New Denver, BC - Erica bends over a dark, lumpy scat about the size of an overturned soup plate.
"I've got a feeling we're going to get lucky today," she says.
Erica can certainly be expected to know about these things; she's a bear biologist, but I'm not easily convinced.
It's a hot summer afternoon, and the two of us have been hiking along a grassy mountaintop in southeastern British Columbia, about 20 kilometres from the village of New Denver. This is one of those rare summer days that I'll carry with me for the rest of my life. The sky is a deep, translucent blue, and a warm breeze is blowing. The meadows are a riot of wildflowers: lupine, paintbrush and anemone.
For the past four weeks, Erica and I have visited any number of the bears' local hangouts, sneaking around quietly, trying to stay upwind, but we haven't seen so much as a trace of a grizzly. Either they aren't out here or I'm wearing the wrong deodorant.
Erica teaches courses on travelling safely in bear country, and a lot of what she talks about has to do with advance warning: how to recognize grizzly habitat from the food the animals eat - in other words, how to be aware of the bears before they become aware of you.
After tagging along with her through various area watersheds, I'm beginning to despair of ever being able to do this on my own. Erica's keen eyesight and profound knowledge of botany and the animals' habits make her a very safe hiking partner. I'm sure she'd be aware of potential hazards long before they arose, but what about me? I didn't even notice the scat and wouldn't have recognized it if I had.
"If you ask me," I bluster, "there's a better chance of encountering a grizzly on the corner of Bloor and Avenue Road."
"I don't know about that," says Erica. "I'm rarely wrong when I get this feeling."
About 10 minutes later, we see him moving on a distant hilltop. Naturally, Erica spots him first with her naked eye. I whip out my expensive binoculars and begin scoping the terrain.
"Where? Where?" I ask. But I can see nothing.
"Grizzly. Young male. Maybe two years old. He's almost at the top of the ridge."
"Where? Where?" I demand, scanning frantically.
"Poor thing," says Erica. "He looks like he's got some kind of mange. Near that big rock, to the right of the snow patch."
I finally catch a glimpse of him just as he shuffles over the ridge and out of sight. He doesn't look particularly fearsome, but I'm glad he hasn't seen us. There's no place to hide up here, no trees to climb, and the truck is more than two hours' walk away.
While it seems little more than a mirage, I'm elated. I've finally seen a grizzly in the wild. It's a wonderful feeling just knowing these elusive animals are out there. I also realize that any kind of wildlife sighting is a gift, something that can't be counted on or paid for. This will probably be the highlight of the summer.
On our way back, a gust of wind happens to yank Erica's hat off and toss it down a ravine. I wait while she disappears to retrieve it. A few moments later, she returns without the hat but with a big smile on her face. She's holding up her thumb and two fingers to make the number three.
I approach the lip of the ravine and look over. This time there's no need for binoculars. Not more than 50 yards below us, a female grizzly is stretched out on some snow. She's dozing in the sun, her head resting on her forepaws. Nearby, her two cubs romp and swat each other, sliding and tumbling like a pair of clowns. Every few minutes she rouses herself, sniffs the air and looks around. A watchful mom.
Erica whispers into my ear, "This is actually the kind of situation you'd want to avoid."
I can feel my knees shaking, and I'm hoping I've packed the bear spray, but right now I wouldn't trade situations with anybody in the world.