Saturday, May 4, 2013

Grizzly Bears and Black Bears of Canada

It all started on a boring Sunday afternoon when I was browsing and watching mindless TV. I was drifting in and out of sleep and the National Geographic Channel was showing some show about grizzly bears. I almost spaced out, but my ears perked when I heard the words "Vancouver Island" and Canada.  Apparently, they have grizzly bear expeditions to a place called Knight's Inlet there.  I immediately sat up and saw the rest of the show. Saru and I were going to Vancouver Island for a vacation that summer and pretty much every time I give Saru a list of destinations, his first question is " Does the place have animals or birds?". After living in the US for over a decade, we had visited most of the National Parks and I was getting tired of seeing acres and acres of pine trees. Once in a while, we get to see some deer and moose and an occasional bison, but that's about it. Yosemite National Park boasts of bears but we never came across one in the many trips we made. The only 2 times we saw a wild bear in all 12 years of our stay in the US was a fleeting glimpse of a black bear in Yellow Stone NP and a grizzly bear in Alaska. But little did we know that our bear luck was about to turn and in a big way thanks to that TV program. 

Tranquility - In the middle of nowhere, Vancouver Island

We landed in Victoria and spent 3 days on the coast hiking in the Pacific Rim National Park. The national park along the Pacific Ocean is a lush temperate rain forest. The scenery was beautiful but not very different from what we were used to seeing in California. The towns of Uclulet and Tofino were charming and quaint. Rhododendrons were in full bloom everywhere. The three days we stayed there were very laid back and all we did was eat, hike, wander aimlessly before settling at a waterfront restaurant for dinner and sunset. Canada seems to have that effect on you.  People there have mastered the art of living in the slow lane. Everywhere we went, even on weekdays, beaches were full. Families gathered together on the waterfront for picnics and cookouts and bonfires in the night. This was very unusual for the two of us from Silicon Valley where we typically have no time for life outside work on weekdays. Weekdays were alarmingly similar - wake up, eat cereal, go to work, come back exhausted, cook or take out, plop into the couch, watch TV and sleep until the next day starts.  These people were laughing and teasing and running around on weekday nights. We only laughed at sitcoms on weekdays. Watching those people makes you realize that Silicon valley is amazing for career opportunities, but if you want to have work-life balance, you really have to want it bad and fight for it.

Tofino Waterfront - We were having dinner when somebody shouted Orcas!! We left our meal midway and ran out to see Killer Whales in the water close enough to see with naked eyes. That was one exciting meal!!  


Pacific Rim National Park


Rhododendrons in full bloom all over Uclulet and Tofino

Our next destination was Telegraph Cove which was the starting point for the grizzly bear adventure. It was a good 4 hour drive through beautiful forests and alpine lakes and snow peaked mountains. All of Vancouver Island should have been designated as a national park. It is that beautiful. Roads were wide, and there was hardly any traffic (everybody was at the beach, right), so we should have been cruising, but no. The husband was at the wheel. Let me tell you something about the husband. He is a safe guy. By safe, I mean, he is the guy who will lock his car three times, walk away, then, just to be safe, he will press the lock button one more time and another time and once more until we are outside the range of the remote at which point he will wonder if he locked the car and will turn back because and I quote "better to be safe than sorry".  If you thought THAT was crazy, wait until I tell you what he does at traffic lights. Normal, sane people speed up when they come near a traffic signal to make sure they get through. Knowing the husband, speeding up is obviously not an option and I certainly don't advocate breaking rules. What drives me nuts is that he starts slowing down EVEN if the signal is GREEN. His argument and it is totally mental, if you ask me is " What if we are catching the last few seconds of green and it might turn Orange any minute. Then I have to come to a screeching halt" . So, according to him, you slow down at a green signal, stop at Orange and do nothing at red (since you stopped like a zillion seconds back).  

Road to Telegraph Cove, Northern Vancouver Island

So, Saru drove, under the speed limit and slowing down at every green signal and at every deer/moose crossing ("What if a Moose crosses?"). Then I took over the wheel and did what normal people do and got us to the destination in good time. (I should in good faith mention that India totally cured him of that bizarrely safe driving behavior. After months of bitching about bad drivers, he finally decided to convert to normal and sometimes even aggressive driving ). 
On the way, we stopped at the local dumpster. Oh yes, you heard that right, a dumpster. Technically it is a landfill, but I bet I got your attention with dumpster. Why? Because that is where crazy birders go to find certain species of raptors. In this case, we were looking for Bald Eagles. We found a number of them poking through the dump looking for rodents. That done, we started driving towards our hotel when we see a car stopped on the road and a guy photographing something. It turns out to be a whole family of black bears!! We stopped at a safe distance away (you do not want to piss off a bear when its cubs are nearby) and clicked pictures until they went back into the woods. This was a very auspicious beginning to our bear adventure trip.

Bald Eagle

Bear Family

Our day long expedition would takes us to Knight Inlet which is home to a good population of grizzly bears. From telegraph cove, it is a good 2 hour plus ride on a boat through coastal mountains and forests. It was an expensive trip, about $250 per person and there were no guarantees in nature. We just hoped that it would be worth it and went along the ride. When it comes to wildlife sightings, you just have to take chances. 
Along the way, we saw a lot of waterfalls and wildlife too. At one point a big pack of dolphins played in the wake of the boat. It was a lot of fun watching them leap and dive into the water. We also saw some sea otters and water birds. The most exciting sightings were of bears and not just brown bears. We had at least 3 sightings of black bears along the shore. Bears come out during low tide looking for fish. They eat seaweed and overturn rocks to find mussels and crabs and barnacles.  

Waterfalls along the way

Black Bear on the lowlands along the way

Yet another Black Bear!!

Dolphins playing in the wake of our boat

Dolphins create excitement like no other sealife

More waterfalls 

After 2 hours on the boat, we finally arrived at the Knight's inlet where they parked the boat and led us to a viewing platform. There was no animal in sight for a while, just a nice breeze and an awesome setting. We were surrounded by snow peaked mountains. By late spring when the snow on the ground melts, bears come out of hibernation. They are hungry from not eating anything in winter, so they come down to eat certain kinds of grasses and seafood near the river banks. Late May to mid June is supposed to be mating season and the best month for seeing grizzly bears. Only issue is that they are all skinny from hibernation. If you want to see nice fat and plump bears, you have to visit in fall when the salmon swim in large numbers to the site of their birthplace to reproduce. This is when bears fish and eat to their heart's content. 

On the way to Knight Inlet

After a short wait, not one but two little bear cubs came out to play and eat grass. It was so much fun to watch the 2 cubs play, fight eat and interact with each other. We could see the mother sitting inside the woods (too dense to photograph), but she never came out. At some point, I think the mother sensed some danger and made a warning sound. Both the cubs scrambled and ran and climbed up this tree trunk. 
Seeing a bear in the wild is a once in a lifetime experience and in most cases like the one we had in Alaska, we only get to see if for a few seconds or a minute. In this case, we spent a good hour watching these bears. Dozens of trips in the US and we barely saw 2 bears. One single trip to Canada and we see a DOZEN bears (actually a baker's dozen, on the whole, we saw 13 bears in a 5 day time period on the trip) On the way back, overwhelmed by the experience, Saru looks at me admiringly and says " How the hell do you find these tours?". I play it cool and shrug as if to say "I am that good".  

Looking for fish?

OK, I will settle for grass. Although I have to eat 50-70 kilos of grass a day to get enough protein and fat

Grizzly bear cubs are blonde when they are small. As they grow old, they become brown

Siblings. Mom is hiding inside the woods. This is a dangerous time for bears. Males are looking to mate and are known to even kill cubs to get the female to mate!! 

When the mom makes a warning sound, bears get scared and run helter-skelter at first and then climb this tree trunk

Then they come running to the other side before going back into the woods 

Black bear foraging for crabs and barnacles during low tide

The picturesque fuel station. 4 hours of riding on a 12 person boat requires a refill.