Mike Carter’s article in the Financial Times, following his visit to Wild Bear Lodge in British Columbia, is a compelling conservation story with a very personal touch. It is a story with two protagonists; Julius Strauss, a retired war correspondent turned conservationist and the grizzly bear, Canada’s most formidable predator. Julius’s story is a testament to the restorative power of nature – whether encountering grizzly bears on the banks of salmon-infested rivers in British Columbia or watching birds in a back garden, exposure to wildlife can be a remarkable tonic. And when Julius first visited British Columbia, his life needed redirection, following a career that saw him reporting on some of the 20th centuries most brutal conflicts. Travelling with his wife across British Columbia, Julius came across what is now Wild Bear Lodge and made the decision to buy the property. It was to be a life-changing decision that helped him overcome the debilitating effects of PTSD:
“If your days are filled with blood and suffering and interviewing victims of torture, you’re going to internalise that. In the end, it was nature that cured me. It took a long time, but I am as well as I’ll ever be.”
Mike masterfully intertwines the highs and lows of the lives of both Julius and the bears, giving moving insight into a mutualistic relationship that develops over time. While Julius learned to cope with some of the brutality he had witnessed in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Sierra Leone, the bears to which he attributes his mental recovery were being shot dead by trophy hunters. This not only sat at odds with Julius’s moral compass, but it made no sense from an economic point of view. Trophy hunting was worth C$2m a year to the British Columbian economy whereas the revenue generated by bear-watching tourism was generating C$30m. Julius took action and mobilised the residents of British Columbia who were mostly opposed to trophy hunting. In December 2017, following a period of intense lobbying, trophy hunting of bears was banned. This was in no small part to Julius’s vocal campaigning; payback for the lifeline the bears had given him.
As with many travel articles in the press, Mike’s feature in the FT was a long time in the making. My colleagues met Julius back in 2017, and they were convinced that we should be making as much noise as we could about him, his wife and their fabulous lodge in the Central Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia. Not only were we inspired by his personal story, we were won over by the ethos of his lodge and his views on wildlife tourism. Through Julius and his team in Canada, we knew we could offer our clients an immersive wildlife holiday where the measurement of success was not by the number of bears seen, but by the totality of the wilderness experience. With a keen focus given to the quality of the guiding, trekking and rafting and an understanding that the rivers, forests and mountains of BC are home to an assortment of wildlife, not just grizzly bears, Wild Bear Lodge delivers an authentic and memorable wilderness experience far greater than the sum of its parts. In his conversations with Mike, Julius talks about ‘taking an uncontrolled environment and allowing people to experience it in a controlled way, mitigating most of the risks but still feeling the benefits.’ By doing so, Wild Bear Lodge aims to give its clients ‘a primal connection’. Here is a contextual wildlife experience far removed from the lodges that simply serve up bear sightings on a plate.
Mike Carter’s first encounter with a grizzly bear is a virtual experience, seen from viewing video footage captured by Wild Bear Lodge’s strategically placed camera-traps. He joins Julius on an exhilarating trek through spruce and larch forest, to collect data and is smitten by the footage captured of a mother bear with three cubs. He writes of how she ‘stood on her hind legs so she was 7ft tall, and shook her entire booty with such gleeful abandon that she looked like a drunken aunt dancing to Beyoncé at a wedding.’ This comical, anthropomorphic depiction of Canada’s apex-predator is starkly juxtaposed to the next description Mike gives us of the same bear, but this time encountered in real-life:
‘I could hear her breath, amplified over the narrow stretch of water, see her terrifying claws glinting white in the gloom, as she idly scooped a salmon out of the river and tore its head off, feasting on the brain…’
Mike paints a picture that wouldn’t be out of place in the horror stories of Edgar Alan Poe or H.P. Lovecraft and goes on to write:
‘Then she slowly turned her head and looked me straight in the eye. My heart felt like it would burst out of my chest. In seconds, I had gone from watching grizzly bears through a lens, as if on some TV nature documentary, to being in the film, and as prey. Time stopped.’
This is wildlife viewing at its most visceral and transformative. Mike goes on to convey the paradox of feeling both the thrill and terror of encountering on foot, a wild animal capable of tearing you apart. With ‘senses on hyper alert’, Mike looks around to see Julius and the other clients in his group ‘beaming…on their toes’ – ‘afraid yet fully alive’.
Mike Carter effortlessly encapsulates the key ingredients of the perfect wildlife experience, and how such an experience can elicit powerful human emotions, like fear, respect, humility and wonder. But more than that, in his hands, a simple story about bear watching becomes a tale of salvation and a powerful reminder of the need to stand up for what we believe in and what can be achieved, when we do.
You can read the article in full here.