July 9, 2015

Journal Entry: Grizzly Trek, Great Bear Rainforest

The following journal entry was written by Keith Hemstreet during a 2009 research trip in the Great Bear Rainforest.

September 2, En Route to Gribbell Island

Great Bear Rainforest sceneryWoke early and prepared my equipment for today’s grizzly trek.  Got dressed, went upstairs and stepped outside into total darkness. Looked at the clock in the mess hall.  It read 4:35 AM.  Turns out I had accidentally set my watch alarm an hour early. Walked back to my room, laid down on the bed and thought about the day’s trek. These thoughts turned to concern over our safety. What if something went wrong, and we were attacked? Overall, the odds of a grizzly attack are low. That said, I have to image that hiking into a wilderness with one of the most concentrated grizzly bear populations on earth greatly increases the chances.

Took a tender ashore and trekked up Aaltanhash River at first light, around 6:25 AM.  Navigated barnacled and clam coated rocks along the shore.  Then a tougher challenge, the algae covered rocks and boulders at the mouth of the river.  It is impossible to get a solid  foothold, so balance is key.  Wearing thigh-high wader boots, we made our way over the rocks.  I kept thinking “two points of contact.”  If you find yourself on one foot, you’re more likely to loose your balance.

Found a spot along the stream with a large rock, approximately 25 ft high. Climbed to the top and sat there for 1 hr 30 min.  Other than salmon and bald eagles, there was virtually no signs life.

From there, Norm then led us up river about 30 minutes.  We cut through thick bush, filled with devil’s claw.  It was so thick you literally can’t see 3-feet in front of you.  Eerie, to say the least.  After a hard 15 minute slog threw the brush, we came back to the river bank and found a fresh wolf print in the sand.

Bear guide, Great Bear RainforestNot far upstream from that print, we found a freshly killed salmon. It’s orange eggs were spread out on a rock. Norm explained that wolves eat the heads of salmon and bears do not. This salmon still had it’s head, meaning that it was a bear kill. The river was shallow, with pools of salmon swimming upstream, and there was a well-worn grizzly trail at either end.  At Norm’s suggestion, we sat atop a small rock in the middle of the river.  If a grizzly were to come down the trail at either end of the river, it would be right on top of us. This, he said, was a good place to be.

Over time, you are lulled into a false sense of safety. My nerves eventually settled. I was calm, enjoying the scenery and sounds of nature. Then, suddenly, a loud crack. Javier and I both turned our heads to the noise that had came from the bushes just off the river.  “Did you hear that?” I whispered.  “I did,” he said. There was a large animal nearby, but we couldn’t see it.  We sat there, on the rock, as still as can be, while a bear or a wolf moved about just out of sight. The bushes shook. My heart rate quickened. Slowly, I brought my camera to my eye, and focused the lens on the bushes.

It was unsettling to know that a grizzly bear or wolf was within striking distance, invisible to us until the moment they decide to charge. But after a few minutes, the sounds and movement subsided. Norm thought we should follow the bear trail further into the interior, which we did for another 10 minutes before coming to a steep slope and long stretch of river that was too deep to cross. There, we all walked out onto a large spruce tree trunk that had fallen over a river and inspected the area. No wildlife in sight in either direction, so we hiked back to the rocks from which we had come. Again, we sat in silence.

Pacific Yellowfin, Great Bear RainforestAn hour or so later, we received a radio call from the Pacific Yellowfin. We were told that the Captain was ready to move on and that we needed to hike back to the mouth of the river. We did as told, following the same path we had taken into the forest. At that, the day’s expedition ended—no grizzlies, no black bear, and no wolves. Still, a wonderful experience. And there’s always tomorrow….

 

NOTE: In terms of wildlife protection, Norm carried bear mace and a “bear banger”, which is a devise designed to scare away an aggressive bear by emitting a loud “bang!”