In a land crawling with bears, it’s not so common to see one.
So here I am—four months in Alaska this summer, and never a bear in view.
It’s okay, actually. Hiking to the falls, climbing a mountain—all that is adventure enough, and I would prefer not to see a bear at those times. In fact, I’ve been warned about them repeatedly…
In the spring, the locals say, bears come out of hibernation and hunt for food. They’re on a diet of sorts, though, and they want to eat their greens. If you make a lot of noise when you’re out in the woods, they likely won’t bother you.
In the summer, the bears disappear into the brush. They’re still looking for food, but they’re rather shy about it. You might walk past half a dozen on an afternoon stroll and never know it. Just make some noise, so you don’t come around a corner and startle one accidentally.
In the fall, the bears are once again looking for food. Bears and mosquitoes both, and they know that time is getting short.
Still, even in the fall, it’s not so common to see a bear.
That’s why we have to go out looking for them.
Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve hosted a couple of photography workshops at the lodge. One couple came the first week, another couple this week—they stay at the lodge and fly out with Jim Barr, a professional photographer for lessons on using cameras in a variety of settings and light conditions.
And on Wednesday this week, I went bear viewing with the group.
Not only that, but one of the guys on the crew loaned me his Canon XTi for the day. Someone else offered to loan me a pistol as well, but I decided to stick with the Canon.
So it was—with barely time to take a breath—my day changed from cleaning two cabins and dusting lodge furniture to climbing aboard Katie, Glen’s float plane, with a sack lunch, a pair of waders, and two cameras. (I took my own camera along, of course. I knew how to take pictures with that…but a DSLR? How does that work?)
At any rate, I'm pretty sure I didn't look as impressive as the other photographers with their huge lenses and professional quality tripods.
About forty minutes after takeoff, Glen landed us in a small lake about forty minutes south of the lodge, and we hiked from the lake across a flat hump to the river, where we had spotted bears feeding on salmon.
It was a slow day on the river—the salmon run was over for the year, and very few fish remained in the stream.
We found the bears, though—a sow and cubs far off on the hillside eating berries, one or two others splashing along the bank…
…along with a few seagulls too.
Glen and Jim led the way up the river to a shelf halfway down the bluff, where they could set up their tripods. I figured out how to change the standard lens on the Canon for a telephoto lens.
We took photos, adjusted our settings, and took more photos, while a couple of bears wandered up and down the river below us. Once in a while, a bear caught a salmon or dragged a dead fish out of the shallows. A couple times, they swam across the river to a different fishing hole and shook the water off before taking up a new post.
Eventually, the bears wandered off and disappeared around the bend. Maybe they were bored—or they had scheduled a performance downriver a mile or so. At any rate, we had a quiet spell and a chance to eat lunch.
We were just finishing, and I hadn’t packed my lunch bag back into my backpack, when a big honey-colored bear sauntered down the bluff beside us and strolled along the path beneath us.
Think about standing at the top of a flight of stairs, looking at a bear at the bottom of the steps—that’s how close it felt.
The bear ignored us, though, and wandered down to the water for a short fishing excursion, while we snapped photos—and waited for her to turn around and face the right direction for the lighting.
That's a bear's life around here.
Through the day, we spotted some other wildlife as well, including a ground squirrel. It wanted to imitate its citified cousins, trying to run almost under our feet. And if you look closely, you might find the ptarmigan hiding in the bushes...
Early in the day, Glen wondered briefly about takeoff from the lake, if the wind didn't pick up. By mid-afternoon, the wind was still calm, so he told the others he would fly me out to another, larger lake, drop me off with some of the gear, and then come back for them.
It shows how little I know about this kind of life. Getting dropped off at a lake in bear territory and warned to be careful? Okay—I know not to wander too far, and I’ll make lots of noise while I’m there. I can handle that.
But getting dropped off somewhere and handed a gun? That’s just a little weird, not to mention unnerving.
Sadly, (or perhaps fortunately), the wind had changed around by the time Glen and I reached the plane. The rain was setting in as well, so Glen taxied across to the other shore and picked up the other two passengers. I was told to sit in one of the back seats—someone else, bigger than me, needed to ride co-pilot so we could get more weight forward. Once everyone was settled, we taxied out, headed into the wind, and lit out for home.
Anyway—yes, I have now seen a bear this year. I’ve also heard stories of a brown bear visiting the town in the past week, but at this point, I’ll be just as happy not to see that bear before I leave, or any others either.
At least, not without having a camera with me—point-and-shoot or DSLR.