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Bear Viewing: A Family Affair

“We saw the cubs when they came out of the tree,” says Maya Coleman, age 10. “They peeked around both sides of the tree. It was like the tree had grown ears all of a sudden.”

Maya is referring to a prized cub sighting last spring at Whistler Olympic Park, which was highly anticipated by the family of four, who owns and operates Whistler Photo Safaris, an off-road bear-viewing experience for guests on the park’s legacy trail network.

Image Courtesy Whistler Photo Safaris

Before the sighting, Maya and her brother Jacob knew that the mother bear was pregnant, so finally seeing the cubs was a moving experience. Even at such a young age, Maya has the heart of a poet and deeply ingrained passion for Whistler’s black bears — a sort of unofficial scout and photographer for her family’s business.

Some families spend their evenings over board games. Not this one. Maya and Jacob, 13, were born and raised on the good stuff that grows from mountain living. Most nights in the spring, summer and fall, the family is bumping around in one of Whistler Photo Safaris’ Jeep 4X4s, looking to catch up with their neighbours, who just happen to be black bears.

Last year’s cub sighting was a family effort. Papa bear Jason Coleman was the first to hear the cry. Mama bear Sherry Hilliard identified where the cry was coming from. And it was Maya’s sharp eyes that spotted not one, but two cubs up a tree — a discovery of no small feat.

Bears are often dismissed as mere shadows to the inexperienced eye. But it was Jacob (not his dad, Jason, a professional commercial photographer of 25 years) who first captured the moment on his DSLR camera. There is no Goldilocks in this story, just the golden hour and two cubs peeking over the bright-green grass blades of spring while the sun cast a halo over those ears, which first appeared to sprout from the trees.

“We had been watching the cubs through the spring,” Jacob remembers. “They finally stayed still in one spot long enough to get a perfect shot.”

Photo Joern Rohde

Jacob took the photo while seated safely inside a company Jeep. This is the same practice guests can expect from a Whistler Photo Safaris tour, one that optimizes safety not only for guests, but for the bears themselves. Guides are always conscious of maintaining a safe viewing distance. The Get Bear Smart Society recommends keeping 100 metres back from bears. This is close enough to elicit gasps of awe from guests, who can take photos from inside the vehicle, but far enough away to keep the wild bears wild.

“By maintaining a safe distance, and not getting out of the car, the bears don’t get overly comfortable with us, or people for that matter,” Jason says. “They maintain a healthy fear of us.”

Whistler Photo Safaris tours venture into Whistler Olympic Park where guests are driven through some of the 87 kilometres of cross-country skiing trails, which turn into bear grazing grounds when the snow melts. The sunrise and sunset tours are the most popular; however, afternoon tours are also available. The adventure is a Canadian immersion with private lookouts, lakes, waterfalls, bear dens and other local wildlife. Guests can even watch bears graze below the ski jumps used during the 2010 Olympic Games.

People who have never seen a black bear before are often surprised. The bears here are not the Hollywoodized monsters most city dwellers fear. Those in the wild around Whistler Olympic Park are the kind that tip over logs in search of bugs or climb red alder to strip the trees of their leaves to munch. Guests will see bears live here, doing what bears do, such as a mother nursing two cubs or a male dragging his claws across a tree trunk.

“Every mark on the tree has a story, and if you’re lucky, you get to see that story unfold out there,” Jason says.

Guides such as Jason are there to flesh out those story details. A recent Harvard graduate, Jason brings a background of behavioural sciences studies to his tours.

“The bears are consistent in their communication,” he says, which is completely unlike their two-legged counterparts. “Once you learn their signal for ‘too close’ or that there is another bear in the area, you can respond accordingly. One tour, I stopped the Jeep. And a guest asked why. I said, ‘The bear is going to cross the trail.’ ‘How can you know?’ the guest asked. And then the bear crossed, and I said, ‘Because the bear told me.’ You learn what to look for. My studies have increased my observational skills, animal or otherwise.”

All Whistler Photo Safaris guides bring a unique background to their work, adding yet another layer to the experience. The company’s geologist will talk about rock formations and volcanic activity, and the ecologist will share the Latin names of native plants.

“We just hired an astrophysicist, so I am excited to see what component that will bring,” says Jason.

Jason and his family’s time in the field is evident in how intimately they talk about the bears. Sherry says she expects a big production of cubs this year because of last year’s strong mating season and berry crop, while Jason swipes through photos on his phone, talking about how he’s watched two sister bears grow up, letting their cubs mingle, which is highly unusual. There is no question: This family knows bears. But more importantly, they know this group of bears — the bears of Whistler Olympic Park, a population of bears who, by and large, are not exposed to a human population in the way bears are in other areas of Whistler.

“Whistler Olympic Park’s infrastructure was designed to maintain a pristine wilderness environment,” Jason says, “so you are viewing bears as if no one was watching them. People are shocked by how little they care about us. And I don’t mean tolerate us. They just don’t count our presence.”

And that’s how Whistler Photo Safaris aims to keep it. “Bears come first, beyond the viewing experience,” Jason says. “That’s very important to all of us.”

Visit whistlerphotosafaris.com.

Image Courtesy Whistler Photo Safaris / Jacob Coleman

The optimal bear viewing times are when temperatures are cool such as in spring, early summer and fall.

Bear-viewing tours are also available on Whistler and Blackcomb mountains.
Visit whistlerblackcomb.com for more information.

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