Queenie and I met six years ago as we both strolled through an open meadow near the Atnarko River. We had come across one another often over the years, but this year was a rocky start! While guiding four guests through an ancient forest in Tweedsmuir Park, I heard the sound of a bawling cub, a sound that clearly signalled the desperate call of a cub for her mom. Being on a high lookout, we saw this young cub running in a panic right below us and I knew the grizzly mom, whether it was Queenie’s or not, would be stressed, so I quickly moved my guests out of the area. I stayed out of that area for several days, but when I did go back there were cub and mom tracks throughout the area, so I was fairly confident and grateful that the two had reunited. The next day, I met them and, yes,it was Queenie with this years’ cub. Over the following weeks I observed the two of them often and always felt that Queenie loved being a mom. Her cub was calm, polite and respectful around people, just like Queenie herself.
Queenie tries to lead a simple life, but her past might not have been that simple. In 2017, the Department of Fisheries group was walking through the area where she has lived for a long time. According to this group, a grizzly bear with a white spot on her shoulders charged them with no warning. Two shots were fired at close range and missed. The bear left. The hatchery team reported the incident and the area was closed for the remainder of the season in 2017. In 2018, there was a fisherman in the same area. I have few details of the incident, but apparently a bear charged him and again this area was shut down, but only for a few days. Shortly after they reopened this area, I went in on my own. When I got to the river’s confluence, there was Queenie with her new cub. She was as lovely and comfortable with me as she had always been. Our trust in one another goes both ways, as neither one of us has ever shown ourselves to be unpredictable. That said, I believe that it was Queenie who charged in both cases and this is why. She is an older lady who has been around the hatchery team and others all her life, and simply put, she recognizes abuse and unnecessary roughness. She is not a bear that is going to allow someone to unfairly push her around and why should she; she is a grizzly bear and this is her home!
I came across Queenie and her cub perhaps five more times this year, both with guests and without. With every encounter both she and I were as respectful and accommodating as we were six years ago when we first met. I enjoyed our “conversations” as we yielded to one another in perhaps the respectful ancient manner that our ancestors did when they encountered a bear in a tight, compromising area. This, I concluded, is how people co-existed peacefully in the same forests with these animals. Relationships were built and trust was established between humans and others animals. It was to all of their benefit to work towards being good neighbours.
Queenie also taught her cub well. I was surprised how calm and respectful her cub was to my presence. She was so well behaved and never appeared to react in any way that would unsettle her mother. Queenie is a good mom and has had perhaps three litters throughout the course of her life. She’s an older bear with a regal, stoic demeanour. She is very confident and returns courtesy when it is given. She wouldn’t crowd you ever, but would think very little of walking right by you within a few feet if it suited her. She at times challenged my comfort zone, yet somehow knew I was up to it. She trusted me with her cub and demonstrated this by turning her back on me and leaving slowly with her cub trailing well behind. The cub kept more an eye on me then Queenie ever did.
I love the relationship that Queenie and I have built over the years. She knows me by my voice, my smell, my body language …. So what happened with the group and the individual she felt threatened by? What was she afraid of, and why didn’t she trust them? I believe it’s possible that she remembered the hatchery group from at least one previous experience. These workers could have been seen through Queenie’s eyes to be rough and unfair. What I know about her is she is not a bear you can be rough with. Yelling and shooting bangers towards bears has been the protocol of the hatchery team for many years. These community members are hired to do a salmon enhancement program in the Valley. This includes an egg take and other salmon processing work done right on the spawning channels, so needless to say, keeping bears back from the area where they are working is important. The way they do this however needs to be fair and measured. A bear like Queenie would be even less likely to be tolerant to rough treatment if she had a cub to protect. The fisherman the following year too may have either used a rough and threatening voice or used bear bangers to move her off, and this year she had a cub. For this bear in particular, this is too much when all she needed was to be allowed to move through an area. She responds to curtesy and respect. She knows or has been taught the difference between fair and unfair. We as humans have shown her that. Not all grizzly bears can be treated alike because eventually you will encounter a “Queenie” and in this we could create a self imposed problem that either us or the bear will sadly pay for.
Bears are individuals with unique personalities, and they see us the same way. They are very layered with abilities and they can read intentions better then any animal I know… My dear friend, the late great bear man Charlie Russell, firmly believed that grizzly bears know if you are trying to help them. So, clearly, they must also know if you are trying to hurt them. Over the years I have found that they read the intention of others better that any animal I know. To establish and maintain trust between ourselves and bears is to allow all of us to safely co-exist in the same world and on the same paths together. This has been my experience…
Ellie Lamb is a British Columbia, Canada, bear viewing guide, and wildlife bronze artist specializing in bears. For 18 years, Ellie has been guiding people into the back country of the Great Bear Rainforest and Tweedsmuir Park, to experience grizzly bears on their homeland. The focus of her work is education, which she believes is the way forward to improving the treatment, understanding and protection of grizzly bears. The tenor of her work reflects her friendship with teachers such as Ian McAllister, Charlie Russell, Qwatsinas, and most importantly, with the grizzly bears themselves.
To read more about Ellie’s view on grizzly bears, click here.