The Bears of Our Lives
The mist clung to the forested mountains, slowly rising with the warmth of the sun into a cloud-filled sky. The air in Tsamspanoknok Bay at the mouth of the Khutzeymateen Inlet was filled with the curious energy of two bears getting to know each other. Hot Chocolate (right), a dark and sleek female grizzly, and her suitor, Buddy (left) ate grass side by side. Occasionally, she would look towards Buddy and then go back to snacking on the high protein sedge grasses. Buddy, sidled up to Hot Chocolate and with a gently curious paw, touched her face. She turned towards him and leaned into his paw. They snuggled, wrestled briefly, and went back to eating grass. Buddy, a relatively young male, was more physical that Hot Chocolate was ready for. She gently walked away when he tried to mount her. Grizzly bear courtship takes place over several days; Buddy wasn’t in a hurry. He waited patiently for her to be ready.
On the other side and further down the inlet, Monty, a larger and much older male, grazed. A grandfather of the Khutzyemateen, his 25 year old eyes, scarred neck, and tipless left ear told stories of the multiple battles he had fought and won. Last year’s salmon run wasn’t as high was he was used to, and he had lost too much weight over hibernation. His hips poked out from his massive frame. Experience had taught him the necessity of conserving energy and consuming as many calories as possible before mating season. At the height of mating season, he would not eat or sleep much. He needed these first weeks of May to put weight back on and prepare for the energetic demands of the mating season. For four days he ate grass and napped along the beach of Mouse Creek, moving less than 100 meters. Mouse Creek was a productive beach, there was no need to go anywhere. Or was there?
One fine afternoon with the sun glinting off the wavy waters of the Khutzeymateen Inlet and Mouse Creek, Monty made his move. With the winds blowing from Tsamspanoknok Bay towards Mouse Creek, the scent of Hot Chocolate wafted up Monty’s sensitive nose from several kilometers away. Monty succumbed, letting his nose guide him to the first receptive female of the 2019 breeding season. By evening, he had swum the 1200 meters across the inlet to the mouth of the Ensheshese River. He stopped for a short snack before continuing down the well-worn grizzly trail through the coastal rainforest to Tsamspanonok Bay. The tall cedars and hemlocks shook as the King of this forest passed by.
By the following afternoon, Monty had arrived at Tsamspanonok Bay and was happily grazing in the sunshine. Monty’s muscles ached and he moved stiffly after the journey; he wasn’t as young as he used to be. Hot Chocolate and Buddy were in the other side of Tsam Bay, keeping their distance. Monty was the biggest bear in the Khutzeymateen and he was intimidating. At some point Hot Chocolate and Buddy decided to leave Monty and Tsam Bay. Monty stayed in Tsam Bay for days, grazing and napping. He needed to replenish the energy it took to travel so far only to be rejected by the youthful vitality of Hot Chocolate.
Likely following the same bear trail that brought Monty to Tsam Bay, Hot Chocolate and Buddy found their way to the Ensheshese River and the adjacent Bay nicknamed Trapper’s Cabin. Having escaped the pressures of Monty, their courtship intensity escalated. Hot Chocolate began playfully jogging a few steps down the beach and looking over her shoulder at Buddy to see if he would follow. He did. Every time. She darted in and out of the forest. And Buddy followed. Hot Chocolate would sometimes stop to graze, or dig up clams. Buddy watched intently. He wasn’t so interested in food anymore. Hot Chocolate was nearing estrous and it wouldn’t be long now.
The next morning, Hot Chocolate and Buddy had begun to distance themselves as the mists lifted off the tops of the 800-year old cedars. Perhaps their courtship had culminated under the night skies with the waves stirring the bioluminescence in the waters of the inlet. Perhaps not.
Around the corner from the Trapper’s Cabin, a new bear entered the scene. Rocky, a healthy adult male, had gotten the scent of Hot Chocolate and wanted his chance too. Although healthy, with strong forelegs and a thick, glossy dark coat, Rocky had lost the use of his hind left leg in an accident more than a year ago. His left leg hung loosely at his hip. He couldn’t weight his left leg at all, but still managed to nagivate the rocks and slippery seaweed along the shore remarkably well. His front legs and massive shoulder hump more than compensated for his hind end.
Rocky working his way along the shores of the Khutzeymateen Inlet towards Trappers Cabin. Watch as he delicately and masterfully navigates the rocks and slippery seaweed shore. His nose guides him as he follows the scent of Hot Chocolate. (Video taken with my phone from 40m away, so apologies for the lack of production quality).
With his nose in the air, he swam and walked along the rocky shoreline towards the Trapper’s Cabin. Periodically, he would stop to mark a tree by rubbing and scatching branches of Hemlock needles along his face and neck. He would bite the branches and urinate at the base of the trees. Leaving his scent behind, he let other bears know he was moving in on Hot Chocolate too. After more than 30 minutes of hard walking along the shore, he reached the point and looked around the corner.
The face of another bear greeted him. Who is this? It’s not Hot Chocolate but another healthy male in his prime also vying for Hot Chocolate’s attention. Upon making eye contact, Rocky knew he could not compete with this new bear. He immediately laid down in the grass, displaying his submissiveness and to clearly communicate he was not a threat. He needed to sit and think about his next move. How would he get around this new male to introduce himself to Hot Chocolate?
Lebowski loomed in the line of trees, watching us, watching the other bears, watching Hot Chocolate
The new bear, Lebowski, was with Hot Chocolate on the sandy shore of the low tide. Hot Chocolate was digging clams, slurping them down once she pried open their protective shells. Lebowski watched. With Rocky laying down on one side of the bay and Buddy grazing grass on the other side of the bay, he knew he could not afford to let his guard down or take his eyes off his new lady. Lebowski was more wary of people than Hot Chocolate, looming in the trees and watching us intently. But his desire for Hot Chocolate outweighed his concern for the boats in the water. So he watched us and her. Closely. Intently. Periodically, Hot Chocolate raised her head and scanned the beach looking at the three male bears who awaited her decision. Then she dug up another clam and gulped it down. She needed to think about this too.
Lebowski watches over Hot Chocolate (and us) while she grazes.
Hot Chocolate began running and darting across the beach, looking towards Lebowski for a response. He followed, never allowing her to get too far. She began running towards Buddy, bringing Lebowski to her first courter. Lebowski followed, his breath clouding before his face in the cool mountain air. Buddy was eating grass in the low point of a small wallow and was unaware of what Hot Chocolate was doing. Suddenly, Lebowski and Buddy saw each other. There was a moment where all was still – the water, the birds, the bears. Nothing moved. Then, Buddy took a breath and ran for the forest, his mouth still full of grass. Lebowski was too much for him. Even though he had spent so many days with Hot Chocolate, he was not prepared to challenge this new, stronger bear. Lebowski moved towards Hot Chocolate and began eating some grass. He had won this round.
Later that same afternoon, Rocky made his move. The air was thick with drama. A slight drizzle fell from the low, grey clouds. The water was faintly lapping on the shore with the rising tide starting to cover the sedge grasses. Lebowski rested on a log under the shelter of the cedars in the shadows of the forest, watching Hot Chocolate graze near the water.
Rocky hobbled his way along the shore towards Hot Chocolate, gently but determined to meet her. She got his scent and charged a few steps to stand on a rock and look down on him. He looked up at her. She stared down and without moving or vocazling, her message was clear. No. Just no.
Hot Chocolate gets the higher ground on Rocky and sends a clear rejection.
Rocky looked at her and turned to walk away. His shoulders slumped and his head hung low. There was a resigned sadness in his posture. He looked back over his shoulder one more time, with a pleading look in his eye. Hot Chocolate was not swayed. She maintained her stance and kept her ground. This was not up for discussion. No. Just no. Rocky exhaled and accepted Hot Chocolate’s decision, after all the choice was hers and she had made it clear that he wasn’t the bear for her. He slinked into the water and swam to the other side of the bay, giving Hot Chocolate and Lebowski the space they needed.
Rocky swimming behind our boat to give Hot Chocolate the space she asked for.
Hot Chocolate and Lebowski spent several days in the Ensheshese/Trapper’s Cabin area eating grass, cuddling, and wrestling. The drama of the mating season wained as they got to know each other. Rocky made his way to Tsam Bay for a day before continuing on to patrol the other parts of his home range. Buddy also made his way to Tsam Bay and spent some time with Monty, who eventually disappeared into the forest in search of other females no doubt.
Rocky, a few moments after leaving Hot Chocolate. Back to grazing, but still a little sad.
Hot Chocolate took Lebowski back to her home beach in Tsam Bay, maybe that’s where babies are made.
Buddy is still sticking close. He knows that both male and female grizzly bears will mate with multiple partners over the breeding season. When the cubs are born, the female can have cubs from different males. It doesn’t look like he quiet willing to give up… yet.
Like grass grows on the tidal shores of the inlet, these are the Bears of Our Lives.
What Bears Teach Us – Teaser
This story is a preview of what to expect from the upcoming book: What Bears Teach Us. John Marriott and I are excited to share this installment based on our recent field trip to the Khutzeymateen Inlet Conservancy and Sanctuary in Northern British Columbia. The above story will be included in our book, amongst many other stories from the field. Stay tuned to my blog for more teasers. The book won’t be out until next year and teasers can only be found here until then.
This story taught me a few things that are always good reminders:
Never underestimate the old guy. Monty surprised us all with his trek to Tsam Bay.
The female chooses the male… even in the bear world.
Be present. Rocky was sad when he got rejected. But by the next day, he had moved on to greener sedge flats and the rest of his home range. What’s done is done.
From the shores of the Khutzeymateen to you. Next trip – Kluane National Park, Yukon Territory