Spring Beauty (a feast for the eyes, and a meal for man and bear)
We circled over the edge of the plateau where the Bridge River emerges from under the icefields of the Coast Mountains and selected our camp site. The chopper settled down on a level patch of heather near a small tarn about 300 metres above treeline where we threw out our stuff, waved the pilot off, and started setting up the tent that would be home for the next 10 days. Then we discovered the cache.
About 30 metres from camp the partly buried remains of some animal, a leg bone and bits of hide, protruded from a pile of fresh earth surrounded by grizzly tracks. Magnified by the soft mud the prints were enormous. Not a good place to camp! We promptly moved to a new location where the cache could be seen but far enough away so that we would not be perceived as a threat to the buried treasure. The bear didn't return but the discovery put us on high alert.
We were there to study a cluster of small, widely spaced volcanic cones at the northern end of the Garibaldi Volcanic Belt. Each day our route ahead was carefully scanned with binoculars and although the bear was never seen his signs were everywhere. It was late June and the snow had receded into patches on the damp tundra where the first bloom of alpine wild flowers was at its peak. The plateau was a vast garden of Western Anemone, yellow Glacier Lily, and the tiny white blooms of Spring Beauty. But here and there the garden looked as though it had been attacked by a roto-tiller. It was clear our bear had finished the meat course and moved on to the vegetables.
Spring Beauty (Claytonia lanceolata) is a tiny flower, less than an inch across, with five narrow white petals lined with pink, and five prominent yellow-tipped stamens. In the alpine the stems rarely grow more than three inches long and two smooth slender leaves at the base rest on or just above the ground. Like many wild flowers in the first bloom Spring Beauty grows from a small corm which provides the nutrients for rapid early spring growth. Sometimes referred to as Indian potato, the edible Spring Beauty corm – about the size and shape of a chick pea – was harvested by Interior Native people and is a favourite food of grizzly bears.
It seems totally incongruous that a powerful, 600-pound bear with long claws on feet the size of dinner plates would spend its time digging for pea-sized "spuds." But life in the high alpine is tough – even for grizzly bears.
While waiting for the helicopter to take us back to Pemberton Meadows we boiled up a few corms on our primus stove – not bad. They do indeed taste like new potatoes, but I'd hate to depend on them for supper.
(Spring Beauty isn’t quite as common on our local mountains as it is farther east, but you can find some if you pay attention. One good bet is on the trail to Harmony Lake on Whistler Mountain where they grow at the edge of receding snow.)
Written by: Jack Souther