July 06, 2001 Features & Images » Feature Story

Feature 

There’s something about bears

Changing public perceptions of bears for the better is a key goal of the Whistler-Blackcomb tours

" Universally people are intrigued by bears. We grew up with them as cuddly toys or as images such as Smokey the Bear or as ferocious killers, so the first animal many children identify in the wild is a bear. It is such a misrepresented mammal so hopefully these tours go some way towards changing that." — Arthur DeJong, Whistler Blackcomb.

When most people think of animal tours or safaris, images of khaki-clad tourists bouncing on Jeeps across the dry African plains usually spring to mind.

However a safari of sorts has started up a lot closer to home, and tourists are signing up in droves. For $169, plus tax, anyone can join one of Whistler-Blackcomb’s twice daily bear viewing tours of the ski areas.

While it may seem odd to fork out that kind of cash to see a relatively common animal, one sometimes literally encountered in our own backyards, all sorts of people are doing it, according to Arthur DeJong, Whistler-Blackcomb’s mountain planning & environmental manager.

"Our guest list shows a wide variety of nationalities, especially the UK and Japanese, with Germans making up the majority, probably because the biggest mammal now left in the Alps is the marmot."

The ages of guests also covers the full spectrum, from very young to elderly, and during the first season of tours last year more than 500 guests signed up. DeJong hopes to double that figure this season and he says the current level of steady tour bookings indicates this goal is achievable.

"When people come to Whistler for the first time one of their top priorities is to see a bear, and our guest surveys show this," he says. "These tours let visitors see bears in their natural habitat, as well as learn something about these amazingly adaptive creatures."

Guiding the trips this year are DeJong, environmentalist Stephane Perron, forest ecologist Bob Brett, forester Don MacLaurin and black bear researcher Michael Allen. Together they provide impressive, in-depth knowledge of the flora and fauna that shapes Whistler’s coastal forest and glacial environment. However it is Allen who conducts 90 per cent of the bear tours and who knows Whistler’s bears like no other, having studied them for more than a decade – to the point of even sleeping out next to a mother and cub.

Bears on tour

The call came in to the Pique office. There was a space on Monday’s 6 p.m. tour. Would I care to come along? We met as a group at the bottom of the Wizard Chair on Blackcomb Mountain. With Allen was a couple from the United Kingdom – Maureen and Tony Wear – and a family from Arizona; Kit and Jerry Roth with their young daughter Courtney. Despite a diversity in ages and background, being animal lovers was the first thing they had in common. Maureen sponsors a bear in Idaho as part of a rehabilitation project, and her husband sponsors a tiger. Courtney, apparently has a passion for bears.

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