Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 21, 2017
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The bear whisperer

BC's own Dr Doolittle shows city slickers how to hang with the grizzlies of the Great Bear Rainforest

The first time I ever looked a wild grizzly bear square in the eye, it was standing on all fours just a metre away. It had a dishpan face, a noticeable shoulder hump and a bulbous nose; its snout busily patrolled the air in front of two floppy paws sporting impressive, razor-sharp claws. Ratty dark fur hung off its flanks in spiky clumps, wet from the nearby river, and it was making a grunting, snuffling noise as it drooled disconcertingly and showed its yellow teeth.

At that moment, Tom Rivest, my host and a veteran wildlife biologist, sprang into action. Or rather, he didn't spring into action at all. Instead, he marshalled all the subtle skills of a man who has spent 15 years in close proximity to one of the world's largest predatory species without ever drawing on a can of pepper spray, let alone a firearm.

Tom Rivest and his partner Margaret Leehan live year round in a remote, otherwise uninhabited West Coast fjord on the southern edge of BC's newly protected Great Bear Rainforest. They are eco-tour entrepreneurs in one of the largest contiguous tracts of temperate rainforest left anywhere on Earth.

People like Tom, who interact a lot with animals, speak to their diverse charges -- whether they're falcons, horses or elephants -- in surprisingly similar tones of voice. It's a curiously inflectionless way of talking, as if the speaker is lazily pacifying a roomful of houseplants.

Listen more closely, though, and a hint of resolve emerges from the speaker's monotone, solid as a boulder splitting a rushing creek. Like the immovable boulder, it conveys a sense of calm certitude.

Rock Steady
"Go along now, bear," said Tom as if he were speaking to an African violet. He was less than a metre away from the animal with his back to it, and completely motionless except for the fingers of his left hand, which were slowly undoing the pouch on his belt containing pepper spray.

The grizzly confronting me was a "yearling," a young bear spending the last of two summers with its mother, which luckily meant that it was only about one and a half times the size of the largest dog you can imagine -- smallish, in other words, for an animal that can reach over 450 kilograms.

Being a yearling also meant the cub was inquisitive, inexperienced and unpredictable. Worse yet, as far as I was concerned, it was accompanied by a shaggy twin a few paces down the riverbank, as well as a very large mother grizzly, who was becoming increasingly agitated in the gravelly shallows a mere five metres from us.

"Get along, baby bear," said Tom, now sounding like he was lecturing a more invasive species of rhododendron. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the mother bear in the water had begun flinging her head from side to side, like a bull in the fighting arena.

"Keep going, bears," Tom said, sounding the way I usually do when I talk to myself while rolling pennies. And as he drawled on in his unhurried fashion, he did something so uncanny I'm sure he'd deny being able to do it all: he literally projected his presence. I became aware that I was one of seven people sitting in a viewing enclosure that looked over the shoals of an isolated salmon river, a "hide" reassuringly marked out as human territory by Tom, who was somehow emanating the kind of solidity you associate with -- well, a boulder in a stream.

The bears agreed. The cub that was halfway through the hide's open doorframe vanished. In the blink of an eye, the bear family was back in the water and thrashing away downstream, heading for more distant sandbars. Flocks of gulls rose screaming at their approach as bald eagles overhead performed dizzying acrobatics or shot like unerring javelins into the recesses of the surrounding forest.

Hidden Valley
That night, Tom mentioned that the encounter with the cub was the first time a grizzly had ever attempted to enter a hide. He still sounded as casual as ever, speaking with the low-key reserve and neat economy of someone who spends a great deal of time outdoors in solitary, potentially perilous situations.

Tom and Margaret's isolated location is not yet permanently protected, and they like to keep their actual site as secret as they can. The stratagem helps to heighten the romance of this stunning setting and keep hunters ignorant of the area's superlative wildlife.

From the mouth of their inlet -- one of many long fingers of sea that stretch kilometres inland through the green mountains -- a narrow valley moves back off the open water through estuaries filled with hummocks and islets of sedge-grass. Further inland, cold, tumbling salmon rivers course from higher spawning streams and lakes where, in late summer and early fall, armadas of fish surge homewards against the current.

This valley, loomed over by cliff faces and the coast's tangled jungle of towering spruce, fir, cypress and cedar trees, is prime grizzly bear habitat. On the riverbanks, paths used by bears for centuries are compressed deep into the forest floor moss. In early summer, the grass swamps of the estuary become a maze of flattened bear trails.

 

The valley and inlet shelter a resident population of at least 50 grizzly bears, counting all the solitary males, females with young and subadults that crisscross the area. Tom knows just about all of them by sight, and also regularly sees wolves, deer, other land mammals and an abundance of sea life. Humpback and grey whales, orca, dolphin, seals and river otters all regularly frequent the vicinity.

And despite what many people might consider the drawbacks of living in an isolated place (it can only be reached by boat or a 40-minute trip by small seaplane across the Queen Charlotte Strait from the north end of Vancouver Island), Tom and Margaret actually live in considerable comfort. They have wind, solar and propane heating, along with satellite TV and Internet, and are in the process of building a small dam to ensure their power supply.

Better still, they live on an expansive, luxurious houseboat complex that, during the summer months, doubles as the Great Bear Lodge, the centrepiece of the eco-adventure company the couple runs with offsite partners. Great Bear Lodge is a rare example of how to guarantee a first-class pristine wilderness experience.

Nature's Bounty
On the one hand, Tom is a serious researcher whose enormous experience with and daily access to bears makes his work vital to science's understanding of grizzly bear ecology on the West Coast. At the same time, his and Margaret's sense of commitment means they never compromise either their sense of "green" ethics or their enthusiasm at being able to both fund and share their life's work with urban visitors, many of whom find themselves stunned by the majesty of their surroundings.

To cater to that phenomenon, the lodge contains five bedrooms suitable for two, each with private bathroom. A gourmet chef is on hand to run a kitchen I never saw deflect a single request. After an exciting day of bear watching, guests return to feasts of fresh salmon smoked on cedar planks or exotic seafood paellas, all improved by Margaret's extensive collection of reserve wines. There's even a comfortable sitting room complete with a television to screen your day's bear footage (taking a video camera is a must).

The houseboat complex, approached from the nearby shore by a gangplank that rises and falls with the tides, is surrounded by pleasant outdoor decks that make up for any claustrophobia suffered by not being allowed to go ashore.

And that's a consideration that highlights a final point that Tom and Margaret never stint on: the safety standards that ensure guests see some of Canada's premier wildlife not only more frequently, but in closer proximity than anywhere comparable. That's why, worldwide, Great Bear compares well with the Serengeti plains of Tanzania or the parks of Nepal in its abil-ity to safely and spectacularly introduce untutored visitors into intact wilderness.

It's also a testament to Tom Rivest's skill and finesse that he can safely bring one tourist after another into the stronghold of an animal that has the speed and strength of a small car and the smarts that come with the largest brain proportionate to body size of any mammal. As Tom points out in typically dry fashion during the safety lecture that begins every Great Bear stay, "Never ever run from a bear. If you're the kind of person who freezes in panic, you'll do well in a bear encounter."

Do No Harm
In over eight years of operation in two locales, Tom has never had any harm befall a guest, other than overeating. Apart from Tom's knowledge of grizzly behaviour and careful staff training, much of this is achieved by a process of habituation informed by constant respect for the bears.

After August, bears are viewed from three permanent hides erected along the river that curls beside an old logging road stretching inland from the houseboat mooring. Guests are ferried to and from their destinations by bus, and never leave the hides unaccompanied by Tom or a qualified staff member. In spring, viewing is done quietly from boats floating in the sounds of the estuary, where you can photograph bears mere metres away as they placidly feed on the protein-rich grasses.

Great Bear Lodge was an enormous thrill. I went in early fall, when Tom focuses on the salmon run in the river, a place I would never dream of setting foot in without him. Over my three-day stay, I had 40-odd grizzly sightings of cubs and adults along the banks and pebbly spits a short distance from the lodge.

Much of the viewing was done at such close quarters that I still found myself occasionally recoiling behind the seemingly insufficient foliage. And I never did manage a "bear-whispering" monotone that didn't have an unintended squeak in it.

But I thoroughly enjoyed Great Bear's painless and enthralling introduction to a hidden, vanishing world most Canadians never get to see. For that, I'll have to thank Tom and Margaret, who continue to live happily in their remote, unnamed fjord, alone except for 50 grizzly bears.

 

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