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Meet Whistler's black bears

Bear researcher Michael Allen hosts inaugural Whislter photo exhibit, revealing black bears' personalities



By Nicole Fitzgerald

What: Black Bear photo exhibit

When: May

Where: MY Millennium Place

Admission: Free

Students have seen them. Bear tour guests have browsed them and newspaper readers caught a glimpse of them one week or another. But never, over bear researcher Michael Allen’s 14 years of documenting and photographing Whistler’s black bears, has Allen showed his photo collection to the public in one Whistler exhibit, until now.

Drawing from photos in the thousands, Allen will showcase more than 50 images at his black bear exhibit running for the month of May at MY Millennium Place. Meet Allen at an artist reception Thursday, May 17 at the local gallery located in the theatre foyer.

“After 14 years of doing this, I wanted to let people get to know the bears,” Allen said while taking a break from hanging his exhibit earlier this week. “There are a lot of photos that people don’t get to see. It’s nice to get some of them out.”

Walking through the exhibit, I feel like I am getting a personal meet and greet with each of Whistler’s bears. I recognize many bear celebrities: Jeanie, Katie and Marisa. Allen really captures the personality and individuality behind each bear. He knows them so well. After all, he named each of them.

Alice’s fur is slicked back by the rain. She munches eagerly on horsetail greenery. Jeanie’s first one-cub litter is illustrated, along with Jeanie looking plump thanks to a hearty berry season. Another sub adult bear is caught off guard; his eyes wide with shock.

“When I look at the photos, they bring back so many memories,” Allen said.

One image of a cub in a tree makes Allen laugh. He explains the cub patted Allen on the head from the branch.

All of Allen’s images tell a story. (And if you want to know more, information cards underneath the photos tell you about the bear, its lifestyle and/or character traits.)

Small images tucked around a corner tell of a time when bears gathered in groups of six or seven in the 1990s, a time now past, only existing in the rough pictures Allen took.

“Some things have been lost in bear behaviour,” Allen said looking at the gathering photos. “They are not a family of bears, but a concentration of bears. You won’t see that now. Bears of mixed ages used to congregate in the swamps in the Interpretive Forest. They would play together. I was 50 feet above on the bluffs totally in awe. I didn’t have decent (photography) equipment at the time, but you don’t see this anymore.”

Other stories also include bears no longer with us. A beautiful black bear called Slip was destroyed last year, but his presence lives on in Allen’s image.

The photos are taken from Allen’s 14 years of researching black bears in Whistler. He uses the images to identify the bears each year and track their lives. Allen facilitates bear education classes, both in the classroom and on the mountain, for local schools. His program is also spreading to other parts of B.C. this year. Allen also hosts daily bear tours on Whistler Mountain.

While a humble Allen repeatedly stresses he is not a photographer by any means, he does admit to knowing his subjects, allowing him to pick the best location, weather and time of day to really capture the personality behind each bear.

“I want to show how each bear is an individual and capture parts of their behavior that I see,” he said. “I see character in all of them. I wanted to show that.”

A unique tan face, shedding a winter coat, white chest markings: Allen’s exhibit gets the public up close and personal with Whistler’s most awesome creatures.

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