The calendar says it’s spring and the weather outside seems like January (photo of granddaughter, Cammie, taken during a snow storm on Saturday, March 29th, 2008 in the Seattle area). But, despite the tenacity of winter the seasons march onward and the snows here in the valley of Whistler recede a bit more each day. I spotted a few sprouts of skunk cabbage poking their noses tentatively out of the slower sections of Crabapple creek this week. This means that any day now we should start seeing our black bears emerge from their long winter snooze and start wandering through our neighborhoods.
Whistler sits in the midst of vast tracts of forested mountains so we share the place with the bears, bobcats, coyotes and the occasional cougar as well as other wildlife including; grouse, deer, show shoe rabbits, eagles and osprey.
Last year a cougar got away with shagging a couple of mountain bikers… we have plenty of those and one or two would not be missed. However, he made the mistake of stalking a couple of Japanese golfers up in the foothills of the Chateau golf course. Even the skilled public relations folks for Whistler could not imagine dealing with the disaster of having a Japanese tourist turned into cougar brunch, so the cougar was sadly given the death penalty.
Whistler has a large and healthy population of bears and, for the most part, the residents and the bears coexist in relative peace. When we first moved to Whistler twelve years ago the town did a poor job of controlling garbage. There were open containers and dumpsters all over town. The town dump was wide open. Black bears spend the summer months as walking eating machines, to first recover from the long hibernation and then to pack on the pounds prior to heading into their dens for the long winter nap again. Bears, like humans, will take the easy way out.
Garbage provides the easiest source of calories for bears prior to the berry ripening in the fall, so bears in the bad old days were constantly found raiding garbage cans right in the village and dumpster diving near hotels and restaurants.
This brought bears and humans into conflict and close contact and, as a consequence, the authorities killed an average of 22 bears per summer.
About six years ago the resort got serious about controlling garbage. Truly bear proof garbage containers were devised and installed throughout the valley and a massive public education campaign aimed at both tourists and residents undertaken. The results were immediate. The elimination of problem bears dropped to 3 or 4 per year. Only the most aggressive and repeat offenders of the rules paid the ultimate price. Breaking into homes to raid the fridge or pantry seems to be the most serious offense. Minor infractions can get the bear a nice yellow tag in the ear identifying him as having been in trouble before.
For the most part the bears and humans of Whistler coexist in relative harmony. The bears are accustomed to us and wander through the residential areas and the golf courses seemingly ignoring us. I know of only one person being injured by a bear. That occurred last summer when a fellow came home and discovered a bear inside his house. The bear paniced and gave the guy a pretty good swipe while trying to escape. The only thing to worry about is a female with cubs. Mama bears are very protective of cubs and can be quite aggressive. They have to be especially wary of roving male bears that will kill the cubs. The males know (presumably from watching Dr. Phil and Oprah) that females who lose their cubs will immediately go into estrus and be available for breeding.
We got a first hand demonstration of this aggressive female behavior last summer. The top of Blueberry Hill right behind our house is a large park land of wild forest and jumbled boulders. Several bears hibernate in the caves and rest there during the summer months. The traditional path from Blueberry Hill down to the valley floor where they can find water and food takes them right through our yard. We frequently see bears making their way through our gardens.
One evening last June my fishing buddy, Rob, and I returned from an expedition and pulled up in front of our house to unload. Rob let his aging lab out of the truck to relieve himself. At that moment a young female bear and her cub were making their way down from the top of Blueberry. Spotting the dog the bear began to make a sound I never heard before, a loud (and I mean really loud) “whoomph, whoomph”. The cub shot up the nearest tree like he had a rocket up his butt and the female hurried to the very edge of the 8’ bank beside the road. We hustled the dog back into the truck, backed off to the safety of my open garage and waited for her to calm down. Eventually, she retreated to a position between her and her treed cub and we got my gear unloaded.
My only other encounter with an aggressive bear occurred on the Chateau Whistler golf course several summers ago. The fairways for the course are hacked out of the forested bench lands of Whistler Mountain and therefore encounters with bears and other wildlife a common occurrence. On this day I was playing with a couple of other young locals and as we rounded the hairpin curve leading to the 16th tee box we nearly ran into two bears. We screeched to a halt and immediately reversed back up the hill as the bears were only about 20 yards away. Since one bear was so much larger than the other we assumed that it was a female with her cub from last year. (Cubs will stay with their mom through the second winter before getting kicked out on their own the following summer.)
I climbed out of the golf cart and approached to where I could peek around the corner. I could see that the smaller bear was too big to be a cub and that the other guy was simply huge. This became even more apparent when he spotted me and stood on his hind legs giving me a hard stare and a threatening grunt.
I backed off but continued to watch as he started pawing the smaller bear around until, positioning himself behind her, he began to hump rapidly. Ah, sex on the tee box, and me without a camera! The whole act lasted a few seconds and afterward the two wandered off in different directions. No cuddling.
For the record… I was so aroused I double boggied the hole.