There was no hesitation, no testing of the waters – the mom and three cubs strolled into the water with the confidence of olympic swimmers and swam across an inlet of Waterton lake, from one shoreline to the other, leaving myself and several other spectators in awe…
The scene unfolded on the Monday of the September long-weekend, 2016. I spent the weekend in Montana, and on my drive home, I was debating whether or not I should take the extra hour or so to tour Waterton in search of bears. There were several good reasons not to:
- I’ve already had a heck of a year with bears, and wildlife in general, how much better could it get?
- It would be mid-day by the time I got there, not exactly prime wildlife viewing time.
- Waterton on a long weekend is bound to be ridiculously busy.
But I was spurred on by pictures I had seen online of a mom black bear and three cubs of the year, seen recently in Waterton, all sporting a distinctive U-shaped patch of brown on their chests. I knew I was pushing my luck, but getting some nice images of black bear cubs of the year (or COYs, meaning they were born this year) would be the ultimate icing on an already elaborately decorated bear-viewing cake. So, off to Waterton I went.
I was immediately rewarded with a bear sighting – a mom and single COY were on the shore line of Linnet lake, climbing trees and eating berries. They were a long way off and in poor light, but I was happy to see them and get a long sought after – albeit poor quality – bear in a tree shot.
‘Okay’, I said to myself, ‘I got a mom and COY in a tree, I can go home now.’ But I couldn’t quite let go – after all, I was in Waterton, and it would be a shame to leave without doing a quick run of the typically bear-rich road to Red Rock Canyon.
About 30 minutes later, having seen no bears on Red Rock, I was about to head North, out of the park and towards home. But the pit of my stomach rumbled with the possibility of more bear sightings. I knew it was crazy, but if I spent a bit more time in Waterton, maybe I’d see the mom and single COY again? Maybe they weren’t done eating for the day? And maybe, just maybe, the mom and three brown-patched COYs would show up? I turned south, back towards the Linnet lake parking area.
By following my gut, I chose wisely…
I was ecstatic to discover two black bear families – the mom and single cub I saw earlier and the patched mom with three cubs I’d been aching to see – were in the bushes between the main road and Waterton Lake. The mom and single cub were about 200 meters away, mere specks of black in my camera’s view finder. The mom and three patched cubs were closer, but still about 80 to 100 meters away. As part of a group of people and in the presence of a fantastic ranger, I felt completely safe. I sat down on the dock and watched the family of four for about an hour.
At first, they were just black blobs in the bushes, but every once in a while the figure of one of the cubs appeared, then another, then the third. I was anxious to see mom and all the cubs together, and sure enough they all finally emerged at once.
They stayed in front of the bushes for a bit, then all went back in and continued foraging for berries. Then one of the little ones appeared and walked down the shoreline to the water.
This was the most ‘out in the open’ I had seen any of them yet. How cool! What more could I ask for? Then he hopped into the water.
Wow! Then mom and the two siblings walked out towards the submerged cub.
Mom hopped in the water and started swimming across, the first swimmer followed her, but the other two siblings couldn’t resist a quick wrestle in the water.
Then they all started swimming across the lake. I was in the perfect position, laying down on the dock allowed me to basically get eye level with the four swimming bears.
It only took the family a couple of minutes to traverse the length of the inlet and reach the opposite shore. At about the half way point, the cubs paused in the water and started splashing around a bit.
Mom let out a howl, apparently an indication that she was not in the mood for such tom-foolery in the middle of the lake, and they all lined up again and swam behind her.
With the possible exception of the wrestling grizzlies I saw in July, this was the most remarkable bear viewing experience I have ever had. Plain and simple, watching these bears swim evoked sheer, unadulterated joy. Several times on the drive home, as I relived the experience in my mind, I was moved to tears of gratitude for this extraordinary gift from Mother Nature.
Not only was it a beautiful sight, the way the environment and people were managed by the park rangers was absolutely amazing. Because the bears were so close to the road and a busy bike path, there were at least two rangers monitoring the two bear families. One of the rangers stayed with our group by the docks to make sure no one got too close, but allowed us all to watch safely and peacefully. He talked to people, answered questions kindly, and directed the cyclists to take another route.
I was so inspired to be part of a bear-viewing experience where I felt a precarious balance was stuck, with the rangers allowing people to safely appreciate wildlife while the bears were free to just be beautiful bears. While photographing, I could hear a chorus from the awestruck people behind me: ‘Oh my god they are swimming! They are so cute! I can’t believe this!, etc…’ The memory of the swimming bears will live on in the minds of so many people. I am so thankful for this family of bears and the amazing Waterton rangers.
Until next time, continue loving life and all things wild 🙂