Monday, October 31, 2016

It takes a village to raise a bear

I had thought thirty six bears would make a lot of noise. But except for the odd soft moan the cubs are pretty quiet. A few of them sit in trees, a couple more are chasing each other around like kids in a game of tag, and one sits comfortably propped up against the chain link fence that separates these orphaned bear cubs from freedom. If it weren’t for the fence and the generosity of so many people and businesses, chances of survival would be very slim for these bears and the hundreds of animals who have already been rehabilitated and released back into the wild by Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter in Smithers, B.C.
My head is spinning with new impressions and information: how to clean the quarantine cages, where to put the feed buckets after cleaning them, what animals get how much of which food. “To cut up a deer bucket” is volunteer speak for chopping fruit and veggies for the deer fawns who also get a second chance here. One of the fawns currently in care owes her life to a farmer who delivered her by C-section when he came across a highly pregnant doe who had been struck by a motor vehicle – a story that went through the media this summer.

 I have just joined the team at NLWS and am watching my fellow volunteers calmly feed the bears who are only now starting to make a bit more noise. Apples, squash, carrots, meat and fish rain out of buckets and tote boxes, are spread around the enclosure so even the shiest of bears get their share. Fascinated, I notice that the chubby cubs show no interest in getting close to the bear keepers. They get out of the volunteers’ way like the wild animals they are and gorge themselves on the food donated by kind-hearted individuals and business leaders.

While the cubs feed in one part of the enclosure, the volunteers begin cleaning the other part with Zen-like concentration and calm. Poop gets scooped into buckets, the water trough drained and cleaned. I’m taking mental notes, adding more information to my already stuffed head because I will soon be helping with these chores. To minimize the number of people the bears are exposed to during their stay and thereby avoid habituating the animals, only volunteers who commit for at least six months are allowed to look after the cubs. This also helps to monitor the health of the bears because the caretakers follow the development of their furry charges over months and can notice any changes.

Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter, a registered charity that operates without government funding, has 26 years of experience in wildlife rehabilitation and an excellent track record with bears in particular. So excellent, in fact, that it is the only facility worldwide licensed to take in and release grizzly cubs back into the wild. All the bears are released with ear tags and lip tattoos, some with radio collars. In accordance with regulations they are released in the areas they have originally come from. 

But that won’t be until next summer, the time when these cubs would naturally leave their mothers. Sitting on his haunches and delicately balancing an apple on the back of his front paw the brown cub looks over at the other thirty five bears, the fence that was built thanks to donations, and then back at his apple. He turns it around for another bite. To me the chain link fence that keeps these animals safe until they can be released is starting to look like a symbol of the chain of people and businesses it takes to give orphaned wildlife a second chance.         

Sunday, October 16, 2016

I have arrived

... and have been crazy busy helping to look after 36 black bear cubs, three fawns, a cougar and lynx at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter, while finishing up my translation of Robert McCammons "Speaks the Nightbird" in my spare time and writing a couple of newspaper columns.

The train trip from Prince Rupert to Smithers was beautiful, though a bit funny. The train schedule on the seats a poor-quality photocopy, somewhat out of synch with the more high-end glass-domed observation car in the back.

VIA Rail has obviously seen better times, but the landscape is stunning all the same:
I was picked up at the train station and whisked away to the wildlife shelter and its incredibly welcoming crew of fellow volunteers and the extended family who runs it.
I came here to help look after orphaned wildlife and learn more about animals, but I can already see that I will come away from this with more experiences than I ever anticipated.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Taking the Alaska ferry

My home disappears into a salmon-coloured dawn. Ahead of me are couple of days in the closest village, a day in the Yukon metropolis of Whitehorse, two days in Skagway, Alaska (all this with my partner) – and then a few more days by ferry and train to Smithers. It’s a slow-motion dive into civilization, a gradual dipping of toes into being constantly surrounded by numerous people every day. Our two months travelling through Alaska, plus my Europe visit this summer have already worn the worst crusty hermit edges off, and I don’t feel exhausted.

Skagway is abuzz with the last cruise ship of the year and a bewildering number of jewellery stores – I haven’t been in Skagway in over a decade and can’t remember all these diamonds and trinket stores from before. Maybe I just didn’t notice them? The town has its roots in fleecing the would-be miners of the gold rush and is now continuing that tradition with cruise ship tourists.

We spend our last day together hiking on the lower part of the Chilkoot Trail and relaxing at long last. I didn’t even have time to get all excited about my ferry trip!
The next morning, my Sweetie, our dog and Skagway recede into the dawn (notice the pattern?) as the ferry pulls away from the dock.

The ferry is half empty and there’s not much competition for the deck chairs in the solarium. The solarium is the best place to sleep and hang out – it’s sheltered from the elements and infrared heaters keep it warmish at night.

There’s really no need to book a cabin for the trip. Free showers are available to everybody, and even food costs can be kept to a minimum thanks to the free hot water and microwave in the cafeteria.
Mountains and glaciers span the western and eastern horizons (the ferry weaves its way through the maze of southeast Alaska’s islands).

Most of the passengers who got on in Skagway and Haines get off in Juneau.

After a few hours in port and replenishing the passenger numbers, we head into the night and gathering wind.

I’ve taken this trip once before, half a lifetime ago, but have no memories of Petersburg – maybe at the time the ferry got into port at night? It looks like a stunning place to live:

The buoys marking the channel into the harbour are wildly popular with sea lions who play musical chairs as the ferry drives by: whoever loses their nerve and jumps off the buoy is prevented from getting back on by his bellowing comrades.

And so the days unfold, peeling back layer upon layer of densely wooded islands and mountain ranges. The sea changes colour from dark blue to grey as clouds move in. Wind whistles forlorn in the rigging of the dinghies, and the ferry vibrates beneath my feet. Somewhere to the south the train tracks start that will lead me back into Canada and to the orphaned bears.