Buck playing with Mallish.
Sky and Irina bushwacking.
Irina and Buck. Remember what a runt Buck was last year?
(Click on any Image to see a higher resolution version)
It has been a long time since you have heard from me. I have
been quiet because of a series of computer difficulties. Nothing
goes smoothly here very long it seems. Some of the things I
experience are just plain difficult to write about.
On October 19th, I was with all four cubs who were playing on
the beach below the cabin in the late evening, during a rare,
beautiful stretch of weather for this year. It was wonderful
seeing the spring cubs, Andy and Mallish, playing with the yearlings,
Buck and Sky. Buck, the male was especially gentle with them
and played by the hour. Lately they had all been staying close
to the cabin. Irina and I thought it was because they had a
bad scare that we weren't aware of when it happened. We were
nervous too because there had been a predator male on the far
side of the lake. During the past month we had found the remains
of three cubs. So far he had stayed away.
The small cubs have their own electrified pen that is 30 meters
by 50 meters. They need the pen to be fed separate from the
older cubs and as a place to which they could quickly retreat
if a bear chases them. Built into the fence at each end of the
pen are two sturdy, rectangular holes that only allow a bear
of their size to squeeze through. The older cubs also have a
safe place that is very close to the cabin where they can be
fed and play. If something should threaten them they had a complicated
escape route that squeezed along the electric fence and pine
bush and then through some alders. Only they understand how
to navigate this place quickly.
When dusk was turning to darkness the full moon came up with
its reflection on the water adding to the beauty of the scene.
Irina and I left them playing and went back to the cabin. I
went inside, but she stayed out on the porch. Suddenly I hear
running bears and Irina screaming. I ran outside. Three cubs
had came by the cabin very fast and Irina said she had heard
Mallish cry out just over the pines in front of the cabin where
there is a bank and a trail below. I ran around the end of the
pine bush, with Irina right behind. We didn't need a light as
it was bright moonlight. Immediately over the bank we came upon
a big bear dragging Mallish. I screamed and charged at him flailing
my walking stick and tried recklessly to get him to drop our
wonderful cub, but he just kept backing up and dragging him
along the trail. Irina was screaming at me, not to get myself
killed and I checked myself because I was half-crazy from what
was happening. This was just too much to watch again. Only one
year ago Wilder was killed almost in the same place. It was
soon all over for Mallish. The bear dragged him into a hollow
along the lakeshore and disappeared.
It is an understatement to say this was difficult - to be so
close, work so hard and so long trying to give them a chance
to live a happy, wild life, only to see them killed before your
very eyes. The only thing that makes it tolerable is that it
is natural, never the less very sad.
That was only a part of the sadness. It was heartbreaking to
watch brave Andy deal with the aftermath, how he coped with
the loss of his brother and dear pal while sorting out his own
life. In retrospect it was one of the most incredible demonstration
of how an animal can work something out and act on it, that
I have ever seen.
The surviving three bears did not come back to the cabin. They
first stayed on a small cliff about 400 meters to the east.
I decided that it was not safe enough for them there and talked
them into coming with us to Chico mountain, about one kilometer
to the north. It is the most secure place for young bears in
the whole valley Sky and Buck like it there and spend a lot
of time on a very secure ledge. One wonders if they would be
any more agile on a cliff than the bear who would come after
them. Perhaps the predator male might know that if there is
any kind of struggle they could fall off together. The aggressor
has nothing to gain if he gets hurt or killed unless he was
really starving, which they are probably not and his would be
victims do not have much more to lose than they would be losing
anyway, if they met their attacker on the level.
We can watch them with binoculars from the window as I write
this. Andy came back to the less safe place and would sit by
the hour staring at the cabin. We could also see him well from
the window, but went and sat with him as much as we could. He
has always been very close to Irina and would rest his paw on
her foot, while continuing to look in the direction of the cabin
and the volcano. This was not his usual self. Normally Andy
was only still when he was asleep. He was not known for being
gentle. If he put his paw on you it was a prelude to some sort
of rough play. He was not interested in food.
The third morning at day-break when he saw us coming, he ran
down the mountain to meet us. We thought he finally had got
his nerve up to go with us to the cabin to look for Mallish.
But soon we understood that he was not interested in going to
the cabin. He must have known that if Mallish was there we would
have got them together by now. Instead he struck out to the
north towards Buck and Sky’s mountain. Perhaps he had
decided to go back with them. Whatever he had in mind, he wanted
us to come along, perhaps for protection, but one thing was
different from any of the many previous walks with him; he was
going to be the leader today. He kept going beyond the base
of Chico Mountain, beyond Sky and Buck, towards North Ridge,
stopping often to make sure we were coming and to smell every
fresh bear spore that he came upon.
It turned out to be a grueling hike all told, first to the base
of the ridge and along its base. Three times he started up its
various ravines and then changed his mind. We continued in a
long looping tramp around the perimeter of the whole area that
we had hiked with them during spring, summer and fall. I kept
asking Irina, what he was doing, but she was quiet. It seemed
that he was trying to understand for sure about Mallish. He
needed to know if he had got away and was waiting in one of
their favourite places. One of these places was the bay in Raven
Lake. One could feel his disappointment when he found no trace
of his brother there. We got so we could predict where Andy
was going to look next. It is a big valley and we had not had
our breakfast before we left the cabin.
Our convoluted journey was getting near the cabin when Andy
slowed and stopped, appeared to contemplate for a few seconds
then turned back, brushing past Irina and me and struck off
again towards North Ridge.
Up to this point, he had not been traveling fast, or at least
he would wait for us often. Now he was in a hurry and we had
a difficult time to keep up. When he came to a big grassy flat
he loped across, not looking back until he was at the base of
the ridge. Here he was a half-kilometer ahead, but still wanted
us to come with him because he lay down and waited for us to
catch up before heading up the big slope. Although we had never
hiked up that ridge with these cubs, he obviously had his reasons
for going that way now. The top of the ridge is about four kilometers
or half way between the cabin and the big volcano. It seemed
suddenly obvious that the volcano was where Andy wanted to go,
but it had been very important to first understand about Mallish.
He had turned around when that question had been answered for
Kambalnoye Volcano is 8000 ft high and looked very formidable
that day, snow covered and stormy. That didn't seem to put him
off. There was more snow there than anywhere else as well as
cliffs and big areas of bush and deep ash in which to dig a
den. Somehow he understood that it would be a very good place
for him. During the past couple days, while he had been sitting
and staring into the distance, the weather had been clear. It
must have been the Volcano he was studying. He had decided that
this high place had to be his new refuge, given the dire circumstances
he found himself. He was basically alone. His two faltering
human friends probably looked quite pitiful to him now.
Irina is very strong and probably could have gone for many hours
more, but going with him now was not going to help anymore.
He knew this and so did we. Irina was carrying some rolled oats
and sunflower seeds, which Andy had refused earlier. Now when
she put them out for him again he halfheartedly ate most of
them and stretched out on a rock overlooking the valley between
him and the volcano; the same air space where I had flown my
little aircraft 200 times or more over the years.
Once I let go of my own fears it was remarkable how clearly
he was communicating to us what he was doing. I had never been
with an animal that spelled something out so clearly. There
was no question that he had thought it all out before we had
left that morning. We had provided he and Mallish a lot of security
for a few months, but now he was going to go to the volcano
on his own and his intentions to do this was written all over
Sure, he wanted us to go with him or he would not have been
so patient waiting every time we fell behind all morning. We
had taken him a long way since that day we picked he and Mallish
up at the zoo in June and brought them here, but now that we
were hesitating he knew we had gone with him as far as we were
going to go, or could go. He was big and strong and fat enough
to hibernate for the winter. Back in their pen he had dug a
couple of holes big enough for a den, just for practice it seems,
the first one when he was very small. No other cub had demonstrated
such an incredible ability to dig.
We said our good-byes and slowly walked away. He sat and watched
us disappear into a swail. A few minutes later, when we could
once more look back and see the place we had left him he was
gone. I have no words for what I was feeling. Irina and I both
knew we would never see him again. It was a temptation to go
back up to see if we could watch where he was heading, but he
had eyes like a hawk and I did not want to risk him seeing us
which might alter his determination. He had so obviously thought
it all out and was prepared to act on his idea, with bravery
that I have never seen in an animal before. Here he was less
than a year old yet absolutely decisive about what he felt he
had to do to survive. I am confident he will make it through
the winter OK. However, what will happen when he grows up to
be a big male brown bear in what is supposed to be a World Heritage
Site, with less than no protection, is anyone's guess.
That was nine days ago. Sky and Buck are ridiculously fat and
not eating much now. Things seem to be winding down here, although
I have not previously seen my bears den this early. The yearlings
spend their days near the cliff leaving it now and then for
a walk, a drink, and always playing when they have the footing.
It will take a cold snowstorm or two. We have already had a
couple, but each time the snow lasted only a day. Yesterday
was warm and raining. Today it is snowing and cold again.
To conclude on a positive note, the BBC documentary shoot
is complete and we hope to see it on TV next year
Bye For Now,