MIND GAMESSteve Wasylik
I occasionally look in the mirror and wonder where
all the grey hairs came from. There have been a few close encounters
with bears and cougars. Then there was the time that the cow moose tried
to rototill me into the dirt for messing with her injured calf. Add
to that a couple of riverboat trips where horsepower exceeded skill
and ability. There may have also been one too many late nights hiding
out in a roadside ditch waiting to take down some poacher scattering
shots around the forest trying to hit a decoy we had set up. One would
think that would be enough, but I can't rule out the times that my imagination
added to the count as well.
I had to investigate a camp abandoned by some miners.
They had pulled out mid-winter and had left fuel and oil barrels lying
about. The melting snow had tipped over the barrels and the contents
had spilled. The camp was located in a remote part of my district and
it took me two days to get there the next spring. My only company on
the trip was my German shepherd, Max.
When we got to the camp a fresh coating of a couple
of inches of snow covered everything. The evidence I needed to gather
was everywhere. Forty-five gallon drums littered the site and the smell
of diesel and stove oil hung in the air. As Max and I wandered around
the camp it soon became apparent we weren't the camp's only visitors.
In the freshly fallen snow, grizzly bear tracks littered the camp.
The camp consisted of platforms with four-foot plywood
walls and a frame that a canvas tent was placed over. The tents had
been removed so a dozen or more of the skeleton frames remained. The
biggest was the cookhouse at twice the size of the others. As we poked
around the camp Max led the way. His job for years had been to stand
and fight with any large carnivores we came across while I beat a hasty
retreat. A big, courageous dog, Max took his job seriously. By now the
fresh bear tracks had him on high alert and he cautiously lead the way
past the cook shack. The grizzly's tracks wandered between it and the
next frame. We had stopped between the two frames and as I took some
photos of spilled drums, there was huge crash from the front the cookhouse.
Max wheeled around and ran past me and took up his
usual position a few paces in front of me. Another crash echoed out
of the cookhouse frame as my camera fell to the ground as I reached
for my sidearm. Max was by now growling in the direction of the cook
house door and his tail was curling up over his back, a sign that meant
the fur would soon begin to fly. Slowly we watched as the cookhouse
door slowly swung open. Our whole world was focused on the opening as
the biggest porcupine I had ever seen waddled out the door. I grabbed
Max by the collar to stop him from taking on the prickly fellow. The
porky wandered past us only a few feet away and off into the woods without
care in the world.
Once my heart reached a more normal pace and I had
Max calmed down, convincing him that the porky wasn't a big threat,
we looked into the cookhouse. The porky had spent the night chewing
on the plywood walls and must have heard us go by. When he tried to
leave the building he knocked over a table and then a bench that had
hit the door and it slammed shut and then slowly swung open letting
the porky out. I never did see the grizzly bear that had wandered the
camp. That was fine with both Max and me. One surprise a day was enough.
More recently I added some grey while I was looking
into why a grizzly bear was laying dead on the side of a local logging
road. I was only a few kilometres from the office this time, but I had
my German shepherd Mica with me on this trip. She'd taken Max's place
a few years before and had the same job. She doesn't take life quite
as seriously as Max had and she likes to hunt squirrels and gophers
as much as she likes to go to work.
On this occasion a hunter had found the grizzly and
reported it to our office. He said the bear was in some deadfall beside
the road where it looked like it had been dragged or dumped. He added
that something had fed on the bear and that he'd seen a larger grizzly
a short ways further up the road the same day. When Mica and I found
the bear, fresh snow covered the ground. Ravens flew up from the carcass
and into the trees telling me that the other bear wasn't feeding at
the time; but it didn't mean that it wasn't close by. The only tracks
in the area were the ones I made getting there so things seemed to be
I let Mica out of the truck and she immediately went
down and had a look at the bear laying half hidden in the bush beside
the road. She scouted the area and came back looking for something else
to do. Dead bears were of no interest to her so she left to see if a
squirrel had ever been in the area. I set about trying to find out how
the bear had died.
I was down over the bank with a metal detector looking
to see if the bear had been shot. The back half of the bear had been
eaten and not much was left but bones, a pretty sure sign of another
grizzly in the area. Very few other animals will feed on a freshly killed
grizzly bear. As I pushed and prodded at the carcass, I kept a lookout.
Mica was a short way off nosing about the snow and brush. If a bear
had been in the vicinity she would have been close by my side waiting
for the command to give chase. Her lack of interest lulled me into inattention.
Most people who have ever had a close encounter with
a bear or been charged will tell you about the snorting and huffing
a bear does when you're too close to it. I've heard the sound many times
when working with bears in traps. I had just put the metal detector
down and was trying to roll the bear carcass over when I heard that
huffing sound coming up fast from bush behind me. I wheeled around trying
to pull off the gloves I was wearing to get at my sidearm to protect
myself. I yelled for Mica and I could see her racing back down the road
as I scrambled up the bank for my truck
Mica reached my side about the same time as I located
the source of the noise in the bush. Two ravens on a low-level flight
through the trees to see what I was up to passed just over head. The
sound I'd heard was the wind through the feathers at the end of their
wings. It didn't sound quite the same as the noise a bear makes now
that I was away from the dead bear and close to my truck. I sheepishly
looked around to see if anyone was watching, but the only witness was
the dog. I bought her off with a scratch behind the ears. She licked
my hand and as I looked down at her I noticed that she was getting some
grey fur around her muzzle. I laughed out loud.
It seems that grey hair is an occupational hazard
to both two-legged and four-legged game wardens!
Steve Wasylik is a conservation officer in Castlegar,