By Travel columnists
updated 3/14/2005 10:20:23 PM ET 2005-03-15T03:20:23

Look out for the bear. Mind the moose. And watch for the cougar.

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You don’t have to visit a national park to see them up-close. Just go skiing in Whistler, British Columbia, during the spring, and you’ll find them everywhere. Even on the slopes.

Bears come out of hibernation during March, leaving their dens and foraging for food. Moose and cougar share downhill runs with cross-country skiers, snowboarders and alpine skiers.

And look up — is that an eagle? Maybe. Squamish, about an hour’s drive south, is Canada’s bald eagle capital. You can often see these rare birds of prey perched on ancient firs or circling the heavens.

Although resort officials insist the creatures pose no threat to visitors, there have been close calls. It’s almost impossible to meet a ski guide without a wild animal story to tell. A close encounter with a black bear and two cubs on a quiet Blackcomb mountain run. A near-miss with a moose on Whistler.

“Wildlife encounters are usually more dangerous for the animals than they are for the skiers,” says Cindy Burr, a British Columbia spokeswoman. “Most of the time, the animal goes in one direction, the skier goes in the other direction. It’s a happy ending.”

Mike Allen, a bear researcher with the Whistler Black Bear Project, estimates that there are more than 70 bear dens on Whistler Mountain, about 90 percent of which are within the ski-area boundary. Sometimes the Bears wait until late in spring before coming out.

No matter. Snow permitting, the resort stays open until June, and you can ski on the glacier during the summer.

Can’t wait for the wildlife? There are always the dogs. Alaskan Huskies, St. Bernards, and Labradors, mostly. Whistler, which is widely considered one of the most dog-friendly ski towns, is full of them. The ski patrol uses them for avalanche rescues. Locals and visitors keep the canines as pets, and when they ride the slopes here, their best friends frequently follow them.

The dogs (which technically aren’t allowed on the mountain, but somehow get there anyway) give the vast ski resort a very Animal Planet feel. In fact, it’s thought that having a dog actually increases your chance of encountering a bear, because unleashed dogs tend to antagonize a bear — especially a hungry one.

Whistler and Blackcomb is the ideal backdrop for such a spectacle. The resort is as immense as it is intimidating, with forbidding peaks that etch a dramatic profile in a perfectly blue sky. It’s got the largest vertical drop — each mountain offers more than 5,000 feet of it — in North America. There are more than 3,400 skiable trail acres, meaning that you could spend an entire day skiing or riding and never hit the same run twice.

Some skiers actually go looking for the wildlife. The Fairmont Chateau Whistler’s golf course is a favorite place to find deer. To see moose, you have to trek toward the Soo Valley near the north end of town. But the most common creatures are the bears, and they can be seen almost anywhere after they emerge from hibernation.

People who have encountered them say it’s easy to elude a bear on skis, as long as you know what you’re doing. But proper bear protocol calls for you to stop — not to run or ski — when you come face-to-face with a bear. This is one slope obstacle that you’re better off letting walk away instead of trying to carve around it.

Bears are formidable runners, known to cover as much as 200 feet in as little as six seconds. Fortunately, most of Whistler and Blackcomb’s trails are wide enough that you can see these predators from a distance and steer clear of them before they get dangerous.

Whistler’s wild side sets it apart from almost any other ski resort in North America, save for a few isolated slopes in Montana and Alaska. Locals take it with good humor, maybe for no other reason than that it adds new meaning to the term “obstacle course.”

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