Fattening Up for Winter

That furry, satisfied hunter you see on the front of this week’s What’s Up Yukon is the most northerly cover image we’ve ever used.

It’s also a celebration of the wildness that surrounds us, and an image of a place in the Yukon where sensitive habitat is being managed well.

One-quarter of all Canada’s grizzly bears live in the Yukon. These two particular bears were busy catching chum salmon in the Fishing Branch River, which runs through Ni’iinlii Njik Territorial Park.

Ni’iinlii Njik means the “river where salmon spawn” and is a special area to the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation (VGFN). The area became a territorial park in 1999 out of the nation’s Final Agreement. It’s part of the Wilderness Preserve and Habitat Protection areas north and east of Old Crow, and there are no roads into the area.

Since it became a park, Ni’iinlii Njik has been managed jointly by the Vuntut Gwitchin, the Government of Yukon and Bear Cave Mountain Eco-Adventures – a commercial venture partly owned by the VGFN.

Only five people at a time, including the guide, are flown in to view grizzly bears as they fatten up for winter on late-spawning chum. Salmon spawn into late October because the river stays at about three degrees Celsius all year, due to the limestone system keeping summer warmth beneath it.

I was thinking about this park last week because, on a walk downtown, a friend pulled up to say hello.

It was Gord Macrae, accomplished outdoorsman and superintendent of Klondike region for Yukon Parks, who was just back from 16 days at Fishing Branch. He flies into the area with the eco-adventure guide at the end of the tourism season each year, to assess how things are going.

Because the humans have agreed to stay only in certain viewing areas, the grizzlies can choose their distance while the humans, with their telephoto lenses, get to see some incredible fishing action.

Most of the bears are females, and most stand in the riffles to fish (as opposed to diving). They don’t like to share space, but tolerate each other to a degree during this period of final feeding.

This inside image shows the blonde nicknamed “Gwen” running with her dinner after being chased by a second bear.

Looking at these grizzlies, I was reminded of a thought written by naturalist and author Diane Ackerman: “Wonder is a bulky emotion; when it fills the heart and mind there’s little room for anything else.”

There are lots of places in the world – even in the Yukon – that most of us will only see through images and a few people’s well-told stories.

Ni’iinlii Njik is one of them, full of health for the fish and foxes and wolverines and bears.

And full of wonder for us humans.

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