Valley of the Ice Bears

By Teresa Earle with photography by Fritz Mueller

It happens each autumn on a river in the deepest Yukon: a remarkable gathering of grizzlies. Now, a landmark conservation effort is protecting this ecological wonder – and bringing images of it to the world.

After leaving Dawson City and helicoptering across the frozen wilderness of the northern Yukon for two hours, the first hint of the strange ecology of Bear Cave Mountain is hard to miss. “There are spruce trees bigger than anywhere in the Yukon,” says guide Phil Timpany, stretching his arms out wide. “It’s like being in a hemlock forest.”

Near the base of a mountain, the spartan, snow-glazed landscape transitions to dense woods. A steaming river slices through the forest. It’s called the Fishing Branch, and in October, just shy of the Arctic Circle, it flows free, through a wilderness otherwise locked in ice. The chilly landscape is still. Then, three fat grizzly bears lumber out of the forest and splash into the river. Their winter pelts are thick with frost, and blood is caked on their lips. The chum are spawning, and it’s dinnertime on the Fishing Branch.

What, exactly, explains the curious phenomena along the Fishing Branch? Why do grizzlies converge so dependably at Bear Cave Mountain each autumn? Why have a First Nation and the Yukon government joined hands to protect this place, and why are well-heeled visitors now travelling here?

According to Timpany – a Whitehorse-based bear expert, guide and filmmaker who’s been visiting the area since 1991 – the answer is simple: the Fishing Branch is no ordinary river. Thermal springs percolate from the limestone karst beneath the mountain, warming the nearby river and keeping it flowing year round. Moreover, the porous karst makes for remarkable water, filtering and oxygenating the river’s flow.

Under such conditions, salmon eggs thrive – and thus, so does the whole food chain. “A lot of highly productive salmon areas are associated with karst,” Timpany explains. “When I see bears, wolves and wolverines [eating dead salmon] here in mid-winter, it all relates to water quality — it’s what makes this little biological piece of work happen.”

This “little biological piece of work” leads to a pretty big spectacle. Against a backdrop of worn mountains, far from the nearest road, up to 50 grizzly bears visit each fall, strolling up and down the snowy riverbanks, eyes following the chum salmon that swim here from the Bering Sea to spawn. Winter closes in by mid-October, and if the conditions are right, the massing grizzlies are transformed into “ice bears.” In the freezing air they become coated with frozen dreadlocks, which tinkle like chandeliers as they patrol the river.

By late October, the remarkable event is over, the bears making their way upslope from the river to den in caves on the craggy flanks of Bear Cave Mountain. Last fall, the Yukon’s Fritz Mueller became one of the first photographers to visit the Fishing Branch and document the ice bears first-hand. He was impressed. “It’s minus-20, there’s open water, and these frosty grizzlies loom out of the ice fog,” he says. “It’s an incredible place.”

The Vuntut Gwitchin would agree. Appropriately, to them, the Fishing Branch is Ni’iinlii njik: where salmon spawn. The First Nations people of northern Yukon, the Vuntut view this place as sacred. To protect the river and the animals and plants that depend on it, the Vuntut worked with the territorial government to establish Fishing Branch Ni’iinlii Njik Territorial Park in 1999. At 6,500 square kilometres it’s the biggest territorial park in the Yukon.

“It’s the first time in Canada, if not North America, where a First Nation has made a significant contribution to conservation by including its own [privately held] lands,” says Yukon Parks director Erik Val. The ecological core of the park consists of two parts. Yukon Parks manages an ecological reserve on the west side of the Fishing Branch River, while the Vuntut retain settlement lands surrounding Bear Cave Mountain on the east side.

“Both sides are managed under the umbrella of a collaboratively developed management plan,” Val says. “In my view this goes beyond the notion of co-management. There’s a recognition that this is being done at a government-to-government level, which makes it different.”

Until recently, though, few people even in the Yukon were familiar with Fishing Branch Park. That began to change when the Vuntut Development Corporation partnered with Timpany to develop an exclusive tourist operation on the river. Last year they launched Bear Cave Mountain Eco-Adventures. < /p>

Timpany and the Vuntut are counting on the unusual natural conditions of the Fishing Branch to lure bear enthusiasts willing to fork over $9,500 to spend a week watching grizzlies congregate on the river. No more than four guests and one guide are allowed at the modest riverside camp at one time. They come during September and October for the six-week window when the bears fish on the river.

Of course, you don’t have to come all the way to the Yukon to see grizzlies chasing salmon in a river. It’s a scene that plays out throughout coastal Alaska and British Columbia at numerous commercial bear-viewing operations. But according to tourism promoters and park officials, Bear Cave Mountain is different.

“This is an inland bear-viewing operation at the Arctic Circle,” notes Val. “We are by far the most restrictive [viewing place]. Its remoteness has given us an effective means to manage access, which is in real contrast to other bear-viewing operations, many of which started as privately owned fishing operations.” 

Stories are Phil Timpany’s specialty, and though he’s a noted bear expert with a depth of knowledge about ursine behaviour, he’s quick to redirect attention to what he considers the essential stories of Bear Cave Mountain: the ecological, cultural and conservation significance of a place where bears and salmon meet in the Far North. Though he’s spent a career racking up bear encounters, he downplays the tales people tell about grizzlies.

“I remember feeling those first-time rushes from being close to bears. But I got to know this experience over a very long period of time, and now when I go in with people [who are seeing bears up close for the first time], they’re not feeling what I’m feeling,” he says. Instead, he says, he’s thinking about the bears as individuals he’s come to know over many years, wondering about their families or their relationships with other bears.

“The bears have such varied personalities, but all bears have the same nature,” maintains Timpany. “They’re very forgiving and very passive. They’re intelligent and tolerant—they’re really not interested in getting into trouble with you. They determine the distance. That’s why I believe the risk is very slight with our commercial enterprise.”

“Phil is very knowledgeable, and he’s careful and respectful of the bears,” says Mueller, praising Timpany’s guiding skills. “The bears are used to seeing people at certain sites along the river. So even when the bears come really close, they just ignore you and go about their business looking for fish.”

“I’d love to go back,” adds Mueller, still awed at being so close to sows and cubs. “It’s not every day you get to have a bear cub nosing around near you while its mother chows on salmon over by the river. There’s a magic at Bear Cave Mountain.”

Published in UpHere magazine, September 2008.