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The Lord of the Bears 

Reno Sommerhalder has been living his dream in Canada’s Rocky Mountains since the 1990s. He devotes his time to studying the behaviour of grizzly bears and to promoting a peaceful co-existence with these furry giants.

“I could eat this landscape,” Reno Sommerhalder says whilst taking a deep breath. His eyes follow the stream that meanders gently through the golden-shimmering mountain pastures, winding its way down to the valley past dense coniferous forests that are speckled with autumnal larches in lush hues of yellow and orange. The snow-capped Mount Assiniboine rises majestically in the background. “Not a single day goes by without my looking around and being aware of the incredible privilege of living and working here. It is an indescribable joy.”

Photos: Edelweiss/Adrian Bretscher

“Grizzly” camping experience

Shortly after finishing his apprenticeship as a cook, the then nineteen-year-old Sommerhalder had an encounter so fateful it turned his life upside down. “I was camping in a tent, when at night time I was jolted out of my sleep by the sound of my little cowbell. I stood up in the dark, still half asleep, and looked straight into the eyes of a bear. The furry giant had torn through the wall of my tent,” Sommerhalder explains with a floweriness as though the incident had occurred yesterday. The bear left without any prey, but not without leaving a lasting impression: “I lay awake until the next morning. Frightened. Crying. But from that point forward, my life was to be devoted to bears.” Why so, after such a frightening first encounter? “I was fascinated by the animal. And that fascination just wouldn’t let me go. Later, my main focus shifted to the significance of bears for the landscape,” Reno Sommerhalder explains.

Since then, Sommerhalder, who is originally from Kloten in the canton of Zurich, has had thousands of bear encounters. He studied the behaviour of bears along salmon rivers in Alaska, trekked through the Siberian Taiga as a surrogate mother of orphaned bear cubs and, perhaps most importantly, developed a close bond with the furry giants in his adopted country, Canada. “Bears are ninety per cent vegetarian. But especially just before going into hibernation, they expand their diet so as to build up their fat reserves,” says Sommerhalder as we hike through the Sunshine Meadows. “Look, you can see the traces of a bear which dug for gophers,” he comments and picks up branches from a burrow. “The traces are still fresh; the bear cannot be far.” Sommerhalder’s dark brown eyes shine with excitement.

“I am obsessed with the harmony that would be possible”

“Reno dreams of bears, reads about bears, philosophises about bears, worries about bears, writes about bears, flies to the bears, talks to the bears, takes photographs of the bears, eats with the bears – and he even looks like one. One could say he is obsessed,” Andrea Pfeuti, his life partner of many years, says of him. “It is not the bears per se, but the holistic aspect that I am obsessed with,” Sommerhalder relativises: he sees the bear as a symbol for a healthy, intact nature. “Looking at a time span of more than thirty years, I can count the number of hairy situations on one hand – and every single incident was due to wrong behaviour on my part,” Sommerhalder points out. “I am obsessed with the harmony that would be possible. It is so easy to coexist with these animals. However, the habitat of our four-legged friends is steadily shrinking,” he adds. That is why “dropout” Sommerhalder is focused on fighting the commercialisation of the national park at the expense of nature. “On the one hand, tourism is an important branch of industry. On the other hand, we must take better care that we do not love to death what we travel to see,” he points out. Especially in the Rockies, he adds, where nature is on one’s doorstep.

Respect for life

Sommerhalder lives with his partner Andrea and his daughter Ara, born in 2011, in an inconspicuous terraced house in Banff that has a population of 8000. There is a wildlife corridor behind their house. “Last winter, a cougar walked down our street. At the same time, downtown Banff is a ten-minute walk away where you can enjoy a cappuccino. Simply put: you have the best of both worlds here.” And which world is more important to him? “I can live without coffee, but not without nature,” the bear man answers with a grin.

The fridge in the wood-panelled kitchen is plastered with children’s drawings: Mummy and Daddy celebrating their wedding, Ara and Daddy walking across a colourful field of flowers and –of course– a bear. Is the career path of a child born to a bear man already mapped out? Sommerhalder‘s elder daughter Isha from a previous relationship is a teenager now and dreams of becoming a marine biologist. “I am delighted by that, of course, but it is definitely not an expectation etched in stone. The only thing that matters to me is that my children grow up with a healthy respect for life.” He understands this to mean an ecologically sustainable way of life. Whenever possible, he cycles or walks to places; there are solar panels on his roof for clean energy and he buys seasonal produce. As for meat, it basically comes from his backyard: for some years now, Sommerhalder has hunted his own game. “There is no pressure. We are flexible and do use the car now and then,” he concedes. “A healthier and more harmonious lifestyle is not primarily about constantly saying ‘no’; but we do need to set limits.” As Sommerhalder sees it, everyone must decide for themselves where to set those limits. There is not even always agreement in the Sommerhalder-Pfeuti household: “We occasionally do quarrel because Andrea lets the tap run when washing up,” the man of the house says, trying unavailingly to suppress a grin.

“When the bears are awake, I am too.”

On arriving in Canada, city-born Sommerhalder would have loved to have moved into a log cabin away from all civilisation. “At the end of the day, humans are herd creatures. And if I do feel I need more wilderness, I will go for it.” He has found his “ideal mate” in Andrea, who is the sister of Swiss-German rock musician Gölä. What started as a pen pal relationship became love. “On the one hand, Andrea gives me plenty of freedom; on the other hand, she needs it too, for herself.” Especially in summer, Andrea, who is a medical assistant, often has to do without her beloved Reno. “I get up at dawn and go to bed at dusk. When the bears are awake, I am too.”

And he gets really close to the animals. “I might spot a wild bear grazing peacefully or nursing her cubs just a few metres away from me. Within an hour, it is possible to form a bond with the bear,” he says. He is convinced that humankind is far more unpredictable. “When I spent seven months travelling in Russia, not once was I approached by an Asian black bear. But on my return to the city, a local resident broke my nose.” Biologists criticise Sommerhalder claiming that he has lost the required distance to his study objects, and that he humanises the predators. “For decades, field research has also been a science,” he counters: “I do find it frustrating that I have to work harder at getting recognition for my work because I do not have a university degree to show.” At times, he even feels quite “offended”. “Oh, there is still so much we can learn from the bears. In their world, all of that is rubbish: animals do not have an ego.”

Text: Marlies Seifert