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The Truth About Bears: The Mystery

Grizzlies vanished from North Cascades National Park five decades ago. Or did they? Our scout joins the search for Washington's elusive mountain ghosts. By Ted Alvarez
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Happy coincidence: Prime grizzly habitat doubles as Valhalla for backpackers. We cross teal rivers, wind around 200-foot-high firs, and traverse countless meadows bloodied with turning blueberry. At least, I think they’re blueberries.

“It’s all Vaccinium,” explains Kristen Richardson, a 29-year-old grad student. She’s referring to the umbrella genus for the seven species of berry that form the staple of any Cascade bear’s diet. With a giant smile, ruddy cheeks, and a big braying laugh, the blonde defies my expectations of a wildlife scientist by swearing like an off-duty Marine and sneaking off for regular smoke breaks.

In fact, this entire crew is more Indiana Jones than Nutty Professor. Compact and wiry, Aja Woodrow, 34, acts as our advance scout, pole vaulting like a mountain goat over boulders and singing “Call Me Maybe” as he bounces up the slope. An ornithologist by training, he honed his superhuman ability to identify bird calls on extended research trips in Costa Rica, China, and Ecuador.

Gaines, 51, is tall and lean, with kind blue eyes and an eagle nose. Behind a casual “aw, shucks” bearing lies expedition experience ripped from a Hemingway travelogue. While gathered around the Jetboil, his teammates prod him into talking about the time he won a grant for a 1994 journey to be the first to penetrate Pakistan’s northern Karakoram Range on skis in search of rare carnivores. He quietly relays a tale filled with 19,000-foot passes, avalanche near-misses, and snow leopards wandering into camp—all with zero pretension, the way your bro might talk about a weekend hut trip: “It was pretty neat.”
Together, my campmates serve as a walking, talking, very entertaining field guide. They make epic biodiversity leap to life: Formerly drab songbirds like the pine siskin become continent-crossing heroes; we marvel at long-lived frog tadpoles that scatter in clear pools. “They’ll spend years in the water before they metamorphose,” says Woodrow.

I soak it all in—when I can keep up. I’ve spent the majority of my adult life logging big trail miles, but the eggheads leave me in the dust. We motor up a faint brown ribbon, a steep, overgrown suggestion of a path, and I’m on afterburners just to keep Gaines and his giraffe strides from disappearing behind the next switchback. None of this should surprise me: All summer the survey crew spends the workweek racking up mileage and elevation gains and losses that would shame the burliest mountain guide. Plus, they lack the advantages of trails or even established routes. They’re hardened by going where the animals go, whether it’s a brush-choked drainage or a hanging valley walled off on three sides by cliffs and scree.

Once out here, you don’t really find the bears; they find you. A month ago, the team deployed six corrals in the Easy Ridge “hex”—a 25,000-acre designation meant to roughly approximate a female grizzly bear’s home range. Each room-size corral consists of a ring of barbed wire tied to trees at about bear-chest height, with a motion-triggered camera strategically placed to capture the whole zone. In the middle lies the bait pile: a mound of branches, bark, and sticks seasoned liberally with a noxious slurry bears find irresistible. It’s made from fish parts, cow blood, and secret ingredients (like fruit and licorice), all left to ferment over the winter in a 55-gallon drum. “It’s like cologne to bears,” says Woodrow. “On camera, we catch them really rolling around in it.” When bruins lumber into the zone, they have to step over or shimmy under the wire, where the barbs yank out a tuft of hair for future DNA testing.

The corrals attract more than bears: Each season, photos document wolves, pine martens, lynx, weasels, cougars, and even wolverines dropping in for a sniff. Viewed in quick succession, it looks like a stinky wildlife kegger.

This year’s conditions boost our hopes of getting lucky on this last-ditch outing. In late fall, bears desperate to build up fat reserves enter an all-out gorgefest known as hyperphagia. During this phase, an adult grizzly requires up to 30,000 calories a day—equivalent to 52 Big Macs, or 71,428 berries. But a long, dry summer and fall busted the berry crop, so bears will range farther and wider to fill up—hopefully right into the team’s odiferous traps.

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