Field Journal: A Grizzly Tale
Posted by Kevin Clement
in Americas and Expeditions
We had already seen a lot of bears. The first one of the entire expedition had been a rare and legendary spirit bear, a paradoxically all-white black bear; the next few had been regular-colored black bears. But we hadn’t seen a grizzly bear. Even when we visited Khutze Inlet, the day before, a place famous for its grizzlies, we had found only another black bear. So we were hunting griz, as the old mountain men would’ve said. Only we were armed with cameras and binoculars.
Late this afternoon, as we finally reached the end of long and narrow Massey Inlet, even before we reached the anchorage, we could see bears, and I knew from their shape they were grizzlies.
And as we cruised up into the estuary in our zodiacs, they seemed to be everywhere. At one point, wanting to impress the group in my boat with the remarkable number of animals in view at that very moment, I stood and turned in a slow circle.
“Okay,” I said, “there’s the mother and two-year-old we were watching at first; you can still see them over on the other side. There across the river mouth is that one still foraging for dead salmon along the shore, and beyond it, that one that was sleeping; the two might or might not be together. In the other direction I can just make out the ears of that lone bear above the grass. And closer in, the ones we’re trying to get closer to, I can now see that it’s a mother grizzly and cubs, and above them…above them…there’s a bear….uh, up in the tree…?” I trailed off, momentarily dumbfounded.
If you read magazine and encyclopedia articles about bears, they will tell you that grizzlies don’t climb trees. Black bears do, because they are generally smaller and lighter and have shorter front claws that are designed for it. The impressively long claws of grizzlies are better suited for digging or slashing. But if you read further, if you read whole books about bears, they do say that small grizzly cubs can climb.
This ursine arborealist was a cub, true, but not a small one. Not this year’s model, but a yearling. By this time he weighed 150 pounds, maybe more. And the tree he was climbing was a spindly, spreading crabapple. He was out on the peripheral branches where the fruits could be found, about 15 feet off the ground. Watching him through binoculars, I realized that in order to maintain his precarious position he had his legs splayed out, each foot resting on a different branch to spread his weight.
Below him, watching expectantly, his mother and two siblings waited. Instantly a story formed in all our minds: the mother had directed the smallest and most agile of her three cubs to climb the tree and shake down crabapples for all of them to eat.
Whether that story is true or not I have no idea. But bears are smart animals, and for that mother to have raised three healthy-looking cubs to this age, she must be a good and clever provider. At any rate, I won’t soon forget the moment when I could see nine grizzly bears just by turning my head—and one of them was up in a tree.
Read more about our Canadian wilderness expedition: Canada Spirit Bears Tour.