Monday, December 31, 2007

Getting close to wild bears

It was raining again, hard. Standing on the bow of the 12-metre sailboat The Sunchaser, I thought how well the name fitted her. On the west coast of British Columbia you're always looking for the sun.

Thirteen years before, I'd stood here on the prow of this very same boat while making a film about saving this temperate rainforest area - the Khutzeymateen - as Canada's first grizzly sanctuary.

Looking for grizzly
This time, I was searching for one particular bear. I'd known her when she was just a cub. She'd shown up one day with her mother and two siblings all those years ago. They never showed aggression towards me and let us follow them around and witness behaviour never seen before. That winter, one of the cubs died in the den. Then, in spring, real tragedy struck: the mother was killed by a large, male grizzly, and the two remaining cubs disappeared. The next spring, the little female cub showed up at the same spot where her mother had died. She's now an adult in the prime of life, and has made her mother's territory her own.

Spotting a mother bear and cub on the shore, I jumped into the Zodiac and headed towards them. As I approached, I could tell that this was definitely my bear.

Bear bonding
I moved into a filming position as the cub and her mother began to play, rolling around, biting and chewing each other's ears and necks. Wanting to record their breaths and grunts, I got out my microphone and was standing about 3m away when the female suddenly got up. She slowly walked over to me, stopping less than a metre away. My heart pounded. She was a huge presence, feet firmly planted, like bedrock.

All my senses alive, I became enveloped by her gritty, earthy reality: broad, rubbery nose, stringy sinew and muscle moving bunched beneath her shoulders, jaw muscles rolling, rough fur spiked by rain. Yet I didn't feel afraid. I knew this bear, and I sensed that she recognised me, too. She turned her head and reached towards me with her mouth open, teeth bared, looking up at me. I was spellbound. Without breaking eye contact, she gently took the microphone cover into her mouth and her great incisors made tiny dents in the soft, grey foam. I could smell her wet, earthy mustiness. She let go of me then and turned away. The connection was broken. She gave her cub a playful swat, and they continued their game.

What I'll never forget are her eyes - a deep, rich brown that reminded me of good soil. Looking into them, I felt a connection to her world, and in making that connection, something passed between us.