Connecting to Nature by Tracking Bears
Summary: Have you ever seen a grizzly bear in the wild? That was the goal for our two guests, Kim and Nick, when Manon and I guided them on a four day bear tracking and conservation pack trip.
The first day was an orientation day at the ranch, getting Kim and Nick acquainted with their horses, on our second day we rode into camp and on our fourth day we rode back to the ranch. That meant we only had one full day of scouting and tracking. We had to make the most of every moment, determine the freshness of every track or scat.
So we were up before the sun on that second day to saddle and pack our horses. We could feel each other’s excitement and anticipation. Somewhere in the wilderness around our Spruce Lake camp was a grizzly bear. Could we find it in our limited time frame?
We didn’t waste a moment. As soon as we broke into the Spruce Lake meadows, we were alert for signs. As we ate lunch, we glassed for bears. We used our binoculars to see across the valley to the grassy meadows around us. This was where we would look for the bears themselves, not just their tracks and scat. But we could also look for signs of excavation. Grizzly bears have huge muscular shoulders which they use to dig out bulbs and roots to eat. The evidence of this is clear to see on the mountains, big brown patches in flower-studded green meadows.
We didn’t see any bears, but there were scat and tracks as we rode into camp. There was a grizzly somewhere near by. In camp, we unloaded our supplies from our pack horse and headed out into the evening. Bears are most active at dawn and dusk which meant if we wanted to see one, our best chance was to get up early and stay out late. We rode north of camp and towards Open Heart. As we rode higher, it started to rain heavily. We had planned to look back at the Spruce Lake meadows and the grassy slopes of Mount Sheba, but the rain lowered our visibility almost to zero.
But this was a great opportunity to see the excavation up close. In the Open Heart meadows there was a lot of evidence of digging and trails of flattened grass where the grizzly had walked. The excavation wasn’t fresh. The grizzly had moved on. We were “circling the wagons”, checking out all the areas the bear might be either by riding there or looking from across the valley with binoculars. We were eliminating areas to zone in on where the bear was. Like playing “Clue”, we were checking off the “rooms” where we knew the bear wasn’t. Each place we searched and didn’t find the bear brought us closer to where it was.
Back at camp, drying off around the fire we made our plan for tomorrow. To find a bear, we had to think like a bear. What areas did they like? Open grassy meadows. When were they most active? Dawn and dusk. When would they smell us approaching and move out the way? When the wind blew up the mountain towards them.
The next morning we’d head out before breakfast to ride towards Mount Sheba. We left our horses when the slope got too steep and scrambled up the grassy meadow to a good vantage spot, high, exposed, we had more than a 180° view. If we walked to the other side of the grassy knob, we could see most of the other 180° view as well.
We looked back over to the meadows where we’d eaten lunch yesterday, our eyes behind our binoculars peeled for any sign. Tracking bears was a game of patience. The reason we had got up high early, asides from the improved range of our vista, was that the wind blows downhill overnight. In the morning, around 9-10am, it changes direction and blows uphill during the day. So by getting above the bears before the wind changed, they wouldn’t smell us coming and move away.
However, we wouldn’t stay on top of the mountain all day. We came down for a late breakfast cooked on the camp fire and then rode around the areas below where we believed the bear to be. At this point, the bears were settled down for the day. They weren’t moving around so unless we walked right passed one, we were unlikely to see them. With the wind now blowing uphill, our strategy was to allow our scent to be blown towards them. This would cause them to wake up and move giving us a better chance to see them.
As we rode through the forest and meadows, we found plenty of fresh evidence the bear was here. There were clear foot prints and scat on the trail. Like our horses, when travelling somewhere the bears generally stick to the trails, it’s easier walking. We could identify the tracks belonged to a grizzly bear, not a black bear easily as they were clearly printed in the muddy sections of the trail. The toes of a grizzly bear make a straight line, as does the top of the paw pad whereas black bears have a much more rounded paw shape. Grizzly bears have much longer claws as they use them for digging, these are visible in front of the toes, black bears don’t leave claw marks.
But how do you identify how fresh scat is? Grizzly bear scat is green when it is fresh but this turns to black after an hour or so. It then becomes hard. The scat we were seeing was green. We were moving close behind the grizzly.
Our excitement began to build. The bear was close. Maybe it could smell us already. We continued riding and found grizzly hair on a rub tree. This is a tree with a few twists of barb wire wrapped around it to collect bear hair. Grizzlies rub against or scratch trees to mark their territory or announce their presence to other bears. Their scent is as distinctive to other bears as our physical appearance is to other humans. The barb wire is to catch the hair which is used for stewardship projects by our conservation partners. This was the perfect opportunity to educate our guests about the stewardship work in the Chilcotin Ark and get them involved.
We shared all our tracking knowledge with our guests and they too were on the look out for rub trees, tracks, scat and excavation. This was an empowering experience for Kim and Nick as they were able to help look for the bears they’d come to see, not just be along for the ride. Soon we came to a clearing in the trees. This was clearly a favourite area of the bear – there were scratch marks on the trees and we found plenty of hair. There was a fresh scat close by. But our elusive grizzly wasn’t home.
Now we’d rode around and woke the grizzly up with our scent, it was time to take a step back and use our binoculars again to look for movement. This close up, it was hard to see the forest for the trees, riding back to the meadows where we’d eaten lunch yesterday would let us see a bigger area and a better chance of spotting a bear.
We knew we were close, we were sure our riding around had kept the grizzly on the move. Now we just needed to step back and see what we could see. The tension was building. We expected to see the grizzly around every corner. Every time our horses turned their head or ears, we strained our eyes to see if there was a bear lurking in the trees, knowing our horses would always see the bear before us when we were riding.
There were more signs but no bear. In the meadow, we got out our sandwiches and our binoculars. The horses grazed around us but we ate distractedly, our real focus was on the view through our binoculars. Barely had we sat down for lunch when Kim cried out excitedly. She’d seen something moving in the meadows where we’d scouted this morning. We all trained our binoculars in that direction. The black spot she’d seen had disappeared into the trees. We waited, hardly daring to breath less that moved our binoculars off our target, ready for the black spot to re-emerge.
Then it did. There was our bear, across the valley, in exactly the spot we’d scouted this morning. Had the bear been there all along, hiding just out of sight? Or had it hurried uphill while we’d ridden around the meadows? We’d planned to go back to camp and take a break before heading out again in the evening, but here was our bear. We were motivated to get closer. We rode quickly, determined not to lose the position of the bear. To get to those meadows, we had to ride back down in to the valley and through the trees meaning we lost sight of the bear. Every time we reached a clearing, we checked through our binoculars, we thought we caught a glimpse of the grizzly just disappearing around the knob we’d scouted from this morning. We rode lower around the mountain then uphill. Now we were sure we know where the bear was – in a small group of trees at the top of the mountain.
Although we knew Kim and Nick wanted to see the bear closer, we now had to do a quick risk assessment. Our horses are a lot bigger than the bears and especially with a number of them, we knew bears were unlikely to attack riders on horseback. However, we would be riding into an unknown, enclosed area. The bear would have heard and smelled us coming as the wind was blowing uphill, but if we cornered the bear, it might feel it had no other option than to attack. It was safer not to go in to the trees.
We rode back to camp, checking over our shoulders for any sign of the bear. Back at camp, it was time to make our plan for tomorrow. After a full day riding around, we were in tune with the bear’s location and behaviour. Early tomorrow morning, we would ride out and scout the meadows around Mount Sheba on our way home.
We sat down for breakfast where we could see the Spruce Lake meadows and the Mount Sheba meadows. Once again, we’d barely eaten a bite when we spotted the bear, exactly where we’d seen it yesterday. Without even taking a second bite, we packed our breakfast away, jumped back on our horses and ventured into the trees ready to ride up to the meadows. Suddenly, our horse train came to a halt. Manon was at the front and was motioning us all to be quiet and look to our left. There in the cover of the trees, only 100m away from us was a black bear, watching us as intently as we were watching it. Then it turned around and walked off into the forest, not disturbed by our appearance. We took our pictures then left the black bear to its day. We rode up the meadows looking for the grizzly. Higher and higher we rode, but the grizzly was hiding. By now we’d run out of time and needed to get back to the ranch so Kim and Nick could go home.
We’d come incredibly close to a black bear and successfully found a grizzly bear. In only one full day of scouting, we’d had an amazing success. How had we done it? We’d thought like a bear, learning its habits, behaviours and activity cycles. We’d read the signs to determine how recently the bear had passed through to narrow our search. We’d got up early and stayed out late to make the most of our opportunity.
As we rode home, we were tired but elated. We call our trips “tracking” not “viewing” trips because there is no guarantee you are going to see a bear. You could scout for a week and not see a bear. But being prepared, knowing what to look for and where to look, knowing how to read what you are seeing will increase your chances. Nature literacy is the ability to read the plants and animals around us. We embarked on this trip knowing what to look for, but the trip itself enhanced our nature connection. Over three days we could put our skills into practice, strengthening them as we taught Kim and Nick everything we knew and having the high of successfully finding a bear to validate our skills.