Oona and I made our way down river from Herman’s Point to Hai Creek. Where the grizzly family had been fishing there were only the tracks of a large male.
We followed the well-worn trail on river right, past Finlay’s cairn, past the clearing where they old fisheries cabin once stood, then down the trail Dennis Therrien had brushed out several years ago. The spoor of the big boar was everywhere. The tracks of the sow and her adolescent cubs were nowhere.
When we emerged from the bush and arrived at the spot where the grizzly family had flattened the long yellowed grasses during the course of their fishing, there was a blood stain a metre in diameter marking the spot where the large male bear had killed and eaten some ripe coho.
We took to the river and waded down to the Upper Coldwater, going ashore just above the island to obtain a better casting position to fish the slot alongside it. The big bear’s tracks were there too.
I crossed where the water was lowest and took the trail to the Lower Coldwater Pool. As I passed the back channel something moving in the bush startled me. On bear alert, I jumped a little more than I would have when grizzlies aren’t fishing nearby. There was a flash of brown. An eagle burst out of the brush. Relieved, I moved on, fishing downstream, until I reached the Secret Creek Glide late in the afternoon.
Cutthroat and Dolly Varden captured my attention. I stayed longer than I should have, a realization I was brought to by the dimming light. I quickly made my way back to the railroad tracks, and the tracks of the boar grizzly I’d encountered the week before were still there, between the rails, but less pronounced than they’d been.
The absence of their tracks had me thinking about the mother grizzly and her offspring on the drive home. I tried to convince myself that she had taken her brood and denned up, but the more I chewed on that idea the less sense it made. It was colder but not that cold, and, besides, the coho were fatigued and ripe for the picking after the exertion of spawning. Leaving all that meat for the big boar just when she and her brood needed to bulk up made no sense. I asked Andrew Williams, another angler who spends a lot of time on the upper Lakelse River and who has been a keen observer of the comings and goings of the grizzly family, if he’d seen any sign of those bears. He hadn’t.
A week later, one of my music students, a young man with an appetite for the outdoors that is surprisingly rare for young people in a town replete with potential outdoor adventures nearby, came for his lesson. I told him that I could use his help catching and sampling steelhead on the Lakelse, hastening to add that we would have to be careful – and would have to reassure his mom and dad that we would take sufficient care – because grizzlies would be fishing the river when we were.
Yeah, I know, he said, then he told me how he’d heard some guys talking about someone that had shot a grizzly on the Lakelse and been shocked when a cub ran out of the bush.
That’s illegal, I said. You can’t shoot bears that are part of a family unit.
Maybe it charged him, he said.
I told him if that was the case, the shooter had to report that too, whereupon the Conservation Officers would investigate.
As I said this the image of the eagle in the bush came immediately to mind. One of the sow’s favourite fishing spots was the Upper Coldwater Pool. If somebody had slaughtered the female bear, it’s quite possible it would have been there when she and her cubs were focused on the fishing. They would have left her remains in the bush where the would have drawn scavengers like a magnet.
I wanted to go back and check, but by that time too much snow had fallen and I had no assurance that the big boar wasn’t still out and nearby.
I checked with the conservation service. Nobody had reported a bear charge. Nobody had reported shooting a sow grizzly. The holders of limited entry permits had, as yet, not reported killing a Lakelse grizzly.
So, what happened to the grizzly family? Why did they vanish so quickly?
I met Greg Broome on the Kalum toward the end of November. Greg has fished the Lakelse all his life, I told him I feared the sow had been killed.
There was a moment of silence after I told him. I could sense that he was upset.
I’ve known that bear for seven years, he said.