Posted tagged ‘bear’

MOUNT ASSINIBOINE: A Grizzly Bear Tale

September 30, 2010


A hard-eyed gaze at the intruders.

On a chilly September pre-dawn, three of us hiked down the dark trail to Lake Magog through a thick spruce forest, intent on photographing dawn alpenglow on Mount Assiniboine and other high peaks in this high cirque of the Canadian Rockies. Ed, in front of Karen and I, was quietly singing “Where oh where is the Grizzly Bear; where oh where can he be?”  We were strung out a bit on the trail, and Ed turned back to Karen and said he saw an animal ahead that looked to be about wolf sized. Karen didn’t see it, but she told me. I stopped and looked into the willows just behind us at this point and clearly saw the rounded shape and grizzled gray hair of an adult Griz. Then I saw a second, which was a cub accompanying its mother. We were too close, so we backed up along the trail, watching as the mother and two cubs crossed the trail where we had just been.

Looking and sniffing across the lake at what may be a distant threat.

The bears ambled closer to Lake Magog, and were perhaps 100 yards from us. Then the mother bear rose to her hind legs and looked intently down to the lakeshore, where we had seen a brace of dentists fly fishing the previous morning. She walked around on two legs, like a gigantic human, gazing in that direction and looking agitated for perhaps ten seconds. At that point she hurried to cover, where she again stood up. Then, apparently satisfied, she returned to the business at hand. With her cubs, she began digging into the ground, going deep to try and extract a Columbian Ground Squirrel from its den. In examining the videos, we can’t tell for sure if she got a ground squirrel, but she may have.

Karen had an emergency whistle with her, so we decided that she should repeatedly give three blasts of the whistle to warn other people in the area to be aware. Three other members of our group soon joined us, and people at the lodge and huts later told us that they had heard the warning whistles.

At one point, the mother Griz stopped, briefly looked directly at us, and got into what looked to me like an aggressive stance, on all four legs, head raised, mouth open, and restlessly moving around a bit while gazing at us. At that point I took out my bear spray, just in case a charge was imminent. But mama Griz decided that our whistles and talk and camera clicking were just some more bewildering human behavior, and she went back to tending her cubs. Shortly thereafter, they disappeared behind some tall willow bushes, and we didn’t see them again.

Later in the day, perhaps two miles up a trail, a Canadian couple saw what we believe were the same three bears, so they had been on the move since our early morning sighting. The Canadians also saw a lone bear during the same hike. I later showed the dental convention participants my photos of the bears, which produced a lot of amazement, since many of them had fished near that very spot on previous mornings. But none had been there during our grizzly experience.  Which leaves the question, what was the mama Grizzly looking at when she was standing on her hind legs? My theory is that she had smelled or spotted the lone bear that was seen later; after all, male bears are a major threat to cubs and a mother bear has to vigorously defend her offspring to make sure they won’t be eaten by a big male. Alternatively, the bear might have seen some wolves, or perhaps a backpacking camper down along the lake. We’ll never know for sure.

When we came to Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, bears were on our mind. After all, we had just bought two aerosol cans of pepper-based bear spray prior to the trip. Canada’s parks don’t allow guns and, in any event, pepper spray is almost certainly more effective than a handgun against a fast-charging bear. In the car on the way to Canada, Karen read out loud about Grizzly Bears on her iPhone. We learned that they can eat 250,000 Buffaloberries in a single day (biologists who learned this important fact had to count the seeds in a grizzly bear’s daily output of scat–I can just see Mike Rowe of America’s Dirtiest Jobs taking a Canadian side trip and digging through the still-warm piles!). So, when we got to Banff, we learned to identify Buffaloberries, which we don’t recall seeing before. I even tasted one of these berries, which has a soapy texture and a slightly bitter aftertaste–if I was a bear, I’d move to a place with huckleberries instead. We also learned about bears turning over rocks to look for insects beneath, and about digging sleeping ground squirrels out of their underground nests. In fact, a Grizzly Bear’s big hump on its back contains the muscle attachments that, along with the 2″ claws, gives a Griz its ability to dig fast and deep into stony soil. High in some areas of the American Rockies, bears gather to eat the larvae of moths.

When we arrived in Banff National Park, we observed two Black Bears feeding on Buffaloberries along the highway. One had a blue ear tag, so he was either a bad news bear or a reseach subject. When we stopped to see these Black Bears, it was just like the bear jams of Yellowstone National Park, with people getting out of their cars to try and get photos at close range with point and shoot cameras. Those of us who respect the power of bears stayed safely in our cars.

While hiking near the Assiniboine huts, we encountered a man backpacking with his yellow Labrador, a really sweet dog. He said that the dog had aggressively protected him during three prior encounters with Grizzly Bears. He camped in the campground about a mile away from Assiniboine Lodge that night. But the next night, he moved into one of the Naiset Huts near ours. It seems that a Grizzly Bear had come into camp that morning and unnerved him. My theory is that his dog ATTRACTS Grizzly Bears, leading to these confrontations.

As for the beautiful alpenglow on the snowy peaks? I hardly noticed, with my attention locked like a weapons system on my target, the bears. Alas, it would have been a beautiful photograph. Next time.

I’ll close with one good bear story. A year or so ago, in one of the Canadian parks, a man encountered a bear at close range along a trail, which came aggressively toward him. Fumbling with his can of bear spray, he managed to spray it backwards, directly into his own face! At which point he began screaming and dancing around waving his arms in extreme pain. The now-scared bear thought the guy was totally insane, and ran in the other direction. That is one way to make bear spray effective!

Lake Magog sits in the cirque of Mount Assiniboine.

Bitter and soapy (to humans), Buffaloberries are a critical part of a bear’s diet in the Canadian Rockies. A Grizzly Bear can consume 250,000 of these berries in one day!

Columbian Ground Squirrels are a crucial source of protein for Grizzly Bears, who have massive muscles that allow them to dig quickly into the dens of sleeping or hibernating ground squirrels. On our visit, most of the ground squirrels had already entered hibernation.

Standing on hind legs gives the bear a chance to better sense a threat.

This mother bear had two cubs accompanying her (only one shown here).

A shallow hole, with claw marks, where the Grizzly had been digging and eating the roots of Sweet Vetch.

This impression represents the shape of a rock that had been pried up and tossed aside as a bear searched for insects beneath. It was one of half-a-dozen we saw along a short stretch of trail.

On this rainy morning, the Grizzly tracks soon filled with water.

A deep hole dug to get at a hibernating ground squirrel.

A menacing stance …

We will never forget the morning of the Assiniboine Grizzlies.

This Seattle Mountaineers trip into the Canadian Rockies was ably led by Linda Moore, whose love of all things wild in Canada is clearly evident. Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park is a British Columbia park wedged between Banff and Kootenay National Parks in the Canadian Rockies. We flew by helicopter into the park and stayed in the Naiset Huts, while others stayed in the relatively luxurious Mount Assiniboine Lodge or camped in a hike-in provincial park campground about a mile from the lodge.

For more information about transportation to and facilities in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, go to the British Columbia Parks website.

For a primer on Grizzly Bears, go to the National Wildlife Federation website.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com.

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.



SKINNED ALIVE: A Black Bear Story

August 5, 2010

Pacific Silver Fir bark stripped by a hungry Black Bear

When we panted our way up to Hemlock Pass on the trail to Melakwa Lake, Karen noticed a big tree, perhaps 20′ from the trail, that had its lower bark removed. Examining it, we discovered that the tree had been skinned alive by an American Black Bear, and that two other trees in the vicinity had experienced the same fate.

This was actually the fourth time we have seen this phenonmenon; in all cases in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains. When bears emerge from hibernation in the spring, they are REALLY hungry, and where there are no people or pic-a-nic baskets to consume, they turn to trees. Specifically, to the Pacific Silver Fir, though they are known to have less than selective taste in trees and will consume others as necessary. But the Pacific Silver Fir is apparently the caviar of trees, and is targeted.

Vertical tooth marks and diagonal claw marks

Can you imagine a bear coming up to a tree, delicately sniffing the bark and nibbling it to see if the taste is something exquisite? No? Neither can I. Instead, the bear roughly uses its claws to rip and shred the outer bark from a tree, then uses its front teeth (not its canines) to scrape the nutrient-rich phloem layer, which we call the “inner bark,” and consume the sugary treat. Mmmmmm …

You might think that foresters would dislike this bear habit, because it often girdles the trees and kills them. Right again! Foresters have long wrestled with strategies for discouraging bears from eating trees, even going so far as to put “vending machines” out in the woods where bears can get a treat that has similar nutritional properties as the trees, and is a lot easier for a lazy bear to exploit. Though I’m not sure where the bears are supposed to get the quarters for the vending machines … perhaps from campers’ pockets while they are “safely” asleep in their thin nylon tents?

Front tooth marks where the bear has scraped off the inner bark

Bear damage either kills or slows the growth of a tree

NEW JERSEY: The Jersey Bears

May 8, 2008

Everyone has seen Jersey barriers along the highway, but today I actually saw Jersey bears (and no, it’s not a minor league baseball team)!

While visiting the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, which straddles the New Jersey/Pennsylvania border, I stopped at the Kaiser Trailhead in New Jersey’s Worthington State Forest.  The Flowering Dogwood trees were at their peak of bloom, so the woods were filled with that wonderful white frost of blossoms, which contrasted with the spring green haze of emerging maple and oak leaves.  After I finished my dogwood photography, I was putting away my gear and preparing to drive away when I looked into the forest again and saw an American Black Bear foraging in a forest opening about 100 yards away.  Excited, I stopped stashing my equipment and instead pulled out the 500mm lens and 1.4x extender [this is a photographer’s blog, so I have to mention my equipment!].  Then I set about observing and taking a few photographs when the bear was most visible in the forest.

Then, much to my surprise, two young cubs appeared in the brush—they were accompanying their mother.  The mother was well aware of my presence, and I dared not get too close to her.  The cubs were more skittish, and I was unable to get any photographs of them.  The mother was keeping them on a long leash, so to speak, so they were not cuddling up to her but instead were foraging on their own.  I found the mother bear’s feeding behavior fascinating; she would walk up to a rock on the forest floor, and use her front feet and claws to lift the edge of it–looking underneath for any grubs or ants or anything else edible that might be hiding there.  There were plenty of rocks, as this trailhead was at the base of Kittatinny Mountain, which has a backbone of crumbly rock.  I observed one of the young bears working the rocks the same way–mother had already taught these young cubs well.  Eventually the bears ambled up the mountain and out of sight, but I was left with a thrilling and completely unexpected experience.

Earlier, a young man who I suspect is a recent immigrant from Russia, stopped to ask directions.  Accompanied by his mother, he had left the interstate looking for a gas station and instead ended up on this remote forest road.  He was from Ottawa, Canada, and was returning to Canada from a New York City road trip.  As we were talking, I pointed over his shoulder at the mother bear, which had gotten unexpectedly close.  He was startled and amazed, and said it was the first wild bear he had ever seen.  I think his mother, who remained in the car, was scared to death!

After I left that area, I stopped at Dunnfield Creek Natural Area and walked the Appalachian Trail–or at least 50 yards of it!  This is one of the access points along the great trail that stretches from Maine to Georgia.  Dunnfield Creek is noted for its crystal clear waters that support the fussy native Brook Trout, who are known for demanding clean water and refuse to inhabit anything else.  Some fish, and some people, demand only the best!

When I was visiting the campground at Worthington State Forest, I saw a petition to save the campground from the budget axe.  It seems that the governor of New Jersey plans to close nine of these state forest campgrounds around the state to save money.  The implication was that the state intends to privatize some of these campgrounds, and that would be a shame.

For several federal administrations I have seen the U.S. Forest Service steadily privatizing the operation of its campgrounds, and I’m not happy with the results.  The price immediately goes up (to cover the profit of the operator) and the service goes down.  At one such campground in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan I found the bathrooms filthy and the water not turned on and the garbage cans removed, yet the price had gone up.  Why should we accept this?

When I visited Grand Teton National Park two years ago, I learned that they had privatized the national park campground where I normally stay.  I always enjoyed registering for camping and having informative conversations with the park rangers who staffed the office.  But with privatization the price had gone up and the people staffing the front desk could not answer my questions about the park.  Then one of their cell phones rang with one of those ugly musical ringtones and destroyed whatever good mood I had left.  Hey people, this is a national park, not a mall!  Learn about it so you can answer my questions and treat it with respect!

I guess the real problem is that America is failing to adequately fund the national parks and forests, and we are gradually seeing the fallout from that.  It is a shame to see Theodore Roosevelt’s great national forests and our heritage of great national parks fall into mediocrity.

This is part of a weblog documenting my travels and photography. I am primarily a nature photographer, and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com

Click on the photographs below to see a larger version with captions.