As a bear lover, I’ve spent far too much time researching, observing and photographing this animal than I care to admit. I frequently pass over beautiful vistas and speed up lovely hikes all so I can find yet another bear.
But when Canada’s August long weekend rolled around this past summer, we decided to take a bit of time-off and avoid the crowds in Banff National Park
Jill and I visited our good friends, Emmett and Sarah, who live in Canmore. The intent was a few quiet days away from people, surrounded by good company, good food and good creature comforts. (Laundry! A flush toilet! Water!)
And indeed our time with Emmett and Sarah was all of the above, but my restlessness dictated that I should still take a few hours to try and bank a couple of images.
So one evening, while Sarah kindly cooked up a taco fiesta, Emmett joined Jill and I for a quick drive into crowded Banff to see what we could find.
Honestly, the plan was landscape photography, for once, as I had no expectation of seeing animals during the long weekend. But I forgot who I was with.
Emmett (and Sarah), as readers might recall, helped produce one of the more entertaining bear sightings in recent memory the last time I was in town. And, while re-telling that story to Jill while on driving with Emmett, he noted that the real key to the sighting was blasting Chumbawamba’s Tubthumping. (Yes, Emmett is the only person in the western world with Chumbawamba on his iPod. Well, Emmett and my mom.)
So we played a little Tub Thumping again to see if we could re-live the experience. We did.
When we reached the top of Mount Norquay (a ski resort by winter and an animal haven by summer), I commented that there was nothing to see, so we might as well head home. But Jill begged to differ.
High up on the hill was a black bear sow with two cubs of the year.
But Jill, of course, wasn’t satisfied with this spot and found us another black bear sow and cubs of the year on the same ski hill.
Then it got interesting.
The two sows started moving toward one another. The black sow noticed the cinnamon sow and got a little nervous. One of her cubs darted for the tree line, never to be seen again.
The cinnamon sow finally smelled the black sow and immediately bluff charged the other bear family.
But while it started as a family bluff charge, one of the cinnamon’s cubs also got scared and took off for the tree line on the other side of the ski hill.
At some point, while trying to chase off the black sow, the cinnamon realized it probably wasn’t a great idea to bring her offspring to a bear fight.
Immediately, the chase stopped and the cinnamon sow turned to her cub in what appeared to be a stern warning to flee.
She seemed about to return to the chase when the cinnamon realized she was only lecturing one cub. Where had the other gone? While she looked, her cub decided not to heed the warning and resumed the chance on its own.
Now stop for a moment and picture this: a cub – maybe, maybe 25 pounds – is leading the chase to scare off a 250 pound black bear sow and her cub.
And it worked.
The black bear sow and her remaining cub started to flee the hill again.
But the black sow’s cub had an epiphany: why are we running from a cub? Better yet, if a cub can chase off my mom, why can’t I chase away the cinnamon sow?
Sound reasoning it wasn’t.
Quickly, the cinnamon sow gave up looking for her missing cub, figuring (accurately) that it was safe, while realizing her other cub was biting off far more than it could chew. Better still, she looked up to find a tiny black ball of fur running at her!
She took off after her cub that was chasing the black sow – a sequence that somehow seemed to shock the black cub.
So now the cinnamon sow is chasing the black’s cub chasing the cinnamon’s cub chasing the black sow.
Are you with me still? Because it is about to get weirder.
The black sow suddenly realizes she’s running away from a cub (a cub!) – and, more importantly, her cub is being chased by the cinnamon sow.
She stops. She turns. And like any good mother, starts charging at the cinnamon.
Of course, all the cinnamon’s cub sees is a huge bear suddenly unafraid and, forgive the pun, bearing down on it.
Any courage the cub has evaporates.
The black sow, being chased by the cinnamon cub, is now chasing the cinnamon sow, who is chasing the black cub, chasing the cinnamon cub, who thinks it’s being chased by the black sow and gives the appearance to the black cub that it is now being chased by the cinnamon cub.
A true comedy of mix-ups that would make Shakespeare proud.
The two cubs find themselves suddenly on the sidelines of the brouhaha, looking at one another and questioning whether they should start playing, start running for their lives, or get back into the thick of the bear fight.
The sows, meanwhile, find themselves in some kind of mexican bear stand-off and engage in a I can-stand-taller-and-make-loud-noises-more-than-you-can before they each realize that, well, their cubs are intermingling, which is just no good at all.
Both sows rush to retrieve their respective offspring and separate young hate or young love (you decide) before it got out of hand.
And as quickly as the great Banff Bear Throwdown (TM) began, it was over. But it was a night none of us would soon forget.
The photo quality is awful – the action took place several hundred yards away from where we were standing and about halfway up the ski hill – but it gives you a sense of the surreal event we had the pleasure of watching.