Bear Respect !

September 25, 2014  •  1 Comment

 

Curious Bear.An Alaskan Brown Bear (i.e. Coastal Grizzly) looks at me with trepidation. His ears are forward, indicating curiosity as he assesses things.

FEAR is a very powerful emotion that often overtakes us.  A recent backcountry trip in Katmai National Park in Alaska once again taught me how fear can mess with you if you let it control your thinking.

Mention the words "Grizzly Bear" and the first thoughts that come to mind are { "bear attacks", "mauling", and "killings"}.  Even their scientific name, Ursus arctos horribilis conveys danger. 

In Katmai I would be camping out in the backcountry in one of the densest concentrations of Brown Bears in the world.  Guaranteed to have close encounters with grizzly bears.  Yikes !   

In preparation for the trip I studied bear behavior and how to avoid attacks.  This involved reading books, talking with others about bears, studying previous trip reports, and advice from National Park rangers in Alaska.  People seemed to be in either the "bear spray" camp or the "gun" camp.  My initial excitement for this adventure started to get clouded by fear.  Frustration soon set in after hearing tales about the ferocious grizzly bear contrasted against "no worries, the bears will ignore you" viewpoints. Who should I believe ?

Two of the books I read, Mark of the Grizzly and Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance , were great.  Many other books were not useful and suspect.  These two books taught me that I really did not have a clue about grizzly bears. I had experience with Black Bears (Ursus americanus) in the Sierra Nevada and at home in the Southern Rocky Mountains.  My interactions with Black Bears taught me that simply yelling at a Black Bear or clapping my hands would send it off running.  Yelling at a Grizzly Bear is however not advised.

Counter-intuitive rules of thumb for Grizzly Bears surprised me:  

  • Don't look a grizzly in the eye,
     
  • Do not yell at one or show aggression,
     
  • Do not show fear and stand your ground if needed and a bear  approaches you,
     
  • Do not run,
     
  • Try your very best not to surprise a Grizzly.
     
  • Much like the proper way to behave when walking through the bad part of town, you want to move on through without appearing to be a victim (i.e. prey), not threaten their young, or gawk at their women.
     
  • If a bear charges you, try to remain calm and not react,
     
  • Do your best to not convey a sense of threat to the bears.  Yes, the bears are often afraid of us and react in fear!  They fear we might be another bear that might hurt them, or we might attack their cubs, or take their kill or carcass.

     

OFF TO THE ALASKAN WILDERNESS ...  armed with this newly acquired bear knowledge, bear spray, a bear rifle, electric bear fence, air horns, and bear resistant food containers.  Geez, it felt like going to combat.  

Shipping bear spray to King Salmon, Alaska, where I would get on a float plane to access Brooks Camp in Katmai NP was next to impossible.  Airline regulations treat it as a "Class 5" hazardous cargo -- which requires special licensing and permits for the shippers to package it, and the carriers to fly it.  You used to be able to purchase bear spray in King Salmon at a given store.  I called the store and the owner replied with "DUDE, if you think you are going to get close enough to a 13 foot tall bear to use spray you are crazy!".  Responses like this were not that uncommon. Lots of emotion and opinion.  I got the feeling that many of these "experts" had never been in the backcountry around bears and were perhaps educated via bar stories?

After calling many shippers and the suppliers of bear spray it seemed impossible to have bear spray on my trip.  A break came one day though when I found a supplier of bear spray in Alaska who worked hard to figure it out.  It cost us about $150 per can to do this, in addition to the actual cost of the bear spray which was about $50 per can.  Even so, it was worth the price since I knew that bear spray was the most effective defense mechanism if charged by a bear.

Being a good American, I also followed the norms of our gun culture and purchased a bear rifle.  Interestingly, it is perfectly OK to fly with a rifle -- yet flying with bear spray or an air horn seems impossible.  Before leaving on the trip I practiced shooting the rifle in a quick reaction manner.  Part of me thought, "sure, I can do this and now I feel safe from a bear charge...", and the other little voice inside me said "you have lost your mind, there is no way you would be able to stop a bear charge with a gun.  What about all the research you studied that proved bear spray is way more effective than a gun?  and more importantly, those that did use a gun were much more likely to get seriously injured by a charging bear ! ".  The thought of shooting a bear, while I am a visitor in its home, really bugged me.  At this point I was feeling very conflicted.

MY FIRST DAY at Katmai the reality of the situation was much clearer.  Brooks Camp is a beautiful little outpost inside Katmai National Park and Refuge.  Brown Bears congregate there in July to feast on sockeye salmon as they try and reach their spawning grounds upstream of Brooks Falls.  The falls provide a unique opportunity for bears to catch the salmon in mid-air as they leap upstream over the falls.  Brooks Camp has bear viewing platforms, elevated above the bears and out of their way -- yet providing close up views of the bears.  Visitors are required to take a mandatory bear safety class once they get off the float plane.  The class seemed a little weak to me, especially after reading the books mentioned above.  I think someday there will be a bear - human "incident" (i.e. a person will get attacked...) at Brooks Camp, simply because there are so many people in close proximity to many bears. Homo sapiens can be a very stupid, arrogant, and selfish species.  Sooner or later there will be an accident and unfortunately this will probably lead to Homo sapiens trying to control Ursus arctos.

The rules at Katmai NP are that you must stay at least 50 yards away from a bear, and 100 yards away from a sow with cubs.  The reality is that bears will often walk along the same trail you are on and can come very close to you.  Twice I had a bear run by me within  5 feet of me!

 Rangers are strategically located around Brooks Camp to manage the tourists and direct traffic away from bears when needed.  These rangers have amazing patience!  Tourists from all around the world fly into Brooks Camp to see the bears.  Many are "day trippers" who come for one day and then leave the same day.  Others are "cabin guests", who pay for a little wood cabin to stay in, and then there are us "campers" who stay behind an electric fence in a nice campground with a building for a food shelter and a gear room -- all in the spirit of ensuring a bear never gets a camper's food or gear.  If they did, they might become habituated and become a "problem bear".  Unfortunately "a fed bear is a dead bear". Once a wild bear obtains food from humans, they associate humans with food.  The end result if this behavior is reinforced is the authorities usually end up eventually killing the bear.  That really sucks.  If a camper is sloppy and does not keep a clean camp, a bear might lose its life over the camper's bad behavior.

The Brooks River is also world famous for its fly-fishing.  Although the focus of my trip was wildlife photography I did bring a fly rod along.  After catching a couple of nice rainbow trout in the river I realized that when I had a fish on the line and it started to fight and splash in the water any bear close by would come investigate the splashing -- wondering if it was a salmon for dinner.  The close encounters with bears while fishing convinced me to leave the rivers to the bears during peak season and focus on photography.

AFTER A FEW DAYS at Brooks Camp my fear of the bears dwindled. It was replaced by respect for these amazingly smart and agile bears. Watching them fish for salmon in the white-water demonstrates their agility.  How can something so huge (some weigh up to 1300 lbs) move so fast with the agility of professional basketball player?  I would stay out late photographing and walk back by myself in the dark through the woods talking to myself with a loud voice.  The goal was not to surprise a bear while hiking the trails. Funny how I was very self-conscious about what I was saying or singing while alone in the woods -- worried that another hiker might hear me and think I was nuts.  Sometimes I would just recite the alphabet.  Eventually though, no matter what chant I started out with, it ended up being "Hey Bear!  Hey Bear, Bear..., Nice Bear" - you know, as if I was calling my dog.

After 5 days of photographing the bears at Brook's Falls my trip partner, Chris, and I headed out into the backcountry wilderness in a sea kayak.  The bears in the wilderness are not used to people like the ones at Brooks Camp.  We camped out in backpacking tent.  A lightweight electric bear fence was setup around our tent on most nights.

We were pretty scared our first day out.  High winds on Naknek Lake would force us to shore where we would wait for the water to calm down.  Our first time doing this we were convinced a bear was close by watching us -- only to find out later what we thought was a bear was actually a tree stump.

We camped on islands in Naknek Lake to help mitigate bear encounters.  Bears are great swimmers.  When we first landed on an island we would sound the air horn to avoid surprising any bears in the entire county. This horn was loud !

 

Our camp on a small island in Naknek LakeWe camped on the smallest islands we could find since they were less likely to have bears on them.

The islands were beautiful.  They looked like they were in the tropics with lush green sphagnum moss that was so soft you could walk barefoot on it.  Some islands had well established bear trails that carved tunnels through the dense green forest.  Thinking of bears living on these islands in the remote Alaskan paradise was pretty special.

Bears could be seen on the beaches of Naknek Lake as we paddled in our kayak.  We watched them hunting the shores for salmon and felt sorry for them as they lived a rough life in the Alaskan wilderness always looking for food.  Hibernating for most of the year (from October to May) their time now was focussed on gaining as much body fat as possible.

Stormy weather moved in and held us on a tiny island, about 1000 square feet, for a couple of days.  This was kind of fun.  Like Gilligan's Island.  Watching myself learn to relax and be patient with the limited activities available on the island was telling. At first I could feel what I thought was my cell phone vibrating in my pocket -- I did not have a cell phone with me!  How sick is that?  I have become so dependent on the instant gratification of cell phones and social media now.  Escapes into the wilderness reboot me into a more relaxed and awake place.

The islands rise up quickly from the depths of Naknek Lake.  Casting flies as far as I could off the island hoping for a passing Lake Trout or Northern Pike, taking photos of the slow arctic sunsets, and sleeping were the activities while waiting for the weather to improve.

A momentary pause in the weather allowed us to kayak a mile of open water to an old trappers cabin, Fure's Cabin.  We took refuge from the stormy weather there for two nights.  The thick walls of the hand built cabin with its wood stove provided a warm and safe respite.  The log book in the cabin showed only three visitors before us for 2014.  One of the entries in the log book read "Bear pushing on door last night" and " bear looking in the window".  Hmmm...  

Fure's Cabin in the Bay of Islands, Naknek Lake.The beautifully built Fure's Cabin on the Bay of Islands in Naknek Lake. An old trappers cabin that Roy Fure built in the early 1900's and lived in for 30 years all year round.

I had read about a bear charging a kayaker last year on the portage trail by Fure's Cabin.  This coupled with the log book entries and the fact that previous visitors had thrown garbage and backpacking food packages down the outhouse raised our anxiety. A local bear tossed the outhouse to the side and spread the garbage around.  We picked up all the garbage, righted the outhouse.

Who left food in the outhouse ??Who left food in the outhouse ??Bears found the food that some idiot left in the outhouse since they were too lazy to carry their food and garbage out of the wilderness. Now a bear things there is a new food source.

I had a sense that the local bear was watching us closely while we were in the cabin.  The cabin had four windows and a large door with a strong metal bar on the inside to brace it closed in case a bear tried to get in.  We were not sure about the size of the window openings relative to the size of a grizzly bear. Could a bear fit through the opening?  Should we close the window shutters at night?

 

Inside Fure's CabinInside Fure's CabinOur place of refuge from the storm for a couple of days. Amazing to think how one man, Roy Fure, built this cabin in the early 1900's and lived here all year long for 30 years.

Sure enough on our second morning at Fure's Cabin a bear was outside the cabin snorkeling in the water next to our kayak looking for food in the lake.  With bear spray in hand I blew the air horn at the bear, curious to observe how it responded.  The bear ignored the loud air horn and kept on looking around for food.  After striking out on finding any food the bear slowly walked into the forest by the cabin.  I really felt like an intruder in this bear's territory.

Our adventure impacted the bear's daily activities trying to survive in this remote wilderness.  Who was I to interfere with this?  How far did the bear travel to come investigate us for potential food? 

When the stormy weather finally lifted we paddled the kayak 32 miles back to Brooks Camp.  We did not want to get stranded out in the wilderness and miss our scheduled float plane flight out.  This was a beautiful experience paddling all night long across a peaceful Naknek Lake.  Watching the northern sunset for hours while seeing wild bears hunting the shores of the lake for salmon left a forever imprint on me.

Bay of Islands at sunsetBay of Islands at sunsetThe light at 11 pm illuminates the distant peaks around Naknek Lake.

Next time I visit the bears of Alaska I will leave the bear rifle at home (anyone want to buy a rifle ? ).  From now on I will be armed with knowledge of how to respectfully travel in bear country, a can of bear spray, and an air horn.

Alaskan Brown Bear fishing the shores and minding its businessNote the focus on salmon and not on me...

Traveling in the wilderness of Alaskan bear country brought on an incredible sense of being alive.  Not being the top of the food chain and realizing that I do not need to control the situation, but instead live within the rules of nature, is an awesome experience.  I wish more people were able to experience this as it gives a different perspective on things, and where humans fit in the grander scheme of life.

 


Comments

1.Doug(non-registered)
Very cool, Ed!
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Selkirk Mountains helicopter access Exploring the remote wilderness  of the west is my passion.  I love backcountry adventures, traveling fast and light.  It is on these wilderness adventures where I see magical light and experience wild creatures.

Ever since I started exploring the mountains as kid in the Sierra Nevada I have shared my wilderness adventures with others via photography.   My goal in doing so is to increase the awareness of just how beautiful nature is, and encourage others to experience the beauty and knowledge that wilderness offers.  

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