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Lessons from Bear Watching   


February 20, 2019

By Luke Warkentin

Yellow alder leaves flutter down onto the Koeye River, floating gold in the sunlight. Giant spruce trees guard the banks. We wade downstream and duck underneath massive trunks; their flakey gray bark scratches our backs. Cold water flows over slick stones and wraps around our legs. We turn a corner and see a grizzly bear 150 meters downstream. We watch the bear hunting for salmon, splashing in the water with its forearms. We see it catch a salmon with its claws and teeth. Then the wind reveals us to the bear, and it raises its nose, swinging its head side to side. I am struck by the complex tapestry of dependence that defines this place – the old forest growing, the river flowing, the gravel rolling, the salmon returning, the bear eating. 

Will, Jared and I have just finished counting the sockeye salmon that returned to the Koeye River, for the third time in two weeks. During each count, Will hoped we would see more fish than the last time. It seemed like a lot to me, but Will said that the count was low compared to the last six years. These fish went to sea during 2015 and 2016. Those were also the years of ‘the blob’, a large patch of warm ocean water that sat off the coast of BC. It’s possible that many of the fish that experienced that warm ocean water may have died, because of disruptions to their normal feeding and growth. Warming oceans and anomalies such as the blob are predicted to increase as climate change continues. 

The sockeye salmon in the Koeye challenged my thinking about fish, their habitat, and climate change. I guess I thought that salmon born in pristine rivers would be safe from climate change. Yes, river habitat is of high importance to salmon. But they also spend a large portion of their life in in the ocean environment, where they are subject to processes that happen on a global scale. Salmon from the most pristine rivers in the world – like Koeye – are still exposed to problems in the ocean. I suppose I had learned this in an abstract academic way. Now I was seeing it in person.  

As we cautiously waded downstream, the bear ran quickly up the bank and into the dense forest. Slowly, eyes fixed on the last spot we saw the bear, we made our way down to the bend in the river where the bear caught the salmon. We paused across from the place the bear had disappeared. I thought I heard a huff from the bush. Will looked at me, listening; he heard it too. Was the bear watching us? How many hidden creatures had we passed by? More broadly, how many assumptions do I make about the things I study, while the real truth hides in the bushes? Whether watching a bear or doing science, I want to keep my head up and my eyes open. There might be something unexpected downstream.

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