Ev­ery fall in the north­ern Yukon, ice-cov­ered grizzlies gather to feast on salmon spawn­ing in the Fish­ing Branch River


of the Fish­ing Branch River and the del­i­cate jin­gling of ice on the fur of a nearby fe­male griz­zly bear can be heard in this spruce for­est in north­west­ern Yukon’s Ni’iin­lii Njik Eco­log­i­cal Re­serve. There isn’t even a click of a cam­era shut­ter as the bear in­spects a pair of awestruck pho­tog­ra­phers, poised on a ram­shackle plat­form of snow and fish car­casses, be­fore gal­lop­ing into the shal­low wa­ter to pull out a fat salmon. She is one of up to 30 grizzlies — the largest con­gre­ga­tion of the species this far north — that gorge on the chum salmon that flood the Fish­ing Branch River (or Ni’iin­lii Njik, Gwich’in for “where fish spawn”) each year from Septem­ber to Novem­ber. The salmon are drawn from the Ber­ing Sea to spawn in this 12-kilo­me­tre stretch of river, which re­mains open year-round thanks to a pock­marked karst to­pog­ra­phy that per­co­lates just-above­freez­ing, oxy­gen-rich wa­ter from the gravel river bed. Wa­ter freezes on the bears’ fur start­ing in Oc­to­ber when the mer­cury dips be­low -20 C, and for a few weeks they be­come “ice grizzlies.” Lo­cated within moun­tain­ous Vun­tut Gwitchin First Na­tion Tra­di­tional Ter­ri­tory and sur­rounded by the roughly 6,500-square-kilo­me­tre Ni’iin­lii Njik (Fish­ing Branch) Ter­ri­to­rial Park and ad­ja­cent habi­tat pro­tec­tion area, the eco­log­i­cal re­serve and neigh­bour­ing set­tle­ment lands pro­tect a unique for­est habi­tat and mi­cro­cli­mate strad­dling the Arc­tic Cir­cle with ex­cep­tional bio­di­ver­sity, at­tract­ing species such as grey wolves, wolver­ines, ea­gles, moose, Dall’s sheep and the Por­cu­pine cari­bou herd. For thou­sands of years, the re­gion has been the cul­tural land­scape of the Vun­tut Gwich’in, who jointly man­age the pro­tected lands with the ter­ri­to­rial govern­ment. The re­serve grants en­try to just four vis­i­tors per day from Septem­ber 1 to Oc­to­ber 31 to pro­tect the bears and their habi­tat. But for more than 10 years, guide Phil Tim­pany of Bear Cave Moun­tain EcoAd­ven­tures has pro­vided wildlife-view­ing tours for hand­fuls of ad­ven­tur­ous pho­tog­ra­phers. By early Novem­ber, the spec­ta­cle is over. The sun hov­ers close to the hori­zon, the vis­i­tors are gone, and the salmon, hav­ing laid their eggs, are dead. Fat­tened grizzlies, heavy with ice and fish, me­an­der up the slopes of craggy Bear Cave Moun­tain to their den­ning caves to bed down un­til spring.

Michelle Val­berg (@michelle val­berg) is Cana­dian Ge­o­graphic’s Pho­tog­ra­pher-in-res­i­dence. Michela Rosano is the mag­a­zine’s as­so­ciate ed­i­tor.

In late fall, up to 30 griz­zly bears ( pre­vi­ous pages, above and right) gather to feast on spawn­ing chum salmon in Yukon’s Fish­ing Branch River, which re­mains ice-free even in sub-zero tem­per­a­tures.

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