Grizzlies, the Wild and Me

We get requests, yes we do: “I’m [going somewhere/doing this thing/really rad], so give me stuff.” And, most of the time, we don’t. (We have a name for people who need our gear; we call them “customers.”) But Patrick Schirf had us at “hello,” with a real need for real gear, and a great opportunity to test it, also. Plus, there were bears involved. We like bears. And bear conservation, we can’t forget that. We sent him a Mountain Hardwear South Col, which seemed to us to be the perfect pack for what he was doing, and it seems as if we were right. Here’s Patrick’s story: Enjoy…

I arrived in Edmonton, Alberta on May 13th, ready for adventure. After an annoyingly long process dealing with customs I met up with my supervisor, Bogdan Cristescu. For some reason Canadian customs couldn’t understand why someone would come all the way from the States to volunteer to study grizzly bears. Bogdan is a Ph. D. student studying the impact of open pit mining on grizzly bear ecology. Alberta is Canada’s wealthiest province due to its natural resources. The mining of these resources has a major impact on the environment, and therefore the need for the grizzly bear research.

The rest of the volunteers trickled in over the next few days and we eventually made the move to the hamlet of Cadomin, population 54 and home base for the project. Things got off to an awfully slow start due to heavy snowfall.

The excitement began when we went to our first kill site cluster. A bear’s radio color sends out a GPS location once an hour. If a bear is within a 50 meter area for more than three hours then it is considered a cluster. We survey all of the larger cluster sites. We arrived at the kill site in a fairly dense wooded area  There was hair and bone everywhere.

The four volunteers and our supervisor had a look around the area. We came to the conclusion there were two different kills right near each other. Both kills were made by a large Cougar. Male Cougars in this area can get well over two hundred pounds. The first kill was an older deer. The second kill was an elk. It looked as though the cougar had made the kill and a female grizzly came in later to scavenge. She moved the elk kill to another area and tried to cache it by covering it up with earth.

It was a very different feeling being surrounded by death and knowing the creatures responsible could still be nearby watching you. We continued on with the protocol, taking all the proper measurements and began to hear something big moving around the woods close by. We made plenty of noise but never saw anything, so we got back to work. The noises continued for the rest of our stay at the site, almost circling around us. Everyone was on high alert and was working as efficiently as possible. We finally finished the site and made it out safely. We never knew what was watching us. Being in such a situation makes me realize just how wild this place really is. It’s an amazing feeling to be a part of it all.

We went back to survey the random site a few days later. On our way back from the site we were walking in a meadow and saw two heads pop up over the ridge in front of us. My first wild grizzlies!

They were two young cubs a couple of years old that had been let go from their mother. We stopped to watch them and one of them popped up on his hind legs to get a better look and catch our scent.

He then fell lazily on to his sibling as if there wasn’t anything to be too worried about. They then headed cautiously over the hillside into the woods, stopping to have another look at us along the way as if they still weren’t sure what to make of us. We watched them disappear into the woods with the great peaks of the Canadian Rockies hiding in the fog in the background.  It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, a moment I won’t forget.

Once we became proficient with the site protocol we split into teams of two to be more productive. One of the other volunteers and I headed out to a very large cluster. This female bear spent over a week in the area so we couldn’t help but assume it was a large kill site. After several hundred yards of bushwhacking we made our way down an incredibly steep canyon to a stream bank.

If the forest floor didn’t have a thick layer of moss to allow us to dig our heals in on the way down the canyon then I don’t believe we could have even made it down to the stream.  We arrived at the site and found massive amounts of hair and bone everywhere. After looking around and seeing the amount of hair we determined a large cougar had killed an adult moose.

Cougars, as well as other species of feline, shear off all the hair of their kill. There was also evidence of wolves and of course, our bear. Part of the protocol of a kill site is to bring back the bones of the prey animal to identify species, sex, health, and age of the animal. We were unable to find the skull, femur, or the pelvic girdle so the next best thing was the lower leg. We found a large lower leg with skin and hair still present, along with a lovely smell of rotting carcass.  After a couple of hours we finally managed to complete the protocol and packed things up.

I had the privilege of putting the 10+ pound moose leg on the back of my pack.  We began hiking and my mind began to get the best of me. I couldn’t help but think about the fact that I’m carrying a rotting moose leg on my pack in dense forest with several species of large predators in the area with a 2 km hike ahead of me. After what felt like hours of bushwhacking we made it to a quad trail but we weren’t out of the woods yet. There were wolf tracks in the mud along the trail. My nerves were completely on edge; I couldn’t help but be startled by the slightest of noises through the trees. We eventually made it back to the house tired, sweaty and my nerves shot. My stomach wasn’t felling its best either, the wind was to our back the whole hike home and the heat and smell of the moose leg blowing in my face made me feel a bit queasy. It was a long day for everyone.

I would have to say my experience in Canada was life changing. Being surrounded by large predators forces you to always be in the moment. You can’t let your mind begin to wonder. You will either terrify yourself picturing what might happen or walk into a dangerous situation without even realizing it.

I explored some incredible landscapes. My Mountain Hardwear South Col pack worked out perfectly for my trip. I could load it up for overnight trips and it compressed down to be a great day-pack as well.

The Canadian Rockies are a beautiful place and I hope that our research will help keep it wild. The mines continue to destroy the landscape and eat up the habitat. We must find alternative forms of energy before grizzlies become a distant memory.

Patrick Schirf is a graduate of Western Washington University where he majored in Zoology. This is his first trip into the field as a large predator research assistant. His next assignment is wolves.

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