Bear Man

Profile of Michael Allen, who has spent almost 20 years among Whistler’s bear population. Finalist Western Magazine Awards, Environmental Category.


photo: Gregory Crow

Jeanie has 766 friends on Facebook. The Whistler mother is also notorious for taking her children into the resort village and picking food out of the garbage. “She’s just trying to be a good mother, doing what she thinks is best for her children,” says her long-time friend Michael Allen, 43. As Allen looks at 10-year-old photos of Jeanie, her reddish-brown hair strikingly beautiful, he admits that “these days, she’s looking beat-up and ugly.” Life’s been rough for Jeanie. Last year, one of her daughters was struck by a motor vehicle and died. Another daughter, Juniper, was shot and killed while perpetrating a break-in. Her son, Jack, was found on the shores of Lillooet Lake, shot by persons unknown. For five nights in December, Allen stayed with Jeanie from dusk to dawn, trying to keep her out of trouble. “If things continue the way they have,” he says, “she’ll be dead within a few years.”

Allen should know. He’s studied Jeanie, and the 100 or so other bears around Whistler, since moving to the area in 1993. His sister, a Whistler schoolteacher, knew his love of bears and urged him to check out the local population. “As soon as I got here,” he recalls, “I jumped on my mountain bike and rode down to the landfill. A bear ran across the old Cheakamus River bridge right in front of me. Then got around the corner and there were four bears in the garbage. They didn’t even look up at me. I was in heaven.”

For the next five years he spent every free moment, many hours each day, observing the bears. He’d get to the dump at 4 in the morning and snooze until the bears drifted in around him. To make ends meet, he worked at snowmaking on the mountain and wielded a chainsaw on an trail crew. return to the dump in the evenings. He once followed a bear over three days, out of Whistler, eventually emerging in Brackendale, 68 kilometres away.

“I doubt there’s anyone in the world who’s had as much field experience with black bears,” says Allen’s boss, Arthur DeJong, mountain planning and environmental resource manager for Whistler Blackcomb. Allen is not a trained biologist or zoologist. He’s simply a guy with an intense, unwavering interest in bears. One of his goals, he says, is to follow a group of female Whistler black bears from birth to death, a life cycle that typically spans between 20 and 25 years.

On this overcast October morning we’re sitting in his office, a burgundy, seven-passenger Suburban leased for him by the ski area. On the rear doors are black decals that read “Whistler Blackcomb Bear & Wildlife Tours.” Allen now makes his living giving bear tours and presentations. This one’s for a Grade 5 class from Myrtle Philip Community School in Whistler. From the rows of seats behind us comes the babble of 10- and 11-year-olds.

As we grind up a rutted service road at 5,000 feet, cutting across the north side of Whistler Mountain, Allen juggles the tasks of steering, ducking down to scan the grassy slopes, and lobbing bear-related questions at his charges. Then we see them: two jet-black masses, a couple of hundred metres away, clearly defined against the green of the ski run, chomping grass and clover, fattening up for winter. They look weirdly like cows grazing; their pasture just happens to be a 20-degree slope on one of the world’s premier ski and mountain bike destinations.

One bear pops its head up to give us a casual look. Our convoy stops; parents, students, and the teacher pile out of the minivans behind us. Allen pulls a red toque over his close-cut greying hair. He wears no jacket, just a plaid flannel work shirt over blue nylon hiking pants and tan boots. He’s like a bear the way he moves; perhaps it’s no surprise that someone able to interpret 71 forms of bear communication would internalize the body language. We have little to fear, Allen tells us—these animals are largely vegetarian (grass and clover, berries, carpenter ants). There’s never been a predatory attack on a human by a Whistler black bear. Indeed, given the scorecard in bear-human relations, it’s the bears that should be scared.

“Why aren’t they running away?” asks the group. A little boy responds immediately. “That’s right,” says Allen. “Because they know me. They’re probably sick of me by now. We call that habituated; these bears are habituated to people.”

“Has a bear ever attacked you?” asks a young girl.

“No, generally haven’t had too much problem with them,” says Allen, who sometimes carries bear spray but has never had to use it in his defense.

Bears, he explains, are more afraid of larger, more dominant bears than of humans. Despite the “aversive conditioning trials” in the valley, which discourage garbage-seeking bears with rubber bullets and bangers, the bears will return if they have to compete with dominant bears for food. That said, females need fear—male bears will kill cubs in order to force the mothers back into estrus or, as Allen explains it to his young listeners, “so they can have the mom for a girlfriend. The harsh reality of their world,” he says. “Just like our world.”

Others, of course, have been fascinated by this harsh and mythical world. Troy Hurtubise became obsessed with developing a grizzly-proof suit after surviving an encounter with a bear. Timothy Treadwell was killed by the grizzly bears he was living among in Alaska. “He had a lot of problems,” says Allen, “he used bears as a crutch.” Of Charlie Russell, the Bear Man of Kamchatka, he says: “I don’t believe we’re here to be mothers for the bears. We’re not meant to be buddy-buddy.”

That said, our relationship with bears is primal. The human ecologist Joseph Meeker claims that “the lore of bears is the oldest evidence on earth for human spirituality.” Our relationship with bears today is a barometer of how we treat our environment. In his book Shadow of the Bear, Vancouver writer Brian Payton documents human relations with the eight remaining species of bear (six of which are considered to be threatened). “The bear has something supernatural,” a 72-year-old Italian shepherd tells Payton. “It is beautiful and gives you a sense of what man is and what nature is. I want to preserve bears, but something in the environment has changed. Something is broken.”

Born in Trail, B.C., in 1964, Allen is the second child and only son of a “tough, fiery” Italian mother and an old-school deer hunter who felt more comfortable in the bush if he had a rifle. Allen found himself spending more and more time alone, away from school and home, wandering the woods. “I was different. I didn’t fall into any school clique.” Though he was always big and athletic, he had to fight often. It was during his time in the woods, encountering bears, that fear turned into fascination. “I just recognized bears—I’m not understood, and bears aren’t either.” He never quite felt at home, he says, until he got to the mountains of Whistler, where he’s lived ever since.

“Mr. Allen, is there such a thing as gay bears?”

“No, haven’t seen that yet.” He shrugs. “I get that question every year.”

Like many deeply shy people, he appears friendly and interested but rarely smiles. When he talks about bears, though, there’s nothing shy about him. To the kids he speaks authoritatively, with a quiet, deep-seated enthusiasm. On his second tour that afternoon, he speaks exactly the same way to a group of four Brits and a Dutchman. Their reaction, when we stop about five metres from a sow named Ellie and her three cubs, is considerably more animated than the kids’—women burst into tears at the sight of cubs nursing.

Allen completes his 16-hour day with a presentation in the rich surroundings of the Macdonald ballroom at the Whistler Fairmont. In the room are 29 Australian travel agents, all women, who’ve brought drinks in from the hallway bar. Allen stands before them in the same flannel shirt and hiking pants. There’s dried mud on his boots. His PowerPoint slides and colour commentary (“It’s a bear soap opera: everyone cheats on each other, and the divorce rate is 100 percent”) keep the room enthralled through the science, and through Allen’s underlying message: Whistler needs to clean up its garbage problem or bears will continue to die.

He leads 260 tours annually, meaning some 1,700 people make the journey up the mountain with him each year. He’s guided tours and school groups for nine years, taught in classrooms for 11. Over the years has spoken face-to-face with over 40,000 people. You might say that the once highly reticent Allen has become habituated to people.

Not to bureaucrats and academics, though. He walked away from the Whistler Bear Working Group, the multi-agency body that seeks a single bear-management approach. “It got very political,” he explains. He saw government research teams using approaches that he viewed as treating the symptom rather than the problem. We’ll never be able to stop bears from coming into the valley, he believes; we just need to make sure there’s nothing for them to find. Garbage is the problem. Secure it and you’ll sever the cycle. Humans create the garbage, after all, and only humans can control it.

Allen tried Selkirk College and the BCIT fish and wildlife programs, but just couldn’t get into it. (To picture him in a classroom is to imagine a bear jammed into a lecture-hall seat.) If he feels his work is not properly recognized, he attributes this to his lack of formal credentials—his self-perceived Achilles’ heel. Tony Hamilton, large-carnivore specialist for the B.C. Ministry of Environment, and the province’s top bear expert, says, “He does have a bit of a chip on his shoulder about his qualifications. He doesn’t need to, because he’s a perfectly qualified naturalist.” The only problem with Allen’s research, says Hamilton, “is that it resides mainly in his head.” So writing is what Allen plans to spend much of the winter months doing.

To educate himself Allen has attended international bear conferences, but prefers to correspond directly with leading bear biologists; he also devours journals and bear literature. And the community obviously has faith in his work. Some of his research is supported by the Whistler Blackcomb Foundation Environmental Fund, financed from the paycheques of Whistler Blackcomb workers and matching contributions by the Whistler Foundation. The staff votes on what projects to support. Says Allana Williams, founder and chair of the fund: “They’re very supportive of Mike. They love him. He’s so committed. It’s not about him. He just does what’s best for bears. He did this before he ever got paid for it.”

“I’m not an environmentalist, not an advocate,” says Allen. “I just give people information.”

It’s January 2008, and the bears are tucked in their dens. The directions Allen has given me to Paradise Valley, near Squamish, include taking a left at a boulder, crossing a small bridge, and rounding the barn attached to his rented cabin by the Cheakamus River. Chief, a full-grown Bernese mountain dog, bounds out with a loud, friendly greeting. A diminutive white dog, Avalanche, licks my hand before I have a chance to shake Allen’s. The 20-odd bantam chickens in the coop by the house are surprisingly quiet.

On the patio table by the front door is a pinkish organ preserved in a large jar. It’s the heart of a bear, a lanky male named Slim that was hit by a car. Allen’s wife, Kristi, a veterinarian, conducted a gross necropsy, and Slim’s body soaked in a barrel behind the house until the closest neighbour, a couple of hundred metres away, mentioned the smell. Allen wrestled the half-decomposed carcass out and tied it to a tree in the woods to let nature strip away the flesh. “God, I miss Slim,” he says. “He had a lot of character.”

Inside the cabin, Yoda, one of two cats, stretches in a basket by the wood-burning stove. Above the crammed bookcase there’s a painting of Jeanie emerging from the fronds of a western hemlock. The walls feature family photos. Allen offers up a selection of teas. Slim’s skull sits next to the fruit bowl on the kitchen table. His bleached bones are in a plastic bin on the seat of a chair. Allen plans to have one of his school groups assemble the skeleton.

He met Kristi on a bear tour eight years ago. She’d been visiting from Arizona with Deven when someone remarked that as a vet, she “just had to go see the bear man.” The tour ended with them both entranced by a close-up sighting of Jeanie and her cub, Jake. Allen mentioned Deven in his Pique column; Kristi, reading the piece, was so touched by how well he related to her daughter that she cried. They dated long-distance for two years before getting married at mid-station on Whistler Mountain, in front of 30 close friends and family. Allen wore shorts and a bow tie borrowed from a hotel bellhop. All the girls went barefoot among the Indian paintbrush. Jeanie made an appearance but was chased off by a male bear named Flin.

Through the winter, Allen’s been getting up at 4; while his wife and daughter sleep, he writes for a few hours, compiling 15 years of observations: which bear spotted when, where, doing what; relationships; bears giving birth, eating, mating, dying. Other sheets capture den stats. Embedded in the worksheets are pictures of all the bears he’s named. (Jeanie is named after his Scottish grandmother, who had the same colour hair.) He’s also been working on a book; several publishers have approached him after reading his bear columns in the Pique.

We hop into his new Toyota Tacoma, pulling off the highway at Function Junction south of Whistler, passing by framed townhomes for the Olympic Village. We’re headed back to his old stomping grounds. Though the landfill’s been closed for two years, there’s the unmistakable pong of garbage in the air. We park, and as we trudge along a snow-packed trail out of the Whistler Demonstration Forest I catch it again, a flash of Allen as a bear—the powerfully rounded shoulders, the gait, the gloved hands hanging paw-like. When I’d confessed to colleague Allana Williams my tendency to ascribe ursine qualities to him, she recalled the time he gave a presentation at the Millennium Centre. This was before he had a car. She’d dropped him off afterward, not noticing that he’d left his bag in the back seat. The next day, she said, Allen must have hitched out to her neighbourhood, having only a general idea of where she lived, and wandered the area until he recognized her car. He’d gone into the back, grabbed his bag, and left, leaving the door open. “Just like a bear would!” she said, laughing.

We stop to put on snowshoes and head up into the trees. We follow his tracks from the previous week, when he came to check on some dens further up the mountain. The route winds through western hemlock and fir, between the clearcut and the old growth of the ravine. He stops to point out where he watched two cubs, yearlings, repeatedly sliding down a slope. They discovered Allen, perhaps still smelling of the pizza he’d eaten earlier, and clambered over him like kittens, stepping on his face. The sow looked on unperturbed. He realized that this was not a precedent he wanted to set, left, and never let it happen again.

Food and habitat are where the needs of humans and bears intersect. Whistler’s ski runs and three golf courses provide attractive tracts of grass for the bears to graze on. However, resort development steadily encroaches on bear habitat, crowding bears together, stressing them out. And what habitat they do have sees more and more human activity. “May and June, bikes and bears are really close together. It’s not the best situation, mountain bikes whizzing down right through the clover where bears are feeding,” says Allen. “We’re not competitors, but we both need our space. Thankfully the bears have adapted to the bikers.”

And some bears have become accustomed to encroaching on human habitat, down in the valley. As they do, they develop a taste for what humans leave out. A bear will feed for about 15 to 16 hours a day, eating up to 50,000 berries in that time to gain weight for winter. Pasta with cream sauce from a dumpster, or even pet food, packs far more bang for the bite. A single bird feeder can provide a bear with a half-day’s worth of calories. When there’s a bad berry crop, as there was last year, habituated bears will come down into the valley seeking calorie-rich, efficient food sources. Along with the garbage they’ll also ingest crushed glass and huge amounts of plastic. To get what they seek, they’ll tip over “bear proof” containers, climb up the side of hotels to get in through patio doors, break into houses, and enter garbage sheds. Although a Whistler black bear has yet to injure or kill a person recreating in its habitat, humans have far less tolerance for a bear feeding around their homes. As they say, a fed bear is a dead bear. Leaving space and corridors for the bears to roam is important, but absolutely critical to our peaceful coexistence with bears is taking control of our communities’ garbage.

As we descend into a gully, Allen tells me not to stray from his narrow track, which follows the trunk of a tree lying across a jumble of car-size boulders beneath the two-metre snowpack. We’re visiting the first occupied den ever found (one of 320 he’s located). Fourteen winters ago he was snowshoeing down this very gorge when a black head with pricked ears popped into sight. The den opens through the base of a 30-metre-tall red cedar sprouting from the 40-degree slope. From the den’s vantage point you can see clear across the Cheakamus River and down the valley to Sproat Mountain. I could write this real-estate listing in my head.

As it turns out, though, this prime- view bear condo is empty. I ask where Jeanie is denned. He knows where she is, of course: buried deep beneath the snow in a den on the north side of Whistler. At about the time this story is published, she and her remaining cub will emerge from their den and head down into the valley, to the nearest skunk-cabbage swamp. Black bears mate on a two-year cycle; they give birth in January, during hibernation, and keep their cubs for about 18 months before chasing them off in June. This is the year she’ll turn her cub out. The next time she has cubs, especially if there’s another bad berry crop, she’ll probably turn to garbage again. However many friends she may have, old habits die hard, and Jeanie’s will probably only die when she does. VM

2 responses to “Bear Man”

  1. just smart all the best

  2. Michael Allen will be your guide for the day. He has spent the last 25 years studying bears studying bears and will show you active bear dens, daybeds and feeding sites. Wander through alpine meadows, marvel at old growth forest and enjoy one of the most spectacular alpine settings in company of the bears and learn about their habits and rich lives. So embark for a memorable experience in a 4×4 vehicle and enjoy the best sunset of your life.