The Spine of the Continent is a landscape conservation initiative named for the entire Rocky Mountain expanse from the Yukon down through Mexico. Grizzly bears are a key species in this area.
I’m sticking close to Rob Watt for several reasons. For one, he’s a great storyteller, and I don’t want to miss a word. Watt has been a ranger for Parks Canada for more than three decades; he’s also an author who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the area we are traversing, which is in the Belly River Valley of Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada. It’s a chilly September morning with nature’s glories in high relief—the burbling onwardness of the river itself, a curious mink skittering around on the other side of it. Gesturing up and over to our left, Watt says, “There’s where Albany Featherstonhaugh set up Great Britain’s astronomical station,” in 1874. Featherstonhaugh was measuring latitude by the guidance of Polaris, the north star, in the days before GPS, before satellites, on behalf of the British Empire. American surveyors set up their own astronomical station nearby, and the two nations thus here divided the landscape along the forty-ninth parallel after the Napoleonic wars. Watt points out more history, but my eyes are glued to signs of the present tense.
Every several feet he punctuates his narrative with the same single word: “grizzly.” Watt points out overturned dead logs, shredded by bears in pursuit of grubs and insects, which they eat by the giant pawful. He elucidates huge indentations in the understory where bears, moose, or Volkswagens have evidently been at repose. Watt moves fast and it is a challenge to keep up with his practiced bushwhacking. He stops for a minute or so to touch blond, frizzy fibers entangled in a wired hair trap, used to get DNA samples from the bears with minimal interference in their daily doings. “Grizzly,” he says. “The kinked hair is why they’re called that.” I’m starting to feel like we’re trespassing on private property, in this case owned by Ursus arctos horribilis.