There were several chilling lessons to be drawn from Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, which told the tragic story of Timothy Treadwell’s misguided love affair with Alaska’s brown bears. No matter how long you’ve known or studied them, these are intrinsically wild animals, and pitching a tent in their campground is a foolish, arguably suicidal act.
Even the title of the critically acclaimed film had a double meaning; along with referencing the species featured, it aptly described the doomed enthusiast’s gruesome end.
Precaution or prejudice, it’s a thought that sticks with me as I zip open a canvas tent erected on a floating pontoon deep in the heart of British Columbia’s Cariboo Mountains – a wild, remote region of ancient forests, glassy rivers and snow-dusted peaks, where my closest neighbours are bears.
Glamping With Grizzlies is the latest venture from veteran wildlife tracker Gary Zorn, whose affinity with the shaggy mammals led him to trademark his Bear Whisperer moniker. For more than 40 years he’s been tracking paw prints by foot and monitoring behaviour. Now he’s setting up camp in their front room.
At 5am we motor slowly into the middle of Quesnel Lake, waiting for ridge lines to map the horizon and treetops to emerge from shadows in the early morning light.
It’s an 80km boat ride to former gold rush community Likely, where Gary operates wilderness adventure company Ecotours-BC with his wife Peggy. But sleeping overnight in the thick of the action means we can catch the bears at their most active in the first few hours of the day.
Roaring into the mouth of the Mitchell River, we chase the feathery outline of bald eagles, gliding like spectres shrouded in mist. An early autumn freeze has draped the forest with crystal garlands, and fallen tree trunks glisten with the silver wisdom of age.
Left untouched, forest debris creates an enchanting, fairytale picture: wildflowers sprout from rotting stumps, emerald mosses blanket the floor, and fine lattices of broken branches assume a sculptural grandeur.
When we reach a jam of logs, Gary ushers me to quietly climb ashore. In the shallow water, sockeye salmon flip and wriggle as they struggle upstream, their red-raw bodies smarting from the struggle.
“I’ve not known a run like this for years,” gasps Gary, scanning a graveyard of slithery corpses. Every June to September, the fish travel hundreds of miles to spawn and die, kickstarting a new life cycle and providing a vital source of protein for grizzlies gearing up for their winter hibernation.
A former hunter turned photographic guide, 72-year-old Gary was the first person in British Columbia to be awarded a bear guiding licence. He has almost exclusive use of an area the size of Switzerland, covering areas where he claims people probably haven’t set foot for 20 years.
But it’s here, on the Mitchell, a small river running into the Cariboo Mountains Provincial Park, that he has his best encounters.
Unlike so many of the province’s coastal hides and lodges, there are no fenced, elevated platforms and – crucially – no crowds.
Alone, shielded by devil’s club leaves the size of dinner plates, and cedar tree trunks thicker than the Egyptian columns of Karnak, we step slowly, squelching over the decaying fish carcasses.
“I’ve never carried a gun or used pepper spray on a bear,” Gary gruffly insists, making sure the wind is in our favour. “And I don’t intend to start now.”
I’m not sure whether it’s the towering vegetation or gut-clenching fear, but the forest begins to spin around me. “Too much wilderness,” is Gary’s somewhat equivocal diagnosis.
On the riverbank, meanwhile, a bloated male grizzly wobbles towards the water, his bottom jiggling like a chocolate panna cotta.
“Jethro,” tuts Gary, as if chastising a greedy child. “Will you look at the butt on that!”
Much of Gary’s success stems from his understanding of the Cariboo’s resident bears. All of them have names and distinct characteristics, and some even display recognisable family traits – all recorded in a journal that the Whisperer writes every night.
There’s Jethro, “the big bruiser of the river” whose bulk gives him unlimited access to the salmon buffet; Matilda’s daughter, who wears a white Elizabethan-style ruff just like her mother; and Henry, who allows us to float so closely in our boat he could almost jump aboard and join us for a ride.
Wading through icy water, Gary gently pulls our metal boat towards a fallen log where the young male is fishing. Sweeping a paw below the surface, he scoops up a catch, claws shining like hooks on an angler’s rod. As he gently ambles in our direction, we slowly drift away.
Although fond of close encounters, there’s nothing naïve or gung-ho about Gary. With every step or dip of the paddle, he exercises caution and never underestimates the wild animals in his company. Reading Cariboo’s grizzlies with the astuteness of a psychologist, he knows when we’re welcome and when to back off.
Operating a camp so close to the shore is a potentially risky business, but Gary is confident the bears won’t pose a threat; all food is carefully locked away in containers, and there are plans to install an electric fence around the site.
Featuring two double tents, the set-up is exclusive, and with sprung mattresses on bed frames and a heated shower, it’s a comfortable experience too.
As Gary expands the product, which will operate from June to early October, he also has plans for kayak trips and forest bathing in a 1000-year-old cedar forest on the opposite shore. As darkness falls, there’s always a chance wolves will start howling, and northern lights may even streak the sky.
Defiantly steadfast and stubborn, Gary shares similarities with Mr Treadwell, but expresses none of the arrogance or foolish belief that these creatures are his friends. Instead, there seems to be a mutual respect and tolerance. After a few days, I begin to find the Bear Whisperer just as fascinating as his bears.
My thoughts return to his warnings of wilderness overload, and for the first time those words begin to make sense. From the amplified squeals of eagles commanding the canopy, to decades of rotting vegetation creating uncertain ground – it’s nature on a scale unfamiliar to most.
Our concrete horizons, smooth roads and smoggy air make places like the Cariboo feel like a fantasy. Never mind glamping with grizzlies – that’s the scariest reality of them all.
For more information, visit ecotours-bc.com.
Would you camp with grizzlies? What’s the most exciting wildlife encounter you’ve had? Let us know in the comments section below.
– With PA
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