On bear tracks

This week, our columnist Rob Brown and a family of bears decide to fish the same spot

Doug had gone to Mexico for a week. With a lot of steelhead in the Lakelse River and the run just reaching its peak, I could tell he would rather have stayed but the plans had been made.

I’ll fish the river every day while you’re lying beside the pool soaking in the sun, I’d told him.

You lucky bugger, he’d replied.

The steelhead returns to the Kalum were good this year too. Normally we would have spent more time there, but I’d promised Mark Beere that I’d collect 100 bits of adipose fin from Lakelse steelhead to help the biologists at the Ministry of the Environment with their DNA project.

With Doug gone most days I would be fishing alone. That was problematic since five grizzlies were fishing the river for ripe coho. Two were males, and there was a female with a pair of cubs the size of grown black bears that were about ready to venture out on their own.

The sow and her cubs were keenly aware that we were fishing alongside them. A couple of times it became apparent that we’d inadvertently walked past them after they’d retreated into the bush after sensing our approach, then resumed fishing once we’d passed. One fisherman told me he’d had the mother bear charge him. Another related how she’d chased him out of the Upper Coldwater Pool. When I’d interrogated both men it became clear that no show of aggression had taken place, rather they had been fishing and beat a hasty retreat when the bear family showed up.

Still, since the dog and I make less noise than Doug and I and our two dogs, I decided to take Hud Fisher’s road to the Lower Coldwater runs. The back road is almost a kilometre from the river. From their tracks in the newly fallen snow, it appeared that the grizzlies were staying to the well worn paths on both sides of the river, doing most of their fishing in the stretch from Finlay’s Cairn to Upper Coldwater.

On the day after Doug flew off, I parked beside the spot where the logging bridge once spanned Herman’s Creek, assembled my gear and struck off up Hud Fisher’s Road with Oona, as planned. Fresh snow had fallen overnight. We set down fresh tracks in it. Approximately a kilometre  later we came across the spoor of three bears, a sow and two big cubs. The prints came out of the bush from the direction of the river then turned up the road in the direction I was headed. They had been laid down that morning, possibly minutes earlier.

Oona looked up the road. Her nose twitched. She growled. It was a quiet guttural growl.

Easy girl, I said firmly and quietly. Stay here.

We stayed at the spot for five minutes. I was determined to fish Lower Coldwater.

Five minutes should give those bears time to put a comfortable distance between them and us, I reasoned. This was based on the assumption that the bears would continue on without any detours.

Oona sensed she should stick closer to me than usual. She snuffled at the tracks we were now walking on. I moved slower, straining to see as far as I could around each bend. As we neared the branch leading to upper Coldwater, I hoped the bears would take it. When we reached it minutes later, I discovered they hadn’t. We followed them to the second branch, the spur leading to Lower Coldwater. This time I was hoping the bear family would continue on toward the Train Bridge. They didn’t. They turned toward the river.

Damn it, I said to the dog. They must want to fish the same spots we do.

The tracks told me the bears had stopped for a little while when they reached the river whereupon they continued downstream along the same path I’d taken hundreds of times over the last 30 years. They’d even walked up onto the same log jutting over the river that Doug and I have used to spot steelhead.

I waited once more then traced their tracks to the Railway Pool, where the brush gets thick and the trail faint, and the chance of bumping into a bear are enhanced.

Far enough, girl, I told Oona.

To keep her close, I unbuckled my pack and pulled out our lunches.

Hers was a meaty leg bone, full of marrow, the extraction of which would occupy her long enough for me to eat my sandwich, drink my tea, and fish the run thoroughly.

I had packed up and was up to my thighs in the river fastened onto the first steelhead of the day when Oona dropped her bone, stood up, looked downstream and began to bark loudly.

…continued next week…