June 3, 2012; June 15, 2013; May 20, 2014; May 5, 2015. I don’t even have to look at the image meta-data to know the exact dates of my ‘first grizzly of the year’ sightings since 2012 – they are seared into my brain. And it’s not only the dates I remember – I know who I was with, the exact location (all were in Kananaskis), what time of day it was, what type of light I had, basically every detail about what the grizzlies looked like (color, size, etc), and most importantly, the gratitude I left in being able to observe/photograph these beautiful animals. I can conjure a vivid image in my brain of all of these encounters, even without looking at the photos.
Why are the ‘first of the year grizzlies’ so special for me? The high I get from all wildlife sightings in general is a big part of it of course, but the first bears remind me of what lies ahead. Spring is my favorite time of year – like the grizzly bears coming out of hibernation, the world is re-awakening, quivering with new life.
In honour of spring, I wanted to tell the story of this year’s first grizzly sighting.
On May 5, I set off on an early evening drive to my usual route through Kananaskis. Last year around this time I had one of the best drives of my life – after-work in early evening hours – I was hoping for a repeat! I thought in and around the summit of Smith Dorrian trail would yield the best chance of a grizzly sighting. Considering it is still early spring, I figured they would more likely be higher up – plus, this is where my ‘first of the year grizzly’ sighting occurred last year.
I saw basically nothing on Smith Dorrian – not even a moose! Considering I rarely see bears on the main highway (highway 40 north), I figured I was out of luck by the time I finished my Smith Dorrian run. No problem – it was a nice drive and I appreciate the lengthening days of spring which allow me more light for driving.
Despite the lack of wildlife, I was feeling peaceful and relaxed as I meandered towards home. Memories of last year’s first grizzly and awe at how beautiful the mountains are were competing for space in my mind. I was startled out of my reverie by the sight of a bear bum on the opposite side of the highway.
‘Bear on highway 40!?,’ I thought to myself, ‘it can’t be!’ The front end of the bear rose enough for me to see the tell-tale hump of a grizzly bear. I pulled over to the side of the highway and watched…
The bear lifted her head occasionally, allowing me to see the radio collar and the #152 ear tag – then quickly lowered back down for more grazing. For the first frustrating minutes, all I could capture were several pictures of her bum. Don’t get me wrong – she has a beautiful bear bum, but I was so anxious to see her face!
One of the advantages of an evening drive on a weekday is the lack of traffic. Only a few other cars drove by, some stopped for pictures as well, and others just drove on (how the heck can a person drive by a grizzly bear!?). I basically had her all to myself for 10 to 15 minutes.
The presence of the radio collar made me worry that at any moment, a conservation officer would come, scare her off the highway, and give me sh*t for taking pictures. But luckily, that did not happen.
I watched her graze on the opposite side of the highway for a few minutes, and she eventually wandered on to higher ground, giving me a view of her full body. Then she walked across the highway to the opposite side, behind my car. I slipped into the passenger side of my car and positioned myself for more photographs. She drank from a little stream in the ditch and then took a nice healthy poo (seeing a bear poo – that was a first for me ;).
She was so beautiful and amazing to watch, I have to admit, I had a really hard time leaving her. I even considered pulling the car around to the other side of the highway to get a better angle and continue to watch. But when I turned on the car, she started a bit, and I knew it was time to move on. I did not want to cause her any stress.
I pulled away and watched in the rearview mirror – I saw her beautiful bear bum lumber down the side of the highway in the opposite direction, eventually fading from my sight.
What an amazing first grizzly of the year experience! I was left, however, with a bit of a worry. Watching a grizzly so close to the highway – grazing in the ditch, crossing the highway and walking along the shoulder – made me realize how susceptible they are to collisions. The only thing we as drivers can do is SLOW DOWN and be conscious of wildlife on the roads. Here is a post from the Fur Bearer Defenders with some simple tips to help protect wildlife on the road.
A few notes: I’ve been saying ‘she’ but I don’t actually know if this is a female bear. If anyone happens to know the sex and age of grizzly bear 152, please let me know – I’m just curious. Also, you may notice the missing ear tag and collar in some of these images – don’t worry, this was done digitally with Photoshop 😉 I just wanted a few images without all the jewellery.
Until next time, continue loving life and all things wild 🙂