November 29, 2017
I stand in thigh-deep water, one foot slightly in front of the other, bracing myself against the river’s current. My toes press into the bottom of my boots, struggling to find purchase on the riverbed, as small, smooth river rocks sneak out from beneath my feet. My hands, wet, cold and losing sensation, clutch three salmon carcasses. Two big males in my left hand and a smaller female in my right. Having only died recently, their gills are bright red and their bodies are barely decayed. They are perfect! The only problem . . . a mother grizzly and her cub are on the log in front of me, and my catch looks tasty. I quickly regret not saying good morning to the bears today, a common courtesy when in their neighbourhood.
She eyes me and the fish. The river continues to dig a hole under my feet. I dig in my heels. The gill rakers, small bony protrusions near the front of the gills, of the big males slowly cut into my fingers as the current pulls their tails downstream. I stand unmoving, feet quivering, fingers numb.
Suddenly, the big fuzzy lady gives a swift nose-bump-to-the-rump of her cub and they’ve loped back into the forest, up the bank and out of sight.
“See, nothing to worry about. They don’t bother us. We don’t bother them.” says Gillie, my field partner, local legend, and queller of fears. I let out a hasty guffaw, feigning unwavering coolness in the face of the magnificent beasts.
I walk back to the boat, and Gillie and I get to work taking careful measurements and tissue samples. The information we gather contributes to a growing dataset of metrics on this declining wild sockeye salmon population, one of many in a large multi-basin lake system. We are searching for patterns that might help explain the population decline, such as changes in reproductive characteristics. We are also collecting DNA samples to help create a genetic baseline that will allow for identification of the population, even when they are hundreds of kilometers from their spawning grounds.
With those research goals in mind, I’ll happily jump back into the stinking fantastic river to give my best attempt at investigating the intricacies and vulnerabilities that make up this spectacular ecosystem.
I’ll have more of these grizzly encounters each day, as a number of sows and solitary bears set up camp on the banks of the river to gorge on the returning salmon. All will have the same response, making quick work of the chest high brush, and never letting me stare for too long.
“Good morning bears!” I exclaim finally, “I’ll be here all week!”
The spawning grounds and surrounding forest of a wild sockeye salmon population. Photo by Elissa Sweeney-Bergen
Weighing a male sockeye before we start sampling. Photo by Elissa Sweeney-Bergen
A grizzly "stomp trail" used by the bears to reach salmon in the nearby spawning stream. Photo by Elissa Sweeney-Bergen