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Where grizzlies and salmon play

Text and photos by Peter Mather

Fifteen hundred miles upriver from the Pacific Ocean and sitting dead centre on the Arctic Circle is the most unusual of ecological reserves. Within a sea of tundra and stunted black spruce you’ll find the Ni’iinlii Njik (Fishing Branch) Territorial Park in the Yukon Territory. It’s an Arctic oasis where trees grow three to six times higher than the little black spruce that dot the surrounding ecosystems and where grizzly bears and salmon play out a symbiotic lifecycle thousands of years old.

Through a bit of luck and good fortune, I spent 10 days at Bear Cave Mountain Eco-Adventures camp with guide Phil Timpany in Fishing Branch. The park was created in 2000 through Vuntut Gwich’in First Nations (VGFN) land claims. The park is the perfect model of local First Nations working with government and private enterprise to preserve and profit from healthy local ecosystems. Bear Cave Mountain’s camp is co-owned by the Vuntut Gwich’in and Phil. Bear Cave’s small camp, a collection of one room cabins just off the river and upstream from the main bear feeding zones, is designed to have a minimal impact on the landscape and the bears.

A young grizzly with a freshly caught female chum salmon.

The key to safely experiencing Grizzlies in an intimate manner is predictability, and Phil has found the right balance with the bears. I had grizzlies pass within 10 feet of me a dozen times in my week at camp and the bears showed no signs of stress or discomfort. We had a sow grizzly and cub nap within 100 feet of us. As Phil so succinctly puts it, “If you have areas of high ecological value, don’t hunt the wildlife, protect them…economically and morally, it’s the right thing to do.”

The only access into the park is by helicopter and as you approach, the first thing you notice is the rainforest ecosystem. The trees are giants towering above a forest floor of green sponge moss. The forest is literally fed by the salmon, the nitrogen in the salmon enables the trees and plants to grow to enormous proportions, and the bear’s role is gardening the forest by spreading salmon and nitrogen throughout the watershed.

The Gwich’in people call it Ni’iinlii Njik, meaning “where salmon spawn,” and it is sacred to their people. The park is the result of their efforts to preserve this area. Before heading into the park, I spent time talking with Gwich’in elder Robert Bruce in the nearest community of Old Crow. He told me Ni’iinlii Njik was dangerous for the old people (referring to people from long ago), as the Grizzlies would develop a thick layer of ice over their fur that would serve as armour, that could not be penetrated by bow and arrow.

Chum salmon on a spawning, red in the crystal-clear waters of the Fishing Branch River. These salmon migrate upriver over 1,500 km to reach their spawning grounds.

He also talked of visiting the park as a young man: “We went there a long time ago. We hiked down from that mountain. Big mountain. We walk down there…sixteen grizzlies just playing in the river. They playing with fish. They never eat one. They just play. I think they play with it to see which one is the fattest one. Then they take that fat one into the bush. They just take the skin off, and eat it. I never see that from a Grizzly…they always eat everything. Grizzly always eats everything.

While the world’s most famous Grizzly Sanctuaries and viewing lodges are located within ten miles of the Pacific Ocean, the Fishing Branch River is over a thousand kilometres upriver from its outlet in the Pacific. A combination of a late-season salmon run, a limestone mountain littered with bear caves, and groundwater that percolates up through the limestone keeping the river open well into winter, have created the bear viewing opportunity that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. If you’re looking for unique, you’ll find it at Bear Cave.