Imagine arriving at one of the last places on Earth, where, as Bertie Gregory puts it, “wild land meets wild ocean.” It would take two planes, multiple car rides, and a ferry just to begin the journey. There is no access to the Internet and no phone signal.
Encompassing a wide array of ecosystems and marked by ancient trees and weathered mountains, the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, hosted National Geographic young explorer Bertie Gregory for three months. He was accompanied by fellow young explorer and photographer Becca Skinner for a portion of the journey. Their mission: to track down the illusive coastal wolf.
“About 50 feet into the forest, it’s kind of like going into a little fairy land. There’s moss, and lichen, and huge ancient trees all around. Then there’s a little clearing; that’s where our tent is,” Gregory recalls. “If that wasn’t enough, packed into that crazy ecosystem are just tons of huge, charismatic, sexy animals. What more could you ask for?”
One night Skinner was awakened by a crashing sound in the undergrowth nearby. She immediately woke Gregory. As the sound got closer, Gregory had a realization: “It was a noise I recognized immediately: a female bear calling to her cubs.”
“Becca and I turn on the lights and start making lots of noise to make sure that the bears know we’re there,” he says. By alerting the bears to their presence, the pair greatly reduced their chance of being attacked. “They hear us, and there’s carnage outside. They’re scrapping around, they’re running in all directions, and then everything goes quiet.
“I unzip the tent, slowly, and there’s nothing to see. When I turn around to go back toward the tent, I glance up,” he says. Two feet from the tent stands a tree with the two black bear cubs that Gregory had been tracking just days earlier. “I have two things in my head. The first thing is, Awww, that is the cutest thing ever,” he says. Then he moved on to practical matters. “We need to back off here to make sure that the mum can come in and take those cubs down.” Gregory, who has found himself often in the presence of bears, asked Skinner to calmly exit the tent.
“I’m saying, Becca, come, bring that,” by which he meant to bring the camera. “Becca thought I was pointing at the bear spray. I was like, No, no, we don’t need that, give me the camera.”
Encounters with wild animals are routine for Gregory. “I think people assume that that’s a scary experience, but I’ve been lucky to have been mentored by some people that know how to act around bears. With black bears, you give them space. I like to talk to them in a very calm voice, so they know where you are, especially in the dark. When they’re surprised, that’s when there’s a potentially dangerous encounter.” He notes that female bears can be particularly protective of their cubs and may react aggressively if they feel they are in danger.
Skinner left the tent with a camera. Minutes later, the female bear returned. “The first one came down pretty quick. The second one was much more nervous,” Gregory says. “As long as I’m not getting in between the mum and her cubs, or I’m not threatening the safety of the cubs in the eyes of the mother, it’s not a dangerous encounter.”
Climbing trees is essential for these animals. Cubs often use trees as a defense mechanism to hide from adult male bears who want to kill them in order to produce offspring of their own. “Their safe place is up a tree,” Gregory says.
British Columbia has one of the densest populations of black bears in the world. “Bears are around our camp all of the time. We know that from the tracks, we see them every now and again. We also keep our food up a tree to make sure we don’t have any problems with them, but I never expected to have a bear encounter quite as close as this one,” Gregory says.
“It was funny because it was completely out of the blue, and those are the kinds of moments that you remember. It’s not the slogging down the beach with 50 pounds of gear on your back, or wading through an icy cold river, or staying up into the night. It’s the chance encounters that you could never plan, that you could never script—they’re the things that stay with you.”
Gregory is a 2015 National Geographic Scientific Exploration Society Zenith Explorer, National Geographic Young Explorer, Youth Outdoor Photographer of the Year, wildlife photographer, filmmaker, and host of wild_life with bertie gregory.
For more on Gregory, check out National Geographic’s first digital series, wild_life with bertie gregory. The series follows Gregory as he documents the wildlife on Vancouver Island.
Video Producer/Editor: Monica Pinzon
Series Producer: Chris Mattle
Footage: Bertie Gregory, Becca Skinner
Associate Producer: Elaina Kimes