Letters from Charlie...

Letters from Charlie...

October 31, 2005

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 him absolutely.

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 him.

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,


© Pacific Rim Grizzly Bear Co-Existence Study, 2005