As we paddled around a corner of the Mountain River, I was happy to see the descending ridge-line that marked our hoped-for lunch spot. The weather had taken a turn for the worse and my mind was on a fire. Knowing that Dan in the sweep boat would ensure the boats made it around the last tricky piece of water, full of gravel and submerged clumps of willow, I leaned into my boat for my mug. If I was lucky there would still be some warmth to the coffee I had been nursing through the morning.
Taking a sip, I leaned back and allowed the cold beauty of the day to wash over me. The grey clouds rushed over the surrounding peaks and we were far from any sign of human activity.
“Did you see it? It ran right along the bank!” The canoe behind us had caught up and the paddlers were obviously excited.
Liam, in the front of my boat, swivelled around, “see what?” We were quickly brought up to speed about the show the latest grizzly sighting had apparently put on. Spooked by Liam and I’s close passage to shore, a large male grizzly had been spotted crashing through the ancient black spruce that lined the river bank.
“Unbelievable! “ the next two canoes pulled up letting us know that the show hadn’t ended and the bear had continued its sprint over the ridge and along the river bank.
That these animals, that stand over 2 meters tall on their hind legs and weighing upwards of 250 kilos, will turn and run at the sight of a human is telling. Intelligent and inquisitive their fear of people, with our planes and guns is well founded. Despite their dominating physical presence they exists on a primarily vegetarian diet. In the mountains of the Western Arctic their diet is comprised of more than 95% roots, tubers and berries.
In much the same way that the salmon-berry on the west coast heralds the arrival of their namesake the bear-berry is a sure sign that North America's largest land-based carnivore will be satisfying a sweet tooth through the later months of August. The berry crop is critical for the survival of these animals as they gain the weight that will sustain them through their hibernation. Under increasing pressures across their range, the grizzlies of the Northern Mckenzie Mountains are the spectacular capstone of an intact eco-system.
The hoots coming from the final two boats in the group confirmed this. Not only had the bear charged along the bank, it had bounded through waste deep water and crossed the river in the last of the braided shallows. Passing right in front of the canoes, these fortunate paddlers witnessed an incredible display of raw power as the grizzly disappeared into the forest at full speed.
Shaking our heads, Liam and I wondered how we had completely missed it. Our focus on a safe passage left us oblivious to the flight of this bear. With 200 more kilometres of river in-front of us our eyes were re-opened. Who knew what we would see around the next corner.