Back tracking bears by john love

If you consider how many bears and humans are scattered across the north of Canada, it is incredible how few encounters there are between them. Despite this, I have had a few memorable encounters. The Scotland that I grew up in had no large wild animals such as tigers, lions, elephants or bears, so my only connection with such creatures was through the pages of adventures stories. As a boy, one of my mom’s relatives had gifted me with all the adventure books from his youth, so I was well up on hunting, exploring, and other adrenaline-inducing activities. This is how my desire for adventure was formed.

In the fall of 1951, I saw an advertisement in a Scottish newspaper which said, “Come to Canada for a life of excitement and adventure in the frozen North”. The advertisement had been put out by the Hudson’s Bay Company. There had been 300 applicants and I was among the 16 who were selected. I was flown to Montreal where I met three of the others. We were then shifted around between Montreal, Winnipeg, and Edmonton while the company decided where to send us. It was decided that I should go to Babine, in British Columbia, so I spent my 18th birthday on a train from Edmonton, Alberta, to Smithers, British Columbia.

I had been a Boy Scout back in Scotland, so I knew the basics of camping in the wilderness. On Saturday evenings, in Babine, I would head off into the bush and enjoy a night of camping. The store manager, Bill Henry, had a double-barreled shotgun which he would lend me on occasion, so that I could learn to use it. One spring evening, I was walking along the riverbank, towards a group of cabins which the locals would use when fishing in the summer. In the melting snow, I saw a large paw print with clear indentations of claws. From all the adventure stories which I had read, I knew instantly that this must be the trail of a man-eating grizzly bear (or perhaps, more likely, a fish-eating black bear.) 

That night, I spread my sleeping bag on an unused cot frame in one of the cabins and went to sleep. In the dead of night, I was awakened by a loud, crunching noise. I deduced at once that the bear had sneaked into the cabin, that he was currently devouring my breakfast, and that he would soon turn his attention to me for the main course. The loaded shotgun was on the bed frame beside me, so I quietly turned over, grasped a flashlight and the gun barrels in my left hand, cocked both barrels with my right thumb and pointed the gun at the noise. The cabin was only about 20 ft by 15 ft, but, I thought if I fired both barrels into the bear’s chest, I might be able to escape injury in its death throes. I switched the flashlight on, ready to face my foe, and all I saw was a mouse, sitting on its haunches, chewing a chunk of charcoal.

After leaving Babine, I was transferred to the Mackenzie River District and ended up in Aklavik, NWT. The Mackenzie River Delta is quite a flat area and, particularly in the winter, resembles an immense, white desert. In the winter months, with the star-studded vault of heaven stretching to the horizon and the vast white carpet of snow, it is quite easy to visualize yourself hurtling through space atop the giant ball of planet Earth. The spring break-up on the Mackenzie is well worth seeing. When the ice breaks, the whole river surface (which has been dormant all winter) comes alive. The air is filled with the noise of moving ice and water. The riverbank trembles as the slabs of ice gouge it out. Pieces of ice the size of a house are thrust out of the water and resubmerge with rumbles and cracks. The whole river hisses and swishes as the ice, slush, and water move against each other. Small islands, complete with trees picked up by the surging water, can be seen heading for the Beaufort Sea. This phenomenon fills everyone with energy and expectation, as it signals that winter’s hold has been broken for another season.

In the early 1900s, the Canadian government decided that the Inuit should raise reindeer, much like range cattle, and the government bought some reindeer in Lapland. In June of 1954, I was transferred to Reindeer Station, on the east side of the Mackenzie River Delta. That fall, I went goose hunting with the manager of Reindeer Station and his assistant. We headed downstream in his river boat and camped overnight on the bank of the river. The land there is very flat and swampy, and we had quite a time trying to find a dry spot to pitch the tent. We ended up on a scrunched patch of willows which was all we could find to keep our sleeping robes out of the muck. There must have been thousands of birds around us, and the night air was filled with their honks.

Early the next morning, we crossed the river to get to a small plateau where the goose hunting was supposed to be good. On the way, we passed a boatload of American hunters who had the same destination. When our party reached the top of the plateau, it was snowing heavily. My group split up to surround the plateau; when one of us fired at a goose, hundreds of birds would rise into the air and circle the plateau. It was quite challenging to spot the air-born birds, aim at them, and shoot them before they vanished back into the falling snow, but somehow, I managed to bag three.

During all the commotion of hunting, I lost my bearings in the scrub. I decided to back track, to follow my own tracks back to the boat. Eventually, I entered a clearing and the hills came into view. I finally knew where I was. Then I saw a brown jacket move into a clump of willows in the middle of the clearing. Believing it to be one of the Americans, I pursued the tracks. I circled the willows, following these tracks, but neither the man nor the tracks emerged from the trees. Believing that the American did not want to talk to me, I decided to finish my trip back to the boat. When I arrived, some of the Americans were there and I mentioned that I had seen one of their party up on the plateau. I was surprised when they assured me that they were all together. The Reindeer Station Assistant then said that he had seen a moose—which had been killed by a grizzly bear—and further mentioned that bear tracks, in fresh snow, look like human tracks. I must have been following the tracks of the bear, rather than mine or another hunter. It is fortunate for me that the “hunter” I was tracking had not chosen to come out of the willow clump.

Bears also played a large part in the lives of people in Rainbow Lake, Alberta, where my family lived in the early 1970s. When visitors came to town they would, invariably, be taken to the garbage dump on a sightseeing mission. Several black bears would be scavenging there and we could, relatively safely, get quite close to them. The town workers would burn the garbage once each week in order to reduce the bulk of the refuse and thus prolong the life of the dump. The bears knew that they could not only feast on dump food every day, but that once a week, they would be treated to a cooked meal. 

One day, when my eldest son was in school, my wife decided to clean out his closet of broken toys and other items. She put all the items which she felt should be disposed of in a garbage bag and threw it in the garbage container. As luck would have it, later that day, a black bear retrieved the bag and dragged it along the trail; a trail which just happened to lead from our trailer to the local school. As the bag was dragged along, its contents spilled across the trail. At lunchtime, my son arrived home with his treasured possessions in his arms and said, “Look, Mom, a bear broke into my closet and tried to take my things away!” 

Bears were such a regular part of our lives in Rainbow Lake that even my four-year-old daughter said that she thought it was common knowledge that you should look through the picket fence to see if there were any bears on the other side of the fence before opening the gate. At the time of this comment, she was several inches shorter than the picket fence, so looking through, as opposed to over, was a necessity. Her comment underlines that people and bears can, and do, live together, if they give one another a little space. 

About the Author

John Love had a long career in the retail industry, which took him across the NWT, Northern BC, Saskatchewan and Alberta. After retiring to Salmon Arm, BC, John worked on a volunteer project in Ghana and enjoyed extensive travel around the world. John continues to reside in Salmon Arm BC and recently completed his memoir, A Life of Adventure.

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