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042 Grizzlies choose berries over salmon, and the Canadian Last Spike

This week I look at an amazing report from Alaska that shows that given the choice, salmon may not be a grizzlies first choice for dinner. I also bring to a close, the story of the building of Canada’s transcontinental railway..and with that said, let’s get to it.

Grizzlies Choose Berries over Salmon

Every once in a while you come across a study that throws out everything that you thought you knew about a subject. As a biologist and naturalist, I often lament about how tough the bears in the Rockies have it over their counterparts on the north coast of British Columbia and Alaska.

To most people, coastal bears live in the land of milk and honey. They have 5 kinds of Pacific salmon, and many kinds of edible berries.

I often talk about the importance of understanding the seasonal food preferences of bears in order to stay safe in bear country. If you know what they’re eating when they’re eating it, it becomes safer to avoid unwanted encounters simply by avoiding the bear’s food de jour. Stay clear of what is on today’s menu.

We often talk about the critical importance of meat in the diet of bears. Here in the Rockies, they don’t have a great deal of meaty options. They’ll take some 45% of newborn moose and elk calves, feed on winter killed bighorn sheep and mountain goats, and dig up some ground squirrel colonies.

Since they can’t have enough meat calories, they rely upon buffaloberries to build their fat layers for winter. If they can’t find meat, then berries are their second choice…or so that’s what we used to think.

What if a bear found itself in a world with unlimited numbers of tasty salmon, but also a bumper crop of berries? What do YOU think they would choose?

A recent study on Kodiak Island in Alaska tried to discover the answer to this question. They focused on a well-studied portion of the Karluk watershed on the island.

Because bears have been studied here for many years, it seemed like a good place to start simply because there was some good historic data that might help them to determine the food preferences of the resident grizzlies.

In this study, bears feed on a variety of berries including red elderberry, salmonberry, crowberry and blueberry. Of these four, red elderberry is by far the preferred choice for bears.

Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa). The berry clusters will ripen to a bright red colour.

If you’re not familiar with elderberry bushes, look for a shrub that can be as tall as 3 or 4 metres with compound leaves and dense spikes of white flowers. Later, the flowers will be replaced by dense clumps of berries that grizzlies find very appealing.

The denseness of the berry clusters is also what makes these berries popular with bears as they don’t need to expend great deals of energy eating them.

This experiment was prompted as a result of changes in the seasonal food patterns on Kodiak Island. Historically, while sockeye salmon run for 4 months, they are most vulnerable to bears when they enter smaller tributary streams in July and August. Year after year, decade after decade, the salmon always arrive at the same time of year.

Because the bears are able to catch the salmon before they spawn, the fish contain up to 3 times more food energy than dying fish.

In the past, elderberries ripened later in the season, usually mid-August as the salmon run was beginning to wane. For bears, this was ideal. As one food disappeared, another food was ready for feeding.

Things have been changing rapidly in the north as a result of changing climates and increasingly warm spring temperatures. In warm years, the berries are beginning to ripen earlier and earlier, with ripe berries as early as mid-July on some years.

For the first time the bears found themselves in a situation where there were two key foods that were available in the same area at the same time.

What surprised University of California scientists though was that they did not make the obvious choice – salmon. Instead the majority of bears abandoned the streams and moved upland to feast on elderberries.

I know what you’re saying – “fake science”. After all, no self-respecting carnivore would choose berries over salmon, but despite all logic indicating that they would stick with salmon, they didn’t.

Biologists used a number of methods to track the bears behaviour in years where the elderberries ripened at the same time as the sockeye runs.

When they studied images from 8 years of aerial surveys of the rivers during the salmon run, in every case, years with early berry crops coincided with fewer bears fishing for salmon. This was backed up by looking at areas outside the Karluk River and when 31 years of aerial photographs were compared to ripening dates, the same results were shown.

In particular, during the exceedingly warm summers of 2014 and 2015, studies of scat showed the same results. Of 151 scat samples identified, 125 were composed primarily of red elderberries.

2010 formed a good control years as there was a failure of the elderberry crop and, when they looked at the location of GPS collared bears, they remained at the river to feed on the available salmon.

Their conclusions showed that if elderberries were available at the same time as sockeye salmon, the bears would largely ignore the salmon and turn into a furry frugivore.

As you can imagine, this put the biologists into a tizzy. Why would grizzlies purposely choose foods with lower nutritional value and a lower percentage of protein.

When they looked into the nutritional content of the foods, they discovered that the berries offered only around 50% as much food energy as salmon. This number can be reduced even further when you consider that with a seemingly endless number of salmon, the bears are able to select just the most nutritious parts like the skin, the brains and the eggs.

This still seemed to confound common sense. They had to look deeper. What they discovered is that it’s not just about calories. In order for the bears to maximize weight gain, they may need to look beyond simple calories. The choice may be impacted by the relative percentages of macronutrients like protein.

They turned to food studies of bears in captivity. In one case, the bears were given the choice of foods of varying protein levels. The bears selected foods with protein levels in the 11-21% range, much lower than the 83% found in salmon, but right in the range of elderberry with 12.8%.

In the end, it looks like all calories are not created equal. When given the choice, bears looked for a more moderate amount of protein. Elderberries may be the berry of choice, despite there being other available berries to choose from, simply because they occur in dense clumps which allows bears to eat vast numbers while expending minimal energy.

As temperatures continue to warm, the trend looks like elderberries will continue to ripen earlier and earlier. Currently, they are ripening at a rate of 2-1/2 days earlier each decade. This would put the average ripening date at the same time as the peak salmon run by the year 2070.

It’s unknown how this will affect bears in the long run. Currently, the two foods normally occur sequentially, extending their feeding season. It will also depend on what other food options are available to bears once the salmon and elderberry harvest ends.

I love it when science gets turned on its head. Sometimes the obvious conclusion just isn’t the right one. This study helps to really show the importance of fruit to black and grizzly bears.

It also has a local connections as we look to the end of buffaloberry season. This study helps to show why berries are critical to bears and it also means that it is even more important for us to protect the supply of berries for our local bear populations. Simply chopping down every buffaloberry bush in town is NOT the solution.

Bears are creatures of habit. Once a location is a part of their regular foraging routine, they’ll continue to return. If they don’t find buffaloberries, then they may find…crabapples.

Wildlife corridors should be for wildlife. Clear berry bushes from places like the Peaks, but the wildlife corridor berries should be left for the bears. If the berries are concentrated there, so will the bears be. If, as a community, we can get people to respect closures, than maybe we can help to keep the bears healthy and the wildlife corridors viable.

The Last Spike

Over the past few weeks, I’ve introduced you to the main players in the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. This week, I want to talk about the completion of the line through the Kicking Horse and Roger’s Passes.

While the stories of adventure and exploration were taking place, the financiers and managers were doing everything they could to keep the flow of money coming…and many times, they were failing.

In 1880, the government of Canada gave the contract to finish the CPR to a group of financiers led by George Stephen and Donald Smith. The contract required the line to be finished within 10 years and offered the “syndicate” a monopoly of the line along with $25 million in cash and 25 million acres of land grants in stages as they completed sections of the track.

When the job was done, they would be given an additional 1,100 km of track already completed. The value of those lines was some $75 million.

During the battles to pass the C.P.R. contract in the house, the conservatives had to defeat 23 different amendments during an excess of 30 sessions that extended past midnight.

The ordeal took its toll on Macdonald who was confined to bed with severe bowel cramps when the contract was passed in parliament. When he left for England to recuperate, many believed they would never see him again.

Stephen knew that it would be next to impossible to raise money in England due to the fiasco surrounding another Canadian railroad, the Grand Trunk. It had earned the nickname “The Big Suitcase” for the immense amounts of money it had managed to walk away with, without ever paying a penny in dividends. The Grand Trunk also did all it could to discredit the C.P.R., whom it saw as a competitor.

When Stephen arrived in London, he was shocked to find that the newspapers were more interested in the fact that Jumbo the elephant had been sold to P.T. Barnum. This was a few years before John, Paul, George and Ringo, and Jumbo was the closest thing England had to a Rock Star…he was one famous elephant.

Revenge can be sweet though, and Stephen had his chuckle when, just three weeks before the hammering of the last spike, a Grand Trunk locomotive ran over Jumbo and killed him.

Financial difficulties were not long in arriving, and repeatedly, the syndicate had to ask the government for assistance. Each hand out made it more difficult to approve the next, and to cut costs, Sandford Fleming’s Yellowhead Pass route was abandoned for the shorter route through the Kicking Horse Pass.

In the two years between 1880 and 1882, the company spent almost $59 million dollars, but barely collected $21 million. The remaining $37 million was not covered by the fact that they had less than $20 million in investor money. That left them with a whopping $17 million in debt.

Thomas Shaughnessy, the C.P.R.’s purchasing agent managed to keep the line afloat through some interesting financial dealings. In one case, an American firm accused him of taking bribes to secure work, while not delivering.

When he was hauled into Stephen’s office, he pulled out a collection of deposit slips, all to the C.P.R. account, which totaled exactly what the American firm had claimed. When asked if they had been bribes, he answered:

“Of Course, but by God we needed the money didn’t we!”

In the end it became clear that they needed at least another $27 million dollars in order to get the line through. The only way to get the funding would be for the government to, once again, bail the railway out.

By Dec of 1883 Stephen was desperate, and he wired Prime Minister John A. Macdonald:

“Things have now reached a point when we must either stop or find the means of going on. Our enemies here and elsewhere think they can now break us down and finish the CPR forever.”

While Macdonald had no interest in bailing out the railroad yet again, his Minister of Railways, John Henry Pope pointed out:

“the day the Canadian Pacific busts the Conservative party busts the day after”

Once again, the railroad was bailed out.

In October, Stephen set out for one last fund raising trip to England. Along with him was Macdonald who was trying to escape the stress that pushing through the railroad aid bills had put on him. Finally, through a feat of financial finagling, Stephen managed to borrow $250,000 from a Scottish bank. He then sent off the most famous telegram in Canadian history to Smith—all it read was “Stand Fast Craigellachie”

Smith and Stephen had grown up in Banffshire, Scotland, and a giant rock nearby had become a symbol of the clan Grant’s defiance during the clan wars—it was known as Craigellachie. This telegram was Stephen’s way of informing Smith that the funds were on the way.

A final saving grace occurred when a Metis named Louis Riel, led a revolt against the government beginning in March of 1885. The Metis were of mixed blood French/Indian origin and had begun to attack settlements in the west and the troops were being sent in.

Van Horne dedicated all the resources of the railroad to get 3,000 troops to the front in just 7 days. With this quick response, the uprising was quelled more quickly than expected. An earlier uprising had required 3 months to get troops to the front.

Suddenly the railroad had shown it had more value, and the government bailed them out at the eleventh hour. Workers had not been paid for several months and were refusing to work. The banks had turned them down for any temporary loans, and when the government agreed to back their loan, Van Horne Stated that when they received the news:

“We tossed up chairs to the ceiling; we tramped on desks; I believe we danced on tables. I do not fancy that any of us knows what occurred, and no one who was there can ever remember anything except loud yells of joy and the sound of things breaking.”

Van Horne then sent out a hasty telegraph to Shaughnessy. All it said was: “Pay creditors now. Van Horne.”

Stephen had lost all pleasure in the enterprise. The government sent appraisers to his vast Montreal mansion for security for his loan. They evaluated everything from his silverware to his underwear, and with a stroke of a pen, he signed it all away. In fact, he did not even go to the hammering of the last spike, but returned to Scotland to recover from the strain.

The Last Spike Ceremony

Finally, on Nov. 7, 1885 the day had arrived. The last spike would finally be hammered. The location was named Craigellachie in honour of the three word telegram that had saved the railway.

The American Last Spike at Promontory Utah in 1869
The American Last Spike at Promontory Utah in 1869

But before I tell the story of our last spike, I like to share the story of the American last spike ceremony that occurred in 1869 in Promontory, Utah because no two events could be so wonderfully different.

In Promontory Utah, there were two gold, and two silver spikes. The main spike had been forged at a cost of $400. Attached to the spikes were telegraph wires, so the whole country could hear it driven home. The Governor of California was on hand for the occasion and he had a specially designed silver maul, silver hammer with which to drive the stake.

When everyone was in position and the cameras were ready, he raised that hammer and he brought it down…and he missed. He missed the last spike. That’s okay because the telegraph operator sent the word “done” and simultaneous celebrations broke out from New York to San Francisco. They even rang the long silent liberty bell.

When Van Horne was asked about what kind of ceremony he would like, he declared that

‘“…the only ceremony I fancy may occur will be the damning of the foreman for not driving it sooner…”

He also declared that there would be no golden spike, that the last spike would be a plain iron spike, as good as all the rest.

There were no heads of state or government at the hammering of our last spike, just some of the financiers and surveyors who would not have missed this moment, along with the workers that just happened to be there at the time.

The Hammering of the Last Spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway at Craigellachie, B.C.

In the photograph, hammering the spike is Donald Smith, one of the main financiers. Behind him, with a stove pipe hat and patriarchal style beard is Sandford Fleming. To Fleming’s right, with his hands in his pockets, is William Cornelius Van Horne. Out of sight is Major A.B. Rogers, and way in the back, with a Stetson hat, peaking over the crowd, is a young Tom Wilson who would not have missed this day for the world.

Now Donald Smith had heard the story of the Governor of California missing the spike, and we would have no such shenanigans here. And so when everything was ready, and the cameras were in position, he raised his hammer, took careful aim, and he brought it down…and he didn’t miss!…

…he bent it. He bent the last spike! It obviously had to be taken out, so we actually had two last spikes in Canada. It was later cut up into pieces to make souvenir pins for the many dignitaries that were not present. A new spike was put into place, and this time Smith drove the spike home. It was also immediately pulled out. The last thing we wanted was souvenir hunters tearing up the track as soon as we got it built.

After the spike, there was silence, as the men pondered the friends they had made, the friends they had lost, and in more cases than not, just what the heck they were going to do next because with that simple act they were now unemployed.

The silence was followed by a cheer and cries for a speech. We needed some words by which to mark the occasion…after all, what would the historians say? Finally Van Horne reluctantly agreed. He climbed on the platform, cleared his throat and stated:

“All I can say is that the work has been done well in every way!”

That was it. That was the entire text of the speech at our last spike ceremony. After that, Major A.B. Rogers, so taken by the moment, forgot about hiding his emotions, grabbed a piece of railroad tie and tried to thrust it into the ground to mark the spot.

After a few minutes of private celebration, the sound of a train whistle and a call of “all aboard for the pacific” broke the silence. And for the first time, the train was able to continue over what had once been a gap in the tracks, and that little train chugged its way into history.

The last spike had been removed shortly after the dignitaries left by Frank Brothers. In the famous photograph of the event, he’s the bearded man on the left of the image looking directly at the camera.

He later presented it to Edward Beatty who became the first Canadian born president of the CPR. It was reportedly stolen from his desk and at that point it was largely lost in history.

In 2012, the mystery of the missing spike may have finally been solved. Rumour has it that the spike somehow made its way to railroad surveyor Henry Cambie, who in turn gave it to the chief of the patent office in Ottawa, W.J. Lynch. It was to be a gift for his son, Arthur who was a railroad buff. From Arthur it made its way to his daughter, Margo Remnant.

The spike was silver plated and fashioned into the handle of a knife blade. Metallurgical studies showed it was consistent with the metal used in spikes at the time.

In 2012, Remnant’s widow presented it to the Museum of Civilization where hopefully it will find a permanent home.

And with that, it’s time to wrap this episode up. I want to thank you for sharing your time with me and I appreciate you hitting the subscribe button so that you don’t miss any future episodes.

Ward Cameron Enterprises is your specialist on guided hikes, tours and photography outings across the mountain west. If you’d like to make the most of your mountain experience drop us a line using the contact form on this site or hit me up on Twitter @wardcameron.

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