Shooting bears

Columnist Rob Brown continues his series on grizzly bears – detailing the ethical way to shoot them

Mike Whelpley shoots bears. He’s shot blacks, a few spirit bears, but he prefers to shoot grizzlies, and he’s shot hundreds of those.

Mike decided to hunt grizzlies about thirty years ago.

Hunting bear properly requires a lot of expertise. Mike had a couple of Canons and was already a decent shot, but this enterprise demanded photographic skills of a high level and the best equipment. Mike acquired both.

Today you can discover the whereabouts of grizzly bears in seconds using a search engine. Mike read books and talked to people in the know and concluded that the estuaries of the North Coast were the best places to get close to the great bears. A then little known inlet fed by the Khutzeymateen River seemed to meet all Mike’s criteria: it was unlogged; it hadn’t been heavily hunted by the men who kill bears for their skulls, claws, and fur, and was roughly a half day journey by boat on a calm sea.

With this and other projects in mind, Mike and his Dad, Jack (an ex-sailor known to all of us as Pop) had designed an aluminum jet boat powered by a Volvo diesel engine with a hull that would do well in fresh and salt water. When it was built, Mike named her Mileed, bear in an aboriginal dialect, then proceeded to log thousands of hours on the rivers in Skeena, on the Stikine, and on the coast. On the majority of these outings, Mike went alone. As a result of all this experience, Mike’s skills as a jet boat skipper were such that he was able to give courses on jet boat handling and enabled him to contract out to industry.

A superb steelhead angler, Mike explored all the rivers he could get his boat up from the Kitimat to the Kitlope, honing his boating and camping skills in the process. Those trips required navigational skills and, since his welfare depended on his craft, mechanical wherewithal that he had learned from Pop or on his own.

By the time he made his first trip to the Khutzeymateen, Mike had learned to endure the discomfort of bad weather and rough seas. It was a trip that took considerable courage. Running the seas of the North Coast in a small craft at any time is perilous; doing so in a small, flat-bottomed hybrid jet boat is even more so. Mike wanted to cause as little disturbance to his quarry as possible. He said good bye to Pop and went alone. He had decent seas and was in the Khutzeymateen by mid afternoon. There he set up camp on his boat, took his tripod and cameras and set them up on the estuary to photograph grizzly.

Mike had no gun. He had no pepper spray, bear bangers, or flares.

With my camping gear and photography equipment I had no room for all that stuff, he told me.

He’s crazy. He’s gonna get it! one grizzly bear trophy hunter told me when I mentioned Mike’s plan.

Mike knew bears better than the people who told him he was putting himself in harm’s way. It took a lot of courage. Mike moved carefully. One bear then another and another  appeared to graze on the estuary grass. The big bears saw Mike. They were wary at first, but gradually they tolerated the presence of the photographer. Soon Mike was among them shooting their most intimate interactions. On one of his many trips, for example, Mike was shooting a large male bear from a distance of about 30 metres when he heard a commotion behind him. He turned to see a grizzly chasing a wolf across the estuary roughly the same distance behind him.

Mike has hundreds of trophies from those trips. Beautiful shots of grizzlies, head and shoulders in some cases, that he can share with all of us. Not a single bear was harmed in the process.

Compare Mike’s achievement to that of a man who pays a guide who has already located a bear on the Lakelse River, 30 minutes from Terrace. He and his guide hop on ATVs then drive a logging road that takes them to where the bear is in the open because he has to be to fatten up on salmon before winter. They spot the bear walking beside the railway and shoot him with a high powered rifle from behind brush hundreds of metres away. Then they make their way to his corpse and skin him out leaving all but the fur, skull and claws, which they then take to a taxidermist who erases all the signs of the kill – the shit, the blood , the bullet holes – and using wire,  plastic, and glass creates a trophy the killer can brag about.

Ask yourself which hunt takes more skill and courage, and which has the better ending. And, while you are at it, ask yourself why your government allows the barbarity of the second kind of hunt to adversely affect and ultimately threaten the viability of the first when bear viewing and bear photography besides being more humane, puts far more money in provincial coffers.

 

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