The remarkable story of the grizzly bear and the goats
August waned. Late summer rolled through the high alpine in the Selkirk Mountain Range in British Columbia, Canada.
Durrand Glacier Chalet
It had been a summer marked by heat and forest fires, too hot for blueberries in the lowland. In the high alpine, the meadows were crowned with a bumper crop of berries.
At 1,946 metres altitude, where the Durrand Glacier Chalet sits, the weather began to change. Blustery rain and snow for days. The wildflowers and blueberries drooped on their branches weighted by the water-laden snow.
As guests of the Chalet we, about 18 hikers, continued to hike in spite of inclement weather.
On the first day on the trail, we spotted the bear as he dove into the forest when our hiking group approached. The two-way radios crackled as everyone wandering through the hills was alerted. The grizzlies were attracted to the blueberries still thriving in the alpine after a poor season in the valley.
In the following days hikers shared photos of massive grizzly paw outlines freshly melted into the snow on various trails – and we discovered that he’d punctured a water line in Christiana Lake.
But a sight of him continued to elude us. Our hope was that the bear would quickly pass through our hiking territory to other berry-full fertile, marmot-infested meadows far away.
One evening the ever-observant, hike-seasoned Douglas Maclean spotted the bear foraging on the wooded hillside in the northern Durrand Bowl below the chalet. Guests gathered on the patio to observe the silver-haired grizzly. Finally, we could see the beast in our midst.
Eagle-eye Douglas Maclean
As we hiked in the following days we scoured the valleys and meadows for signs of bear, but found only scat and paw prints.
Looking for signs of bear activity
Enter the goats
One day as we wandered down the scenic Ledges trail toward the chalet, the group forerunners, including Douglas, spotted a goat and her kid – a yearling – sunning on a grassy knoll. Eagle-eye Douglas noted that the goat had broken its hind leg. We became concerned, knowing that a grizzly had been in the valley and would no doubt be stalking the injured goat.
This is Douglas Maclean’s photo of the goats as he first saw them
About 60 goats find refuge in the 90-square-kilometer lease that comprises the Beglingers’ terrain. Many of the goats are familiar to the family through their markings and familial relations. Several of them have names bestowed upon them by the family.
Douglas announced that he would go back to the south end of Chalet Knoll (just below where he’d seen the goats) with binoculars, to check if the bear was stalking them. I followed with a monocular.
We found the mother and kid goat sunning on a grassy ledge low on the cliff below the Ledges trail – about 500 metres from us. The mother spooned the kid; they hardly moved.
The scene where it all happened. First sighting below. The goats barely visible white spots on the cliff band to the left.
Wilderness drama unfolds
We switched focus and scoured the valley for signs of the bear.
Before long, the grizzly appeared. We spotted him in a wooded lowland about 300 metres below us and about an equidistant to the sunning goats. We figured the silver-bodied male, with a russet hump and black colouring around his snout and rear was three or four years old. We followed him intently – Doug with binoculars, me with a monocular.
Stock image of grizzly – not ours.
We watched him forage for blueberries, then dig around and pick up a marmot. He swang it violently in his mouth to break its neck. Then he disappeared behind a copse of fir.
We pretended to hope that the bear would be sated by the marmot and wouldn’t bother the goats. But we knew we were being hopelessly naïve to invest emotionally in this wilderness reality show.
We knew how it would end.
And sure enough. Ominously, after gamboling about in the wooded lowland, the bear began to saunter to the steep grassy slopes below where the goats were in repose.
Mom and kid stood up and intently peered over the ledge as the bear moved toward them. They didn’t let him leave their sight.
Durrand Glacier goat, but not the same one we were watching
We saw the grizzly stand up on its hind legs, sniff the air and pinpoint the location of the wounded goat mom and her kid – as accurate as any GPS. Then he loped off to the south where a long stand of fir trees grew up the mountain side. His predatory brain was at work.
“He’s going to try to get them from above,” warned Douglas.
Intellectually, we know nature chooses the strong over the weak. But on an emotional or spiritual plane, our inborn compassion for the underdog caused us fear the worst for the vulnerable goats.
We were helpless to save them but compelled to watch the drama unfold.
The goats knew they were in trouble. Instinct kicked in. They moved off their grassy ledge to a safer spot deeper into the middle of cliff – on a narrow rocky ledge surrounded by hard edges.
Durrand Glacier goat, but not the one we were watching
My empathy kicked in at the thought of her moving about with a broken leg. I felt an involuntary cringe.
They continued to look keenly in the direction the bear had disappeared.
“We know how it’s going to go down,” Doug said. “It’s just a matter of when.”
That ‘when’ loomed large as we continued to wait, binoculars and monocular trained. Time passed and still no action from the bear or the goats. The scene was eerily suspended.
Reluctantly, Douglas and I started up the trail back to the chalet. We couldn’t stop peering over our shoulders to the ledge where the goats waited.
This is a view of Marmot Lake and behind that, Chalet knoll from which we observed.
It’s not over till it’s over
All of a sudden Douglas shouted.
“He’s there! He’s above them! He’s going to attack!”
Indeed the bear was lunging down the rocky ledge. He was as graceful and strong as a big-boned ballerina – moving with amazing agility that belied his bulk. A few well placed bounds and he was just below the goats’ fortress ledge, ready to confront and kill. We braced for the worst.
The goats were out of killing reach. Our grizzly moved quickly, lunging over the rocks to find another direction from which to attack. He appeared just above the goats’ ledge and moved down the ledge before curling around a sharp edge. He moved in closer.
We watched as he approached. So did the goats, moving restlessly on the narrow ledge.
The confrontation took place. Bear and goats came face to face.
“That’s it!” Douglas shouted.
He put his binoculars down not wanting to witness what was unfolding on the cliff band. I continued to watch through my monocular; but I couldn’t see the gruesome scene because trees obstructed my view.
We imagined the worst.
Suddenly, a goat appeared to the north and below where the attack was occurring.
“The kid escaped!” Douglas continued his excited play-by-play commentary.
“No! It’s the Mama. I can tell by her markings!” he shouted.
Mama goat had escaped. Broken leg and all, she fled the murderous scene, running across the steep slopes, disappearing through the wooded col that descends to the Durrand Bowl.
Durrand Glacier goat, but not the one we were watching
“Oh god,” Douglas moaned. “The poor kid is gone. The bear got him.”
Binoculars and monocular were trained on the cliff. This is what we saw.
Above the scene of the confrontation, nimbly maneuvering up through the rocks, was the kid.
We looked at each other with disbelief. The goats must have been so well protected on their ledge that the mighty and hungry predator couldn’t get to them. Defying all odds, they got away.
But not so quick.
The grizzly was not about to easily abandon this highly anticipated goat feast. In a few bounds, he was at the bottom of the cliff band, and then galloping along the meadow in pursuit of Mama goat.
“Mama’s gone,” Douglas muttered darkly, looking through his binoculars at the disappearing bear.
We accepted her certain death as a foregone conclusion and turned our attention to the fleeing kid. We kept the lucky escapee in our sights. He had made his way to top of the cliff band to the meadow that ran along the Ledges trail. He was fleeing upward.
Our attention was pulled again to the steep slopes below the Ledges as the bear charged back through the trees heading upward.
“He didn’t get the mom,” I ventured, surprised at this turn of events. Douglas was equally taken aback.
“I wonder where she went,” he mused.
Our attention followed the grizzly as he swiftly scrambled up the Ledges to the area where the kid had appeared on the meadow.
“Oh no,” I groaned. “He’s going to get the kid’s scent.” We predicted the tender kid’s imminent demise. Unfortunate after such a valiant effort.
Once again we were too quick to write the ending.
As the bear was trying to find the trail, we witnessed the kid’s white butt disappear over the highest point of the meadow. He would soon be long gone. At the same time, the bear seemed to lose the scent and became distracted, foraging for blueberries and hunting for marmots, moving lower in the meadow.
We watched, and when we were sure that the bear was not an immediate threat to the goats, we headed back to the chalet to tell our remarkable story.
Douglas tells the story to a rapt audience
Shortly after we arrived
Around 5 pm, a hiker came back with an update. He’d seen the wounded mother goat near Durrand Bowl Creek North, tucked under a sunny ledge and favouring her wounded leg. No kid to be seen.
That evening at dinner
We all gathered at the windows and on the veranda on the opposite side of the chalet to watch as our neighbourhood grizzly ambled through Goat Peak Slopes, moving north. We were relieved that he was moving away from the wounded goat and the lost kid.
The next morning
We were ready to leave back to lowlands, our homes and lives. We packed, had a leisurely breakfast and waited for the helicopter.
Suddenly, Chef Englebert returned from an abbreviated walk to Marmot Lake, breathless. Eyes wide, he told us how the grizzly appeared not 10 metres in front of him, not far from where Douglas and I had observed him and the goats. When the bear saw Englebert, he stood up on his hind legs to intimidate him – successfully. Englebert backed up very slowly until the bear was out of sight. Then he “ran like hell” back to the chalet.
We spotted the grizzly once again from the west-facing patio in the northern Durrand Bowl, where Douglas had first seen him. He ambled through the wooded valley, just north of the creek where the mother goat was last seen.
Did the mother goat survive another bear attack? Was the kid adopted by another goat family? Could he survive as an orphan? Did the bear leave without killing either of them? Did mom and kid reunite?
It seems particularly unlikely that the mother would survive. But who are we to say? We witnessed how the doomed goats escaped certain death at the hands of the grizzly, a vastly more powerful creature and a predator.
We cannot know their fate. Nature is ultimately unpredictable.