bear was likely napping there flattening out the grass. Based on Penny’s reaction I think he was right.
After a morning of other wildlife photography, and hiking, we had a picnic lunch along the banks of the Horsefly River, a river normally filled with Salmon. Ryan explained that typically you could sit here and eat lunch and see bears pulling the Sockeyes out of the river, but not today…the bears must have heard I was coming. After lunch we took a walk along the river and through the forest. Ryan pointed to a pile of fresh bear skat. The bears are here. But where? We saw lots of mushrooms, but no bears. We packed up our lunch and kept moving forward.
“Bear!” Ryan yells and immediately I bolt to attention in the van. He saw something move along the side of the road as we drove slowly by. I was nodding off after lunch while clearly Ryan was on full alert – thank goodness he’s the guide! He points excitedly and pulls the van over along the shoulder. Penny is going crazy with excitement. Thick in the rosehip you could barely see him – a black bear. The bear didn’t stay long once he realized our presence. In fact I didn’t even have time to get out a camera or get out of the van. But at least I did see it through shrubs…barely.
Day 1 didn’t yield a good bear sighting, but we had a fabulous day outdoors and did see plenty of other animals. Plus I still had the next day when we’d be going out with Gary on the Mitchell River where the Sockeyes were spawning.
Floating with Grizzlies – Day 2
Under the cover of darkness at 5AM, we sleepwalked through a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, and hash browns. Then the real journey began to get to Mitchell River. After a 90-minute boat ride as darkness turned to light, we got our first look at the day, and it didn’t look good weather wise. Rain. However in any weather, Quesnel Lake looked pretty spectacular. It is said to be the deepest fjord lake in the world at approximately 2000 feet deep. The Quesnel Lake watershed hosts one of the largest Sockeye Salmon runs in the world with an average of 5 to 7 million fish returning to the rivers on a major run year.
And let me just remind you, where there are salmon, there are grizzlies.
At the north fork of Quesnel Lake we left our covered boat behind and the 4 of us boarded a small jetboat to go up the shallow, curvy Mitchell River. During the whole morning journey from Likely, I thought about these crazy salmon making their way back to their birthplace. The life cycle of Pacific salmon is really one of the most incredible in the animal kingdom. I took a boat and this was only a small, small section of what these fish had to come through to get back to the Mitchell River, and I was already exhausted.
We went up the river until we couldn’t take the boat any further, and then Gary hopped out into the waist deep water (in his waders) and basically walked us down river slowly and quietly. I can totally see how this technique works to view bears. We just plopped ourselves in the middle of a feeding ground for bears.
I was going to break this damn grizzly curse!
Ahhh – but not so fast, remember that initial email I received a week prior…you remember, the one saying “a smaller than predicted” salmon run was occurring?
As Gary held the boat and let the current pull us down river slowly we scanned the banks – and we also scanned the water. There were no salmon. Really – none. After about 15 minutes of walking down the river, we saw a little pod of about 5. I looked at them through the crystal clear water and thought…what happened to all of your comrades? And simultaneously thought – what frickin badasses to actually be the few that made it back on this already impossible journey. It was clear though, the “smaller than predicted” really meant – the Sockeyes just didn’t show up. The walk down the river yielded some eagle sightings and a few more Sockeye sightings – but it was less than a dozen overall. It was calm, peaceful, and beautiful to hear the water rushing down the river, and be out in nature, but the bears weren’t having any of it.
No Sockeyes, no bears.
Why Didn’t the Sockeye Show Up?
As much as a part of me believes the Sockeyes didn’t show up this year because my bear curse is just THAT powerful, there is more to it than that. And trust me – as bummed as I was that the salmon didn’t show up and my curse lives on, it’s nothing compared to what businesses like Gary’s, the surrounding communities, and the ecosystem are going through.
This year’s Fraser River sockeye run is the lowest in more than 120 years. The forecast for this year was 2.27 million, however the total Fraser Sockeye run for the season was estimated at 1.1 million fish. This is the lowest Fraser River Sockeye return ever according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
I talked to Gary and Peggy extensively about it, I scoured the internet, and I reached out to the Department of Fisheries in Canada to find out why the Sockye didn’t show up. There are all kinds of theories that range from climate change, to a warm “blob” of ocean water in 2013 and ’14 in the Gulf of Alaska, to overfishing. According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, many factors can affect salmon survival, including food abundance, ocean and river temperatures, river water levels (too high or too low), predator abundance, and more. And I’d like to add my bear curse into that list!
So any destination willing to take on my bear curse and put an end to it – you may want to think again – my curse is so powerful it stopped a salmon run.
It’s a good thing that the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast region of BC has SO MUCH MORE to offer than just bears. There are still plenty of bears there – they just weren’t where I was on this trip. And there is tons of other wildlife to see as well as some of the most stunning landscapes I’ve seen – especially in the fall. Bears or not, it was a rewarding experience to get such a ‘close to the ground and water’ experience of the region.
Fraser River Salmon
All kidding aside, this is a really serious issue regarding the Fraser River Salmon, and I can only hope that the region can figure out the causes as so many people and animals depend on the salmon. The Fisheries and Oceans Canada are extensively reseaching causes and making plans for future salmon runs.
I was a guest of Cariboo Chilcoltin Coast Tourism on this trip, however all opinions expressed here are my own.