While the grizzlies sleep soundly in a warm den their world becomes a winter wonderland covered with two or more meters of snow. The estuary and ten kilometers of the Khutzeymateen River freeze solid for the winter. Meter thick ice at the mouth of the river, secures the grizzlies from all dangers and turns the Khutzeymateen into a natural fortress. During winter the Khutzeymateen River Valley is a cold hostile place with barely six hours of light a day. Snow storms and Gale force winds are frequent visitors to this land during the winter months. It is a time when darkness of night can get no darker, where silence is deafening, and when peace comes it can not be more peaceful. Nature is neutral here and respects neither rank nor cast, it is
truly a place where all are equal , the healthiest survive, and the grizzly sleeps peacefully.
As the sun grows higher in the April sky, the air warms and snow and ice melt. The birds return, while sedge grass sends up tender shoots, and once again the grizzlies will emerge from their dens. Single subadults are first to greet the spring. Single adults wander out in mid May. Then in late May or early June the mothers and cubs sleepily emerge from their slumber.
When the mother and cubs emerge the third spring it will be the “two year olds” last few days with their mother. Within the first two weeks she will begin to distance herself from the cubs. Then it is time for weaning.
Her first attempt will be to run away from them when they are not looking. If this does not work she will chase them away. If they persist in staying the female will become aggressive toward the cubs. Weaning time has come and one way or another the female will leave the cubs permanently. Khutzeymateen female grizzlies have turned on cubs refusing to leave, and have chased them off with such ferocity that it seems to put the fear of death into them as they run for their lives.
After this upsetting experience the cubs may bawl like lost sheep for a week or two, not eating, and just pining for their mother. This is a very traumatic time in a young grizzly bears life. The Most important thing in their life, their mother, has turned suddenly and unexpectedly against them and sent them off. After weaning, siblings will generally stay together for the remainder of this difficult season. Throughout the summer and fall they will rarely part and tend to den up together in the fall. If there are no other surviving siblings, weaned cubs of the same age will gang together. Gangs of three or more cubs, all from different mothers, will stay together for several years after weaning, finding security and comfort in numbers. Eventually they will slowly grow apart with age, maturity, and life experience.
For the rest of this summer the newly weaned cubs will learn to fend for themselves. They will be restricted to the peripheral feeding areas, largely because dominant males lay claim to the profuse feeding areas. The dominant males will kill the cubs in order to eliminate future contenders for their territorial rights. Always alert to the larger males the cubs will feed and jostle the summer away in a carefree manner. There will not be much individual character development in this first summer away from their mother, as basic survival will take priority. A few inexperienced or careless young grizzlies will ultimately be killed in accidents or by larger male grizzlies.
When the young bear emerges from its den the fourth spring it may not be in good physical condition. The amount of body fat gained over the previous summer will determine the young bears condition. Some young grizzlies just out of their dens will barely make it down to the inlet shore. They will collapse in their tracks and hardly move for the next few days except to eat a little sedge grass now and then. Inexperience may have sent them to their dens ill prepared for hibernation, some may even die in their dens if their body fat reserves run out before spring.
Many young grizzly bears perish at this stage and perhaps this is the reason some are not seen again after their third year.
If the bear survives, a week of eating will put them in good condition to face the challenges of summer. They will become quite perky and will soon meet up with their bear buddies from the last season. The group may stay together for four seasons. This is a very important social time for these young bears because they will begin to establish a social structure. Serious courting and mating are still a few years away. The group will go through the motions with each other, but to no avail. In a group of young bears there will be a dominant male. The others will follow his actions and his leadership. He will be the first to initiate actions such as wrestling matches.
When it is time to change territory the others will follow him. If the leader survives to maturity he will probable be destined to become a dominant male bear.
By now, the bears are approximately a hundred kilograms in weight. The males are always slightly larger in stature, a darker brown color, and have a larger back hump than the females.
The hump is solid muscle connected to their powerful front legs. It is necessary for digging and fighting.
The character traits of their parents, especially of the mother, will start to show through in the personalities of these young grizzlies, including tolerance levels around humans. In the Khutzeymateen the mothers reaction to humans is almost always adopted by the cub. Now a year after they have been weaned, the young bears are gaining more self confidence. Through their daily activities they are slowly gaining strength and wisdom in their environment. They are gradually progressing closer to adulthood. During this time the females will develop tolerant, passive traits while the males become more aggressive and intolerant.
At approximately six years of age the males are ready to mate although it may be some time before they successfully challenge the dominate males for the privilege of passing on their genes.
In the Khutzeymateen grizzly bear kingdom there is an order that persists and dictates mating habits. The largest, strongest male rules and he has his choice of mates. This ensures survival of the healthiest strongest bears. The valley is home to approximately sixty grizzlies out of which there are two dominant males. A dominant male will weigh between 500 – 600 kilograms.
These males are essentially king of their territory and will try to mate with as many females their stamina allows. Mating season is exhausting for the dominant males. They must find and mate the females in estrus while constantly chasing off other male contenders, some of which are formidable in size. Some will chase the young males many kilometers over rough terrain to the point of shear exhaustion themselves.
The mating process begins about mid May and continues until mid June. Eligible males and females will pair up and court for a week prior to actual mating. Occasionally two younger males will corral a single female on a grassy knoll for a week hoping to mate with her. Their hopes are dashed when a larger dominant male suddenly arrives on the scene and takes over the mating process just as she comes into heat.
The actual mating process is a drawn out affair with lots of wrestling and nibbling. When the pair finally join it takes at least twenty minutes before ejaculation occurs. The mating pair will copulate many times over a seven to ten day period. The same dominant male may be mating with several females in this same time frame. It is not uncommon for female grizzlies in estrus to travel great distances in short time spans looking for the male she wants to mate with.
Dominant male grizzlies are generally illusive creatures. We do not know a lot about their activities. During mating season they tend to let their guard down and show themselves more often while in passionate pursuit. They will frequent grassy knolls and estuaries looking for eligible females in their territory. Normally the males are very solitary creatures. Judging from the wounds and battle scars displayed on their bodies, horrendous fights with other males over territory take place. Male bears with grossly deformed faces, ears missing, and scars on their bodies, that would take hundreds of stitches to sew up in a human eyes, have been viewed in the Khutzeymateen.
A dominant male grizzly bear will stay in power until he is deposed of or dies, unusually the latter is about 25 years of age. The two dominant male grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen have reigned for at least 15 years. Both dominant males are of equal strength and weight. They divide
their territory in two, and between them, mate with most of the females. Dominant males are challenged continually by up and coming contenders. Once they grow old and weak they will lose dominant position, either by being killed or by being driven away. Usually a fierce battle with a young strong rival occurs and a new dominant male rules the territory. The privilege, of being a dominant male, secures the right to pass the strong genes on to offspring, which ensures survival of the fittest.
Toward the end of June, the frenzied mating season draws to a close. The dominant males will retreat to the back country and lead their solitary illusive lives. Mothers with cubs will relax and focus on their cubs now that the danger of the family being killed by a marauding male has
disappeared. The younger grizzlies will start reappearing to claim new territories and resume their relaxed, carefree, and playful mood. Female grizzlies will settle down and resume peaceful grazing on grassy knoll of the estuary. Perhaps they will be eating for two and so the life cycle
will continue. Life will resume as normal until once again the grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen retire for their long winter nap.
The years roll by timelessly in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary. Here in the temperate rain forest on the north coast of British Columbia time means nothing. Time is not created by nature, it is a manmade burden. To the thousand year old ancient magnificent trees of the “Cathedral Grove” forest in the Khutzeymateen time means nothing. They tower in silence, as the grizzly bears pass below. The passage of a year or a century is irrelevant, for this world is timeless. Seasons pass, elsewhere men and women are born, live full lives then die. Explorers discover new countries, nations rise and fall , wars rage high, but to this land it is meaningless. If those trees could talk, the stories and wisdom they would share, what lessons we could learn.
To the grizzlies time passes similarly. The years roll by in endless succession. For the bears there is a time to be born, to nurse, to play, and to eat; a time to flee, fight, or be killed; a time to be dominant and mate; and a time to grow old and die. Except for mans intrusion into this
timeless, beautiful, wild land on the north coast of British Columbia, nothing much would change, even as the centuries roll on.