Picnic time for Whistler's big black bears

In summer, the beasts come out to play on Canada's ski slopes. Janette Griffiths tracks them down
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The Independent Travel

When Michael Allen got married last summer on Whistler Mountain four bears appeared at the wedding. "They always show up where I am," shrugs Michael, a 38-year-old British Columbia native whose wide face and stocky build are reminiscent of the animal that has been his lifelong obsession. And no, those four bears did not pose for the wedding photo. "They just grazed close by."

These days Michael is known as the bear man in Whistler which, in addition to being the leading North American ski resort, is in the heart of black bear country. About 300 black bears live in the area. Between June and October Michael runs bear-viewing tours in the early mornings and at dusk. On this very hot summer evening in late July our group of five travellers joined him in a bumpy, dusty ride across the summer ski slopes to mid-mountain where the bears like to graze at twilight. A decade or so ago the local policy was to shoot bears that ventured too close to a village which was beginning to attract as many visitors to its summer activities as to its ski slopes. Bears are, of course, safely asleep in their dens in the winter. But in the summer everyone is out on the slopes. Two mountain bikers once came careering around a bend and crashed into a grazing black bear. Nobody was hurt but all parties were extremely surprised. The local authorities needed to find a way for the bikers and the bears to co-exist.

Nine years ago, Michael, who has felt an affinity with the creatures since the age of 12, came to Whistler after a request to study the resort's bears. Of his childhood he recalls: "The fascination outweighed the fear. I would go out and my mum would drag me back. Pretty soon she realised that I was probably safer out with the bears than hanging out at the local pool hall." Up here on the mountain, we've yet to see a bear. Michael is unconcerned. He passes the time by taking us to a bear den deep in the woods. It has been hollowed out of a tree trunk which surprises everyone in the group. We'd all imagined caves. "That's Yogi," says Michael.

Bears burrow into their dens in November, eating one last meal of wood chips, pebbles and bear hair that will plug them up and close down their digestive system for the seven-month hibernation. Some time in January during hibernation, a female bear will give birth to one or more babies the size of a banana.

As the evening cools, the bears start to appear. First we glimpse a year-old animal on the edge of the forest. Michael recognises a bear he has named Daisy, a shy and rarely seen mother with a lone cub. Soon the skittish Daisy has disappeared into the undergrowth. Back in the Jeep, Michael negotiates some vertiginous descents as he tells of seeing a yearling asleep on top of a ski station Coke machine and of another bear sprawled across a chair lift.

"Ah, there she is, there's Jeanie," he says suddenly as we stop near the top of an Olympic ski run and see a brownish black bear and her two cubs ambling across the slope. Michael has known Jeanie since he came to Whistler and named her after his Scottish grandmother. Jeanie has recently been fending off the attentions of Slim, a male bear who wants to mate with her. But a female with cubs is physically incapable of mating so Slim has twice attempted to kill her young. "He's very handsome - kind of the Brad Pitt of the males here - but very aggressive," says Michael. "He's not keen on me. He hit me on the back of the head with his paw recently so I hit him on the head with a log."

Tonight Jeanie is grazing peacefully with her cubs. Mothers with cubs are notoriously aggressive but not, it seems, if they know Michael. He murmurs softly to her as we follow her up the mountain track. She lets us get within 50 yards of her and her cubs then wanders off into the dark forest.

The Facts

Getting there

Returns from Heathrow to Vancouver start at £743 with United Airlines (0845 844 4777; www.unitedairlines.co.uk) or £654 with Air Canada (0870-524 7226 www.aircanada.ca). Contact Greyhound (001 800 6611 8747; www.greyhound.ca) for coach transfers to Whistler.

Being there

Fairmont Chateau (001-800 441 1414; www.fairmont.com) offers a 'Wild For Bears' package, including one night's b&b and a black-bear tour for CAD$389 (£172) per person.

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