Spring evenings and grizzly slides define my meaning of home. Without doubt I have felt more alive when it’s evening and I am sitting at the bottom of a greening slide system. A down draft touches lightly upon your face. All is calm and there upon the background lies the undertone of alpine music, endless echoes of valley’s flooding streams gathering with beautiful notes from Songbirds enchanted by the evening. Your breath quivers yet you sit unmoving nibbling on the sweet ends of Avalanche Lily. There is an invisible tune in your mind and your body is in rhythm with it. A deep beating pulse where you feel and sense your entire surroundings awaken. Awakened from the coming of a missed heartbeat. A beat that will be lost when a mountain grizzly steps out from beyond the slides forested edge. No words are needed, you are alive admits the wilderness, alive within the peace of your mountain home. This is the place that my bear hunting mentors taught me to feel, to love. Mentors such as my father Stan Lancaster, Richard Rohrer from Kodiak Alaska and the late “Mr. Elk Valley B.C.” Bob Fontana.
Bob Fontana was one of those individuals that once you met him you never forgot him. He had a strong will and temperament that spelt the words of strength to his character. Finesse I will not say was one of his fine points when it came to public relations, but “respect was”. Bob could debate on a cause that he believed in like no other I have known. If you were against him in a strong discussion “get ready because you were about to get beat up”. He was extremely passionate when it came to the topic of grizzly bears. He believed in a healthy stable future for grizzlies and was the leader in the fight to preserve hunting and the proper management of grizzlies. He understood mountain grizzlies better than all others, there habits such as breeding patterns, monarchy placement, and traditional feeding cycles. For example what slides were the most active for lone sows at what times of the spring, what berry patches were favoured in August compared to September, what rub trees told the best story of what bear was now the most dominate in the valley. Bob knew the ways of grizzlies especially the ones in his home domain the Elk Valley. He took pride in glassing the nursery basins in the spring to see the sows with their new born cubs, having watched some sows long enough to know three different sets of new born. A process such as this takes a minimum of nine years to observe.
Bob respected grizzlies and marvelled at their ways, their human like tendencies and behaviour unique to their species. He had witnessed the biggest of the dominant bores fight from mountaintop to mountain bottom. Simply having the winner walk back up the mountain to the sow and the looser moving on his way down out the valley. Bob marvelled in passing on these great stories in exciting ways to young admirers such as myself. He left within you the craving’s to jump up and race after stories such as his. He inspired the young and old minds around him to live and capture the moments of nature’s great awe. He was a leader among men, a nimrod (mighty hunter). A character unshaken when faced with adversity. Bob always spoke his mind and his point and was humble enough to admit when he was proven wrong. “Though the latter never occurred without hard evidence”.
I never knew Bob as a teenager except for in his stories. From these stories I’m sure I would not have liked him much, but he became the classic example never to under estimate a youth’s potential and the dreams they chase. Even as a teenager the calling of spring slides was in his blood. His first Grizzly hunt took him over a mountain tracking a wounded bear into deep snow country. As the bear lay in waiting Bob spotted the grizzly first and never became a wounded bear’s human death stat. This close encounter didn’t sway Bob’s dream only added fuel to his internal fire, a fire that would become his legacy as a grizzly guide with unsurpassable knowledge concerning mountain grizzly habits, habitat and hunting.
I was granted the opportunity to sit with eyes behind binocular and spotting scope watching grizzly bears with Bob over my shoulder for several springs. We discussed nursery basins where newborn family units could consistently be found and watched them through optic. We sized and sexed juvenile bores and kick outs. Watched huge bores on the move across mountains with no hope of catching up though we tried. Truly we identified hundreds of sightings of bears and became intertwined with a passion for hunting big bore grizzlies. Big bores that could mostly be found on spring evenings in greening avalanche slides with a good pare of binoculars.
A very memorable hunt I had with Bob was with PA hunter Ralph Gietz, fellow guide Kim Sedrovick and cameraman Duncan Gilcrist. On that hunt at one time I was able to look at 15 grizzlies through my binoculars in one field of view. All sows, yearling’s and two year olds. Two days later on those same greenings slides Bob left me to monitor, “I saw 11 mature single bears that were bores and open sows”. One of these bores was a giant! I stated this to Bob when he finally came along and ask me how it was going. Bob believed me without question because my eyes were no longer in their sockets! That night the giant finally stepped out of his all day bed and became Ralph’s trophy of a lifetime. At an enormous 8’10 squared and 24-10/16, skull size, a spring griz weighing over 800 pounds, I became addicted to Bob’s high, “GIANT GRIZZLIES”.
The process of getting a chance to see my first giant grizzly was an arduous task. So many times I would look upon decent sized bores and believe them to be the “big one” only to have Bob correct me.
“It is a good bear but only a squeaky eight footer”.
I would be frustrated once again and ask him how to tell the difference? He would state!
“I don’t need to tell you, you will know for yourself once you truthfully see a mountain grizzly eight and a half plus”.
Ralf Gietz grizzly bear was that moment, and the reason why Bob never questioned! I came to know the passion and respect Bob felt for these big old grizzlies on that day. I had the image of first seeing Ralf’s bear to carry with me now, for the rest of my days to compare to all my large bear sightings. Bob knew I needed that image because somewhere in his past he had a similar day, and experience!
Though Bob is now gone due to no choice of his own I doubt his legacy of watching, hunting and understanding grizzlies will ever die inside of me. What he instilled in my character those many days amongst the Rocky mountain corridor will be shared with others who have the passion to pursue grizzly bears in the high country. When we wake at four a.m. on a spring morning, not only will I wonder if Bob would agree and approve of how the morning looks and feels, it will be the person standing beside me as well. Even if they never had unique experience of knowing him, they will through the springtime stories all evolving around his legacy! They will feel the adrenalin pulse that makes you want ask and discover the reasons that make mountain grizzlies the way that they are! And if they look and listen to their surroundings, they will hear bob Fontana’s answer blowing down from the high mountain slopes. Come to see dream bears of silver gleam and massive shoulders from his whispers of where to watch. Be awed to high slopes by his stories, Spotting sows and newborn cubs belly surfing in snow bowls. Seeing future generations in their playful glee. Have their binoculars shaken by a gust of wind, catching the retreat of a pair of kick outs looking back over their shoulders knowing a big bore is near and their mother has just released them to the world they will now discover alone! They will hear and see, they feel Bob Fontana’s grizzly bear legacy…