hunters and gatherers
I had just spent 2 unforgettable days at Riding Mountain Guest Ranch in Manitoba, Canada, with Candy and Jim Irwin. On the 3 hour drive back to Winnipeg, I told Candy I would like to write about the park. Candy, a woman never lost for words, was oddly silent and then told me in a voice both stern and alarmed, that she would have some very grave concerns about this. I was stunned. Yet, here-in lies the strange conundrum of Riding Mountain. The park’s amazing beauty and wildlife have attracted the attention of those who seek a vast accessible wilderness where bears and moose abound. The trouble is, people are drawn here for very different reasons; some gather here to shoot pictures while hunters come to shoot the animals. This strange convergence of hunters and gatherers, is a microcosm of our struggle as humans, to live with nature and each other.
In Riding Mountain, a license to shoot wildlife is considered by many as their birth-right. Shooting is illegal on the Irwin’s property and their access road has been closed to the public. However, it is not unusual to hear gunshots in the not too distant forest, as our small group headed off each day with only Canons and Nikons slung over our shoulders. You could visibly see the hair on Candy’s neck bristle at the sound of these intruders so close to “her” animals. The woman is tenacious and I have no doubt she would attack hunters with her bare hands if they strayed onto her property within the national park.
Is she overreacting? Sadly, no. Candy told me that last time someone had written about Riding Mountain, the results had been devastating. Shortly after an article had been published about an unusually large bear in the park, the bear’s mutilated body was found. This magnificent creature had been shot and its claws and testicles removed. Candy and Jim were grief-stricken. The park is one of Canada’s best kept secrets, and Candy and Jim almost wish they could keep it that way. Yet, how can they share this piece of wildlife heaven with those who, like them, want only to marvel and respect the unspeakable beauty of the park and its animals? They know that only through first hand experience and the kind of intimate excursions the ranch can offer, can they hope to promote the park as a wildlife sanctuary.
Days at Riding Mountain begin at pre-dawn after a breakfast featuring Candy’s home-made Saskatoon jam. Jim drives us through the park to spot moose hiding in the mist. Without Jim’s trained eye and experience, you might drive straight through the park and the only moose you would see would be the ones on the road signs warning you to take care. Jim knows the moose; their habits, their movements, their fears. On this occasion, Jim senses that a pack of wolves has made a foray into the park, scattering the moose to higher ground. We pass a herd of bison at Lake Audey, their steamy snorts billowing in the first light. This magnificent herd is protected by law and therefore is of little interest to gun-slinging visitors to the park. We can’t take our eyes (or viewfinders) off these creatures as they meander amid the tall golden grasses and pale blossoms of the pasture, stopping for a brief stroll through a deep mud bath, the young calves bellowing their amusement.
In the afternoons, we headed for Jim’s old school bus permanently dosing peacefully in a patch of forest. The bus is stocked with boxes of old wildlife photography magazines.......just in case . We certainly didn’t have much spare time for reading. From Jim’s hide we were entranced by the black bears and videoed and clicked to our heart’s delight. Red squirrels and blue jays also made numerous appearances. At dusk we waited by the beaver and muskrat lodges to catch a glimpse of these busy animals skimming the glistening waters of the lakes, creating golden swirls and ripples illuminated by the setting sun. Just magical! In the evenings after a dinner too delicious to describe, our little group would sink into the sofas and watch Jim’s home movies of his beloved wild bears.
I stumbled upon Riding Mountain when I was surfing the net looking for a place to see wildlife somewhere near Winnipeg. All those venturing north to Churchill to see polar bears, come through Winnipeg. You might be forgiven for thinking that the area around Winnipeg is not famous for its wildlife and indeed, you have to search pretty hard to find any mention of it. Yet three hours away there is a beautiful wilderness to rival any.
Candy and Jim are considering retirement but the big question looms like a shadow over everything they do. Who will take over? Without them, who will be there to show people like you and me the bear and moose, beaver and bison? Who will care for those animals that are wounded or weak? Who will be an advocate for the park? Jim told me he has spent seven years trying to convince locals they can make a living showing the park’s wildlife to nature-lovers. No-one believes him. It’s just a totally different mind-set. Why would people want to shoot bears with a camera instead of a gun? It just doesn’t make any sense to the local community. The bears here eat only hazelnuts and berries. The people here are living in a national park. Yet his neighbours see bears as dangerous intruders. It is an enigma to the Irwin’s that neighbours will explain “ I shot the bear because he was on my property” or “ I shot the bear because my grandson is coming for the weekend.” Recently, Candy bought a radio to place in a neighbour’s grain bin to make the bin uninviting to a racoon who was about to be shot for trespassing. The neighbour was somewhat surprised it worked and somewhat bemused as to why it wasn’t just easier to shoot the racoon.
When the Irwin’s retire , will nature lovers and photographers gather no more and will hunters roam free, finally unencumbered by the plaintive urgings of what locals would view as an eccentric couple? Who will distribute radios and chicken wire to neighbours as a gentle but effective way of saving the life of a racoon or a bear? Who will save Riding Mountain?
As per Candy's request, no specific bears are mentioned or identifiable in this story.