Whistler Traveller Magazine - - CONTENT - STORY BY NI­COLE FITZGER­ALD

We saw the cubs when they came out of the tree,” says Maya Cole­man, age 10. “They peeked around both sides of the tree. It was like the tree had grown ears all of a sud­den.” Maya is re­fer­ring to a prized cub sight­ing last spring at Whistler Olympic Park, which was highly an­tic­i­pated by the fam­ily of four, who owns and op­er­ates Whistler Photo Sa­faris, an off-road bear-view­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for guests on the park’s legacy trail net­work. Be­fore the sight­ing, Maya and her brother Ja­cob knew that the mother bear was preg­nant, so fi­nally see­ing the cubs was a mov­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Even at such a young age, Maya has the heart of a poet and deeply in­grained pas­sion for Whistler’s black bears — a sort of un­of­fi­cial scout and pho­tog­ra­pher for her fam­ily’s busi­ness. Some fam­i­lies spend their evenings over board games. Not this one. Maya and Ja­cob, 13, were born and raised on the good stuff that grows from moun­tain liv­ing. Most nights in the spring, sum­mer and fall, the fam­ily is bump­ing around in one of Whistler Photo Sa­faris’ Jeep 4X4s, look­ing to catch up with their neigh­bours, who just hap­pen to be black bears. Last year’s cub sight­ing was a fam­ily ef­fort. Papa bear Ja­son Cole­man was the first to hear the cry. Mama bear Sherry Hil­liard iden­ti­fied where the cry was com­ing from. And it was Maya’s sharp eyes that spot­ted not one, but two cubs up a tree — a dis­cov­ery of no small feat.

Bears are of­ten dis­missed as mere shad­ows to the in­ex­pe­ri­enced eye. But it was Ja­cob (not his dad, Ja­son, a pro­fes­sional com­mer­cial pho­tog­ra­pher of 25 years) who first cap­tured the mo­ment on his DSLR cam­era. There is no Goldilocks in this story, just the golden hour and two cubs peek­ing over the bright-green grass blades of spring while the sun cast a halo over those ears, which first ap­peared to sprout from the trees. “We had been watch­ing the cubs through the spring,” Ja­cob re­mem­bers. “They fi­nally stayed still in one spot long enough to get a per­fect shot.” Ja­cob took the photo while seated safely in­side a com­pany Jeep. This is the same prac­tice guests can ex­pect from a Whistler Photo Sa­faris tour, one that op­ti­mizes safety not only for guests, but for the bears them­selves. Guides are al­ways con­scious of main­tain­ing a safe view­ing dis­tance. The Get Bear Smart So­ci­ety rec­om­mends keep­ing 100 me­tres back from bears. This is close enough to elicit gasps of awe from guests, who can take pho­tos from in­side the ve­hi­cle, but far enough away to keep the wild bears wild. “By main­tain­ing a safe dis­tance, and not get­ting out of the car, the bears don’t get overly com­fort­able with us, or peo­ple for that mat­ter,” Ja­son says. “They main­tain a healthy fear of us.” Whistler Photo Sa­faris tours ven­ture into Whistler Olympic Park where guests are driven through some of the 87 kilo­me­tres of cross-coun­try ski­ing trails, which turn into bear graz­ing grounds when the snow melts. The sun­rise and sun­set tours are the most pop­u­lar; how­ever, af­ter­noon tours are also avail­able. The ad­ven­ture is a Cana­dian im­mer­sion with pri­vate look­outs, lakes, water­falls, bear dens and other lo­cal wildlife. Guests can even watch bears graze be­low the ski jumps used dur­ing the 2010 Olympic Games. Peo­ple who have never seen a black bear be­fore are of­ten sur­prised. The bears here are not the Hol­ly­wood­ized mon­sters most city dwellers fear. Those in the wild around Whistler Olympic Park are the kind that tip over logs in search of bugs or climb red alder to strip the trees of their leaves to munch. Guests will see bears live here, do­ing what bears do, such as a mother nurs­ing two cubs or a male drag­ging his claws across a tree trunk. “Ev­ery mark on the tree has a story, and if you’re lucky, you get to see that story un­fold out there,” Ja­son says. Guides such as Ja­son are there to flesh out those story de­tails. A re­cent Har­vard grad­u­ate, Ja­son brings a back­ground of be­havioural sciences stud­ies to his tours. “The bears are con­sis­tent in their com­mu­ni­ca­tion,” he says, which is com­pletely un­like their two-legged coun­ter­parts. “Once you learn their sig­nal for ‘too close’ or that there is an­other bear in the area, you can re­spond ac­cord­ingly. One tour, I stopped the Jeep. And a guest asked why. I said, ‘ The bear is go­ing to cross the trail.’ ‘How can you know?’ the guest asked. And then the bear crossed, and I said, ‘Be­cause the bear told me.’ You learn what to look for. My stud­ies have in­creased my ob­ser­va­tional skills, an­i­mal or oth­er­wise.”

All Whistler Photo Sa­faris guides bring a unique back­ground to their work, adding yet an­other layer to the ex­pe­ri­ence. The com­pany’s ge­ol­o­gist will talk about rock for­ma­tions and vol­canic ac­tiv­ity, and the ecol­o­gist will share the Latin names of na­tive plants. “We just hired an as­tro­physi­cist, so I am ex­cited to see what com­po­nent that will bring,” says Ja­son. Ja­son and his fam­ily’s time in the field is ev­i­dent in how in­ti­mately they talk about the bears. Sherry says she ex­pects a big pro­duc­tion of cubs this year be­cause of last year’s strong mat­ing sea­son and berry crop, while Ja­son swipes through pho­tos on his phone, talk­ing about how he’s watched two sis­ter bears grow up, let­ting their cubs min­gle, which is highly un­usual. There is no ques­tion: This fam­ily knows bears. But more im­por­tantly, they know this group of bears — the bears of Whistler Olympic Park, a pop­u­la­tion of bears who, by and large, are not ex­posed to a hu­man pop­u­la­tion in the way bears are in other ar­eas of Whistler. “Whistler Olympic Park’s in­fra­struc­ture was de­signed to main­tain a pris­tine wilder­ness en­vi­ron­ment,” Ja­son says, “so you are view­ing bears as if no one was watch­ing them. Peo­ple are shocked by how lit­tle they care about us. And I don’t mean tol­er­ate us. They just don’t count our pres­ence.” And that’s how Whistler Photo Sa­faris aims to keep it. “Bears come first, be­yond the view­ing ex­pe­ri­ence,” Ja­son says. “That’s very im­por­tant to all of us.”

The op­ti­mal bear view­ing times are when tem­per­a­tures are cool such as in spring, early sum­mer and fall.

Bear-view­ing tours are also avail­able on Whistler and Black­comb moun­tains. Visit whistlerblack­





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