Jack Knox: Bear Alley cleared for tourists

By Jack Knox, Times Colonist April 23, 2009 6:09 AM

Here's the difference between up-Island and down-Island: government.

In Victoria (our motto: solving the world through regulation since 1862) government is God, responsible for everything from the weather to keeping lemonade stands out of Beacon Hill Park. Victorians work for, obey and believe in government. If the traffic light got stuck on red, we would starve to death right there in our cars.

Up-Island, government is something that exists more in theory, just like black holes or the St. Louis Blues power play. Rules don't matter if there's no one to enforce them. North of Campbell River, people are used to taking care of themselves.

Thus, when government shot down the idea of clearing a roadside bear-viewing area, a group of Port Hardy residents merely shrugged and cut down the trees anyway -- just in time for tourist season and the annual appearance of chewin' bruins grazing beside the stretch of Island Highway known as Bear Alley.

This is a story that goes back a year, when an ad hoc group known as Save Our Bear Buffet came up with the idea of cutting back the alders encroaching on the roadside, trees that threatened to push out the black bears that gather north of the Port Alice cutoff to devour fresh growth. The bears begin to show up beside the highway each spring around this time, and can be seen until October. Once the fish start running, they move to the rivers.

S.O.B. Squared, as the group was known, got the Highways Ministry's blessing to do the clearing work last spring -- right until the Environment Ministry caught wind of the idea. Encouraging bear-human interaction is a definite no-no. Don't want bears habituated to humans. Don't want humans as lunch. Highways withdrew its approval.

Fast forward to this spring, when the Save Our Bear Buffet people asked again. Highways said no, as expected. "I said, 'We're going to cut it anyway," says organizer Cathie Hellberg.

And so they did, a couple of Saturdays ago. Sixteen of them, the youngest maybe 18, the oldest 74, waded in with chainsaws, brushcutters, axes. They started at 8 a.m. By late afternoon, they had cleared more than nine kilometres of the 10-kilometre Bear Alley. "Everybody worked their buns off."

Backlash from the authorities? "Not a thing."

Not that everyone in Port Hardy was keen on the idea. The biggest objection comes from logging-truck drivers and other motorists worried about piling into tourists who have stopped smack in the middle of the highway to rubberneck at bears. It's not unusual to see a rental RV angled onto the shoulder, its back end in traffic. Might as well paint a bull's eye on the back.

Some have suggested building pull-outs to allow the vehicles to get right off the road, but the worry is that would encourage tourists to get out of their cars. Hellberg has a friend who, upon seeing a guy shepherd two children toward the bears, called out, "This isn't Disneyland. These are wild animals." The dad just brushed her off. "He said, 'I can take care of my own kids.' " Guess the Father Of The Year nomination will have to wait. Hellberg figures they should erect stay-in-your-car warning signs, as they do in Banff.

But jeez, the sight of all those bears -- Hellberg has seen maybe 15 at once -- delights visitors and locals alike. "Everybody's got their bear tales." You can't advertise supernatural B.C. as a mecca for wildlife lovers, then deny the tourists a glimpse of wildlife. Last year featured a momma with three cubs. Cute as anything.

And hey, Hellberg says, if the authorities are really worried about the welfare of the bears, they should rewrite the rules that allow hunters to open fire right beside the road. It's illegal to shoot from the shoulder of a major highway, but the road leading to Port Hardy doesn't fall into that category. "Isn't that bizarre?"

"We had two bears shot there a couple of years ago," says Hellberg. Professional guides from Campbell River brought up clients and let them blast away, much to the disgust of the locals.

Where's government when you need it?


© Copyright (c) The Victoria Times Colonist


April 23, 2009 - 7:52 Carver writes on April 23, 2009 - 6:51 AM " Leave the bears in peace. " Leave the North Island in peace. Calling us hillbillys (sic) will end in tears for you, if you could ever find your way up here. Take your sanctimonious attitude to your latte sipping friends, leave us out of your orbit.

April 23, 2009 - 6:51 Leave the bears in peace. Let the alder trees grow back, keep the traffic moving. The last thing you need is tourists mixing with bears, or tourists mixing with hillbillys or hillbillys mixing with tourists. It will all end in tears. Did anyone involved really consider WHY they were doing this?