Atlassing 2012, Schaft Creek Part 2

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August 2, 2012 by Rokman61

(Initially presented as email on August 2, 2012, reposted here in Oct)
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As it turned out, birds were fewer and more reclusive than we expected for this location.  The timing of our visit was probably a few weeks past the period when the birds are most conspicuously active.  We did manage to record 53 species with evidence of local nesting, but I got no photos of significant quality to present.
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The scenery, however was absolutely stunning.  This Google satellite view below superbly illustrates the nature of the terrain west of Schaft Creek, in the heart of the Cassiars.  You can see that these are indeed serious mountains – note all the snowfields and valley glaciers, separated by craggy ridges and deep green valleys.
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Here are a few views looking west into the Cassiars from Mount La Casse.
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You possibly learned back in high school that glacially carved valleys have a characteristic U-shape in cross-section.  I think you can probably see that in this photo.
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In contrast, the landscape to the east is a high plateau, dominated here by layers of lava from the Edziza eruptive centre.
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Schaft Creek itself is a highly braided stream, indicating that it intermittently has very high volumes of flow, and carries a huge sediment load.
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What we are witnessing is part of the never-ending geologic process of mountains being ground down into sand and gravel, and being transported towards an ultimate destination at the bottom of the sea – as illustrated here with such elegant style.
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This pretty valley on the eastern side of Mt La Casse is much greener and vegetated, indicating a more stable and lower-energy flow regime.
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Along the top of Mt La Casse are stretches of gently rolling alpine tundra, with nothing growing taller than a few centimetres.
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We were easily able to walk the meadows, but a little higher there was almost continuous snow cover.
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Since we were located well back in the wilderness, one would expect that wild animals must abound.  We did see tracks of wolves, foxes and moose, and George got a brief look at a Pine Marten.  Red squirrels were so abundant and distractingly noisy they even occasionally interrupted our surveys.  Otherwise, bear sign was by far the most conspicuous evidence of resident wildlife.  We came upon this picturesque set of footprints in the dusty roadbed just outside of the camp, where they could be followed along the track for several kilometres.  They belonged to a black bear with a large cub.
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To set the scene for a little story, here is another Google Earth image showing Mt La Casse and the area we were working within.  The yellow X’s indicate the approximate locations where we were dropped off by the helicopter.  Note the long straight track running along the east (right-hand) flank of the mountain, labelled ‘Bruin Alley’.
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Early one morning, George and I were doing a series of point counts along this road, which traverses a very steep slope subject to snow slides, and hence covered mainly with scrub willows – classic bear habitat.  We had noticed there were piles of bear poop about every 50-100 metres along the way, some with glistening fresh appearance.  However, we felt fairly secure in our noisy, nimble Kubota vehicle, armed with pepper spray and bear-scare horns.  We had just begun one of our timed counts when we heard a crashing commotion in the scrub below the road a short distance in front of us (later measured as approximately 120 feet or 36 metres).  Seconds later a huge furry face emerged from the tangle – appearing to us about a metre across!  The owner came up onto the grade and stared at us – revealing itself as a rather large and magnificent grizzly.  George hit the bear-scare horn taped onto the Kubota frame, but not so much as one weak peep emanated.   Next he went for the pepper spray, and I was fumbling for the air-horn on my belt.  Meanwhile, the bear simply turned and casually sauntered away, eventually passing out-of-sight several hundred metres down the road.  On seeing that Mr. Grizz was not headed our way, quick-draw George grabbed his camera and fired off the two shots below.   The first image, taken as the bear made one brief turn to look back at us, came out nearly black, as the camera had been on the wrong setting, hence the dark grainy appearance.  After correcting the setting, he got the second image, just before the big bruin disappeared around the bend in the distance.
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After catching our breath, we completed our count and then considered whether we should continue on after the bear or retreat.  A few minutes later, and seeking a few minutes of privacy, I walked off in the direction opposite the bear, just out of sight of George and the Kubota.  As I was about to return, I heard George hollering, but couldn’t understand what he said.  I thought maybe he had seen the bear coming back up the road, but that wasn’t quite it.  He had heard the animal crashing through the willows on the slope just above him and the Kubota, headed my way, and he called out to warn me.  Next I heard some commotion in the willows above, and suddenly this massive animal dropped onto the road right in front of me.  So there I stood, face-to-face with this enormous creature, not more than about 15 metres, or two good jumps away had he been so inclined.  (Ok – maybe I exaggerate a bit – it might have been as much as 20 metres distant).  I was without pepper spray, air-horn, or Kubota to duck behind.  I yelled out to George “He’s BETWEEN us!”.  At that the grizz plunged back into the scrub and I could hear him thrashing on down the slope.  I gingerly tiptoed back to rejoin George and the Kubota, and only then sensed the rush of adrenaline.  Eventually we continued on and completed our surveys without further incident.  Reconstructing the adventure, we figure the bear had heard our vehicle approach, and had come up to investigate.  After wandering off down the track, curiosity led him to circle back above us for another look.  Fortunately he showed no signs of aggression whatsoever, so we assume he was just one big secure and contented critter.
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So goes my best-ever personal bear story, and it will be just fine with me if I never get to better it.
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Still shaking a bit from telling this,
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Carlo
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