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I was following very fresh bear tracks in the sand. They do indeed look a bit like a human palm print, except where it was clear that the bear’s weight had shifted forward and its claws had sunk deep into the sand.

The tide was coming back in, so the tracks were likely no more than a couple of hours old, though they looked ‘just made’ to me. My wife and I spent the next three hours exploring the tidal pools at French Beach, just north of Sooke, BC, with no sign of the bear, though his presence lingered.

The next day, Debra and I were having our morning coffee down at the beach at Billings Spit. It’s nice to start the day watching the copper skinned limbs of the Arbutus trees fingering the folds of the morning fog. It’s also an opportunity for our ‘Yorkie/Maltese’ puppy to meet other dogs out for a morning stroll on the beach. We met Len, who was walking his very friendly ‘Samoyed/Wolf cross. Like his dog, Len was also very friendly and talked to us of life in the Sooke area. He mentioned that a ‘Spirit Bear’ a white, black bear cub - had been seen in East Sooke this past spring.

Spirit Bears – also called Ghost Bears and Kermode Bears – have been well documented as a genetic variation of the Black Bear, with perhaps as many as one in ten Black Bears having the white, ghost coat. Their greatest concentrations are along the northern Pacific coast around Princess Royal Island. If the reports were true, a ‘Spirit Bear‘ near Sooke would be significantly south of their normal habitat.

It was a very windy day, too windy to go beach exploring so I settled into the lee side of a beached drift log and pondered my own experience bears, closer to home, in Alberta.

As kids, during summer vacation, we would see Black Bears at the garbage dump in Banff. My Grandpa Charlie, my mom’s dad, died when I was about 10, but I can remember him throwing a rock at a bear that was scavenging the garbage cans at our camp site. The bear had his head inside the overturned garbage can and when the rock hit the can, the bear fell out backwards, on his haunches, with a corn cob in his mouth. It seemed funny then, but fortunately the bear and garbage management plans of today tend to prevent such dangerous situations from occurring anymore.

Many years later, along the road to Malign lake, I caught a couple of images of a mother Black Bear with two cubs playing at the edge of a pond. Another time, along the Icefield Parkway, near Saskatchewan River Crossing, I watched a young Black Bear eating new growth branches at the top of a tree. Until recently, though, I had never seen a Grizzly bear in the wild.

There is an alpine meadow near the Icefield Centre that seems like perfect Grizzly Bear habitat and I have scoured those meadows in vain. Then I heard that the Bow Valley Summit was a good place to see Grizz and finally, after three visits, persistence paid off. Early one morning, about a kilometer or so north of Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, I spotted a young Grizzly Bear foraging for roots and grubs in the meadow there. He, a presumption on my part, was a pleasure to watch from the safety of inside my car. I got a number of shots as he used the power of his whole body to pull over small boulders in search of insects and surprisingly watched him fall backwards on his butt when one of the rocks came free and over-balanced him. By this time, a number of other cars had stopped along the highway to watch and the bear ambled off into the tree-line. But his presence lingered, and stays with me still. A ‘Zen’ experience, with the bear spirit.

My Zen bear had a tag on his ear, #1728, so he is likely known to our wildlife officials. Hopefully he has been accounted for in the provincial survey that has been undertaken to get an accurate count of our Grizzly Bear population, which some authorities in recent media releases estimate at less than 500. If such numbers are accurate, then perhaps what is surprising is that I did get to see my bear alive and apparently living well in the wild. Will I get to see another one? Will my children and their children be able to find Grizzly Bears in Alberta’s wilds?

My Grizzly Bear was a ‘lifer’ for me as the ‘birders’ out there would say. And the wonderful thing is that I’ll never again be able to drive by an alpine meadow without sensing the spirit of that bear. Alpine meadows are the home of Grizzly Bears. It’s the way of things. An alpine meadow without a Grizzly Bear is a little bit empty… a little bit less complete.

A perfect bear track on a perfect beach on Vancouver Island, a spirit presence from a footprint, created memories of bears for me. It makes sense that there are stories and legends about the spirit of bears, because their spirits are very powerful. Better even that the spirit of bears, though, are real bears, living wild and natural in our magnificent and wild Alberta.

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