Steve 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 fairly quiet.

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, British Columbia