Wednesday, June 1, 2011

On a "Bear Safari" in Whistler, BC

At the hotel where I'm typing this, my password for the internet is "black bear". And the greeting I got when I got into a taxi last night after dinner was "Seen any black bears around?". It was a friendly greeting, not a warning, as the bears here are about as docile as bears get. And well loved. On many of the lower ski slopes, now denuded of snow, signs are posted asking in that always-so-polite Canadian fashion to leave the grass to the bears, who have need of it after the long hibernations season.

I learned all about the bears on a bear watching expedition with local expert/tour guide, Michael Allen a man who's devoted much of the last 20-odd years to studying bears and educating the public about them. Every day, from mid-May through mid-October he takes up to 7 tourists at a time around in his large 4X4 van on spotting safaris. (Tours are at 6am, noon and 6pm, though Michael himself will tell you that the 6pm expedition is usually the most fruitful, followed by the 6am one).

In the course of the 3-hour tour I took last night, we spotted 11 bears in different parts of the Whistler-Blackcomb area, from large males shedding their winter coats and foraging for food, to mothers guarding their cubs, to an adorable yearling asleep in the branches of a hemlock tree. We learned about the times when bears and humans tangle (the biggest problem in the area is not bear maulings, which almost never happen, but bear burglaries. Apparently, bears often break into folks houses foraging for food.) Another big topic was hibernation, as many of the bears we viewed were still visibly woozy after the long months without food (Allen calls May their "narcoleptic" period, as many go back into the hibernating state if they stay still for too long. Just yesterday a bear was found asleep in the middle of a local golf course!). Most affecting were Michael's tales of bear child rearing, which I won't give away by repeating here, as they really make the tour.

The safari isn't cheap at $189 per adult, $179 for seniors and those under 18. But since the money goes to support the vital work Allen is doing, I recommend it without hesitation. For full information, click here.

One suggestion: wear sneakers or other comfortable shoes as you'll be getting in and out of the van and walking to get better views of the bears at many points during the tour.

A final note: Apologies on the quality of some of these photos. I need a better telephoto lens!

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