Salmon and eagles and bears, oh my!

  • Written by Deborah Stone
Photo by Deborah Stone Petunia and her 2-year-old cub in search of a salmon snack.
As we rounded the bend, we saw them. A mother grizzly bear and her cub were combing the banks of the river looking for their next snack. Mama saw us and flicked her ears to let us know she was on to our game, but then she pointedly ignored us and continued her search with her young’un dutifully following behind.

I gazed at these majestic creatures in an awe-filled silence, drinking in every detail of this memorable, stirring moment.

"That’s Petunia and her 2-year-old son," Gary said later after the bears had left the area. "They’ve both got those same exact halos around their necks."

Meet Gary Zorn, the Cariboo Mountains "Bear Whisperer," a man who has devoted his life to studying the social hierarchy, habits and body language of these creatures, while communing with them in their natural habitat.

Gary and his wife Peggy own and operate Ecotours-BC, a Canadian adventure tour company specializing in offering unique and intimate experiences for guests interested in viewing wildlife and learning about the natural history of an unspoiled wilderness.

The Zorns were in the ecotourism business long before "green" became a buzz word in the industry.

"We’ve been preserving the environment and showing it to folks for over 30 years now," explains Peggy. "And that’s what ecotourism is really all about. It’s about providing opportunities for people to interact with nature, while educating them about their environment."

The Zorns operate their business out of Likely, British Columbia, a tiny hamlet deep in the heart of the Cariboo Mountains region, approximately three hours from the province’s northern capitol, Prince George.

The area is located within a rare, temperate interior rain forest. It’s a region of dramatic scenic beauty, dominated by high mountain peaks and glaciers, densely forested valleys, thundering waterfalls, and picturesque lakes, including Quesnel Lake, the deepest fjord lake in the world. This diverse landscape provides habitat for hundreds of species of birds and animals, including one of the largest concentrations of mountain grizzlies in North America.

Most of the Zorn’s guests come to this remote piece of paradise to see the wildlife, but according to Peggy, they leave with so much more.

She says, "They usually go away with a greater appreciation and respect for this special environment and all that it offers, as well as an understanding of how important it is to preserve it for the future."

The bears, of course, are the star attraction. And Gary, your guide extraordinaire, will do his utmost to ensure that you have an unforgettable encounter with these impressive creatures. He’ll introduce you to the Cariboo Mountain grizzlies in their wild, natural habitat, out on the Mitchell River.

The grizzly bear is one of the largest predatory and most solitary animals on the planet. Characterized by its razor sharp claws, tell-tale hump over the shoulder and dished nose, this creature is regarded as the signature species of the Canadian wilderness.

On an Ecotours-BC bear viewing adventure, you’ll rise before dawn, eat one of Peggy’s hearty breakfasts and then take a prop boat down to the north arm of Quesnel Lake.

There you’ll transfer to a jet boat and head toward Mitchell River, where the bears congregate to feast on salmon.

Each year, the salmon return to the area to spawn and the bears are there ready and waiting. They gorge themselves on the fish in preparation for their winter hibernation. This event provides exceptional bear watching and photography opportunities for visitors, who come from all over the globe to catch sight of this natural phenomenon.

They also get an added bonus, as along with the grizzlies, the river is lined with bald and golden eagles, feeding on the salmon carcasses. It’s quite a show and truly an adventure of a lifetime. There’s nothing that can prepare you for seeing bears up close in the wild.

Grizzlies, in particular, have a larger-than-life presence that renders viewers speechless. This is a good thing, as one of the cardinal rules of wildlife viewing is silence. It’s imperative when you see the bears that you remain quiet in order not to startle or agitate them. This rule also applies to when you’re moving along the river.

Gary, in full wader regalia, basically walks the boat through the water, as it is the only way to come upon the bears without them being aware of your presence ahead of time.

Voices and motor noises would scare them off long before you had the chance to see them.

Early on in my trip, we spied several bears from a distance, but by the time we got to them, they had already left the area.

Hours went by without another spotting and I began to despair that I would ever see a grizzly up close. Gary needed to remind me that patience is another rule of wildlife viewing.

He said, "You need to remember that these are wild animals, roaming freely in their natural habitat. They don’t show themselves simply for your entertainment. They don’t just appear on command. You have to be patient and persistent and then maybe you’ll be rewarded. But, there are no guarantees."

I heeded his words and decided to just lie back in the boat and bask in the peace and tranquility of my surroundings. I told myself to slow down and enjoy the experience of being in the present, without thinking about goals and must dos.

While we waited, I watched proud eagles soar overhead and took the time to listen to Mother Nature’s conversation. I also observed my guide and took cues from his calm, yet constantly aware behavior.

As someone who has lived in the great outdoors for most of his life, Gary has developed acute senses. He sees and hears things that others don’t because they’re not attuned to the rhythms of the wilderness.

"Listen and watch closely," he says. "There’s always a story that’s being told. Hear the birds screeching, look at the way the fish move in the water and take note of your surroundings. Look for things that might be out of place."

Gary emphasizes the need to understand an animal’s habits and its behavior patterns in order to become a proficient wildlife observer, but he stresses that this type of knowledge only comes with experience. He adds, "You can read all the books in the world, but experience is truly the best teacher."

After spending years in this environment, Gary knows most of the bears in the area intimately from their unique habits, temperaments, family units and colorings. He has given names to many of them: Albert, the elder statesman, twins Homer and Jethro, Sad Little Bear, Happy Little Bear, Elmo, Grouchy One, and of course, Petunia, the featured star of my experience. While amongst the bears, he tries to think like them. And when he talks to them, which he often does, he speaks softly in a monotone voice, often inserting his own special brand of humor into his comments: "Hey, bear, how’s the fishin’?" he might ask. Yet, he can convey a stern command when necessary, saying "Enough bear, back off now," if the animal is getting too close for comfort.

In all his years, Gary has never been attacked by a bear. He maintains a constant and vigilant respect for these massive and powerful creatures and his most often repeated advice when encountering a bear is: "Grizzly bears are wild animals. Remain calm. Never run from a bear."

When you’re not out viewing the bears, you might be engaged in other activities with the Zorns, such as hiking amid the alpine, trekking through ancient old growth forests, birding in the wetlands or taking an interpretive history tour of the Gold Rush Trail.

Guests stay at Pyna-tee-ah, the couple’s comfortable lodge in Likely. It’s an inviting, homey place, complete with a friendly resident dog, Trouble, and two charming cats, Whiskers and Callie. You’ll find Peggy presiding over the kitchen, where she prepares delicious, healthy meals to satisfy appetites of any size and type. It’s here that the guests usually congregate before dinner to sip some wine, compare their experiences and hear Gary tell his engaging and often humorous bear stories. The man has a wealth of knowledge about flora and fauna, and the natural history of the area. And he takes great joy in sharing it with others.

After dinner, folks move into the spacious front room to continue their conversations in front of the cozy fireplace or to peruse the Zorn’s collection of quality photos, books and articles about wildlife and local points of interest.

Peggy and Gary are gracious and hospitable innkeepers, who sincerely enjoy being hosts.

"What I like most about doing this are the people," comments Peggy. "We get folks, of all ages and backgrounds, from all over the world. They have such interesting stories to tell. And it’s fascinating to hear their reasons for wanting to get back to nature."

The Zorns have created more than just opportunities to discover and connect with nature. They have set the stage for renewal and rejuvenation.

"We believe that this environment can refresh your soul and cleanse your inner spirit," says Peggy. "It has the power to enlighten and redefine one’s inner self. And it can have a profound and lasting impact, as it can change the way people view the world around them."



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