This is the story of one of the more surreal bear sightings I’ve ever had, my first sighting of Bear 126.
You see, two of my very good friends – Emmett and Sarah – recently moved to Canmore. And while through town on a national speaking tour, I spent a weekend at their place catching-up.
When it came up in conversation that they had never seen a grizzly bear in the wild, I was determined to rectify the situation. And as I had brought my camera along for this leg of the tour, I can assure you my offer was almost completely selfish. I needed a bear fix.
At 5am, I awoke my friends and took them for a guided drive (by which I mean I navigated and they drove) in nearby Banff National Park to look for grizzlies. Given that it was May, I figured our odds were good.
After a good start to the morning, filled with black bears, elk, bighorn sheep and a coyote, we turned the corner on the 1a highway and discovered a car stopped. With the road paralleling the train track, I hedged my bet and declared a grizzly was up ahead.
I was right. Bear 126 was going to town on spilled grain. My friends were over the moon.
Then it got weird.
Firstly, a ranger pulled up behind our vehicle. We were in our car and safely parked, so I was a bit confused as to why he got out, came over and knocked on our window.
“Excuse me,” he said. “If you’d like to get out of your vehicle, you’ll have a better view of the bear.”
I thought I was dreaming. A ranger was encouraging me to get out of the car to get a better view of the bear? I must have done something fantastic in a previous life.
So out we got – still a safe and respectable distance from the bruin – and watched.
I asked the ranger if he planned on scaring the bear off the tracks. (If you’re not aware of the spilled-grain, bear-mortality-by-train crisis that is ongoing in Banff, make yourself educated on the subject. And make your voice heard.)
No, he informed me. This bear had it down to a science: when the train came, 126 would simply jump over to the siding, wait for it to pass, and then return to eating.
Skeptical, I waited to see if he was right.
Soon a train was bearing (sorry) down on the bear, horn blasting.
The bear wasn’t moving.
I asked the ranger again if he was sure it would get out of the way. Again, he said assured me it would.
He was right! Sort of.
At the last second the bear looked up, suddenly realizing there was a train a couple of feet away and was clearly rattled.
Now, if you haven’t seen a bear run – as my friends Emmett and Sarah never had experienced – you appreciate very quickly that they can go from zero to sixty in the time it takes a person to snap their fingers.
And in the snap of the fingers, bear 126 was running at full speed. Off the tracks, past the siding and directly at the car.
Standing right next to the car, I pushed my friends inside, while snapping pictures without having my eye on the viewfinder.
But, in some ways, the astonished and slightly ash-faced ranger was right.
The bear may have been a bit more spooked than the ranger imagined 126 would be, but this bear – unlike far, far too many other Banff bears – knew when to get out of the way, even if out of the way meant getting about a kilometre away from the tracks.
The bear never slowed as 126 dashed across the road and into the nearby forest.
We could still see him though the trees. After our heart stopped racing, we watched the grizzly as the grizzly watched in the direction of the train track, trying to decide when the coast was clear to return to his eats.
About 20 minutes later, 126 ambled back to the tracks, this time looking far more confident, giving us the ‘What?-You-thought-I-was-scared?-YOU-were-scared!’ look as he passed by the car.
It was a truly memorable sighting and one Emmett and Sarah won’t likely forget. Nor the ranger.
I only hope bear 126 is as diligent with every train, but given the fate of too many bears on the tracks – not to mention the danger of running headlong across a highway – I worry this might have been my only sighting of this beautiful bear.