Remember that nursery rhyme Teddy Bears’ Picnic from when you were a kid? Remember that first line that sung, “If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise?”
It made sense, right? After all, bears – yes, even teddy bears apparently – live in the forest.
Unless you’re in Manitoba.
Where bears (the real ones, not the plush variety) live in wheat fields.
Well, okay, they don’t live in wheat fields per se, but they do hangout in them. Eat, nap, stretch, run, stand.
And stand. And stand.
On our way home to Toronto last summer from the wild’s of the Rockies, we made a stop over, as we do every year, in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park.
It’s a venerable prairie oasis, a large island of wilderness in the midst of wheat fields. And the park is home to a surprisingly diverse and large, if skittish, wildlife population, including black bears.
In fact, Riding Mountain’s black bears are amongst some of the biggest in the world. One black bear killed by a vehicle outside of the park was recorded at weighing slightly under the world record, but as it was an old bear, is believed to have weighed more than the 902 lbs record in its prime.
How do they get so big? Well, not being gluten-free must help. Let me explain.
Riding Mountain, in reality, is less oasis and more of an island. The distinction between wheat fields and forest is so stark that you can clearly see the park border from space. In recent years, organizations like the Nature Conservancy of Canada have tried to purchase private property to create corridors to the north in order to re-connect animal populations to other natural spaces.
But south of the park, it’s a human settlement free-for-all.
As Jill and I were driving in, we cut along Highway 45 to the south of the park by more than 30 kilometres. As we drove through the 10,978th wheat field of the day, we were enjoying the fading light, blasting our music and counting the seconds until we could set up camp.
And then we saw an animal on the road.
For whatever reason, Jill yelled: bear!
She’s lost it, I think.
I know we were already starting to go through bear withdrawal and had become accustomed to spotting my favourite animal at a decent clip over the course of the summer. But no matter how close we were to Riding Mountain, there is just no way we’d see a bear in the middle of a wheat field.
What I was sure had to be a black lab was nothing other than a large, beautiful black bear.
Sauntering slowly across the lightly-used highway, I had to do a double take before I started my usual pattern of swearing and lunging for my camera, buried deep beneath camping gear in the back seat.
All the while, Jill’s jumping up and down on her seat like a two-year old on a candy high – and it hasn’t yet occurred to either of us that we should turn off the music. Thankfully the bear has good taste in music and didn’t mind a little War on Drugs serenading his evening walk.
The bear was, however, constantly smelling, usually by standing up and ‘jawing’ at the wind. I suppose if you decide to make a habit of hanging out in an area this far outside of the forest cover, you have to be aware of your surroundings at all times.
We pulled over and finally started acting like the professional bear watchers/photographers we are, observing the bear make his way in and out of the field
I suppose this is obvious to anyone who has spent time in around wheat: It grows tall! Taller than a bear, at least.
When he would walk into the wheat, we’d lose him completely. But as he stood every minute or so, we had some sense of where he was.
Great for photography (if you can excuse the low light-induced grainy images) and, I suppose, great for the bear. (Wouldn’t want to surprise a farmer harvesting that wheat, would you now buddy? Me thinks you’d give a man a heart attack, and yourself a gunshot wound.)
I also am guessing that seeing a black bear in a wheat field isn’t the most uncommon sight in Manitoba, especially when you think how far bears will travel and how good wheat can taste (even more especially if it’s creating a pizza crust or has been fermented to create an ice cold beverage, but I digress).
But it was a jarring sight to us. And beautiful.
The big bruin with the stunning, large white patch on his chest was amongst the healthiest looking black bears I have ever seen and he gave us many views (confirming he was, indeed, a male) in order to capture the surreal seen.
Eventually, realizing that all bears must, at some point, return to the forest, he dashed across the highway in the direction of Riding Mountain.
I don’t think we’ll ever look at wheat fields the same way. Indeed, who knew we would be sure of big (400 pound big) surprise when we went through a wheat field that day last August.
Purchase this print of prairie bear: