Bear Country: Gathering of Bears

Bears are known as a solitary bunch, and although the English language has official words for groups of bears they don’t get anywhere near as much use as, for example, a murder of crows.

One official term is “a sloth of bears” but, really, that’s just a modern mangling of the original phrase “a sleuthe of bears” – and I don’t know what was originally intended by that.

Even worse, polar bears have been stuck with “a celebration of bears”.

However, it seems like gatherings of bears, both grizzlies and polar bears, are much more common than once thought.

Churchill, Manitoba, is one of the most recognized gathering areas for polar bears. Each year, the polar bears of western Hudson Bay come ashore in July and by late September begin gathering along Cape Churchill, anticipating the return of sea ice. Cape Churchill is a shelf that sticks out into Hudson Bay. The north winds, the counter-clockwise current, and the freshwater pouring out of the Churchill River combine to make this one of the first places to freeze.

While the bay does not fully freeze until January, by mid-November there is usually a kilometre or two of ice locked in along the cape and this is enough for the bears to head back on the ice and have a chance to catch some seals. The real hunting season is still months away, though, as over 80 per cent of their diet comes from hunting young seals in the spring.

Polar bears now annually gather in Kaktovik, Alaska to feed on the remnants of the bowhead whale hunt. Reports are that up to 80 bears were seen around a carcass this year.

This is being used as a sign of climate change’s effects; however, bears at whale carcasses are really nothing new. Back in 1986, 56 polar bears were spotted feeding on a right whale near Svalbard, Norway.

I find it a little ironic that there is a $15,000 fine for baiting bears in Churchill but in Alaska, a giant rotting whale carcass is just considered as background.

There is also evidence that polar bears may gather in numbers along the western edge of Victoria Island, on Southampton Island, southern Hudson Bay, and several other places that, for now, will remain as local lore.

A number of Alaskan towns have resident bear populations, as anyone who has had to temporarily delay casting in Haines will tell you. Once the grizzly family has passed, fishing continues as usual – pretty neat when you think about it.

The Yukon seems to have one of these magical little bear-and-human places too. Near Old Crow (near being a relative term) is Bear Cave Mountain. This area is located in the Ni’iinlii’njik (Fishing Branch) Territorial Park near the Ogilvie Mountains and Porcupine River.

Here, grizzly bears, as in many other places, gather to feed on chum salmon. What is different about Bear Cave Mountain is that warm springs keep the river open year-round. This, in turn, translates to a later chum salmon run and bears gather in this area well into October and even November, fattening up before heading up to their dens.

Estimates indicate that 100,000 chum salmon will cross the border from Alaska this year, significantly higher than the 70,000 previously expected. So while the Chinook run was kind of a disaster this year, the chum seem to have come through. Good news for grizzlies in northern Yukon, for sure.

Basically, it seems like a little oasis in a territory where life is generally tough for grizzly bears. It also seems destined to be the next big thing in bear tourism. A newly developed Vuntut Development Corporation joint-venture, Bear Cave Mountain Eco-Adventures is offering tours in the area. One of the opportunities there – and what is likely to be the next pro-photo checklist – is the underwater grizzly bear photography.

It sounds cool to me. Paul Nicklen just got back from there so I wouldn’t be surprised to see some Yukon photos in National Geographic soon. Besides, we’re really running out of unique photographs of wildlife. With new technology and destinations, so much of what can be done has been. Personally, I am waiting for someone to get a photo of a bear eating the camera, digesting it, and then depositing it along a trail. You would need a pretty tough camera though.

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