Bears

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There are a lot of bear stories from Alaska and most of them probably true. The reason is simple: bears love salmon, as do we Brown bear and sockeye salmon at Brooks Fallshumans, so there are bound to be a lot of interactions, most of them benign, but inevitably some won’t be.

One July, when my Bristol Bay commercial salmon fishing season was over, we took a single engined plane over to the Brooks Falls area of Katmai National Park, particularly well known for brown bears fishing for salmon.

black bear about 40' up a spruce treeBut first in the tiny log cabin visitors center, we got the bear talk – do’s and don’ts. It basically boiled down to this: don’t bother them, don’t run, (it could trigger the ‘chase food’ reaction) make noise when you’re walking in the woods, and be extremely careful not to get between a mother and her cubs by accident.

Midway during the talk, there was a loud banging noise and we looked out to see a bear that seemed the size of a Volkswagon slamming her fist repeatedly into the bear proof trashcan outside that was bolted down to a concrete pad: a pretty sobering introduction!

Then our group proceeded along the trail to the falls where four good sized bear watchers‘brownies’ were patiently standing in the water as salmon leaped up the three or four foot falls. And the amazing thing was this – by positioning themselves actually in the water of the falls, they would regularly snatch nice 6 pound sockeye salmon right out of the air as they leaped.

When they got a fish, they would waddle over to the water’s edge, hold the wriggling fish down with one pad, neatly strip off the fillet on one side with a single paw swipe, flip the fish, and fillet the other side, eat both fillets, leave the head and carcass for the gulls and waddle back out for another!

And it was obvious that the alpha male – the biggest one on the river that day – had the primo spot with the best fishing, snapping a fish out of the air, retreating to fillet and eat, then back out to his spot to do it all over again. As we watched a smaller bear, a female, arrived at the stream with two cubs in tow. There was a big spruce tree by the stream, and the trio passed, the moma bear looked up at the tree meaningfully, and swatted the cubs who instantly got the message: scoot up Big female bear with two large cubsthe tree and stay there until I’m done fishing. Being a smaller female she didn’t challenge the big males that were in the actual falls, but waded through the river, tediously chasing salmon into the shallows where she could drive one ashore to eat. Took longer but she got what she wanted.

Then when our son, Matthew, and our group was walking back, there was a rustling in the woods and a female brown bear appeared out of the bushes with two very large cubs with her – a potentially dangerous situation. So our little group walked backwards as fast as we could.. except for our son, who was running down the road as fast as he could go….!

Most of the bears one is apt to find in Southeast Alaska are apt to be black bears, except on remote Admiralty Island, where there are a few ‘brownies.’ Black bears are smaller – big males might run 4-500 pounds. Black bears are very common around salmon streams in the summer when the fish are running – if you really want to see one, you might ask a taxi driver in one of the cruise ports – they are apt to know where there might be bears – it could be a nearby salmon stream, or likely as not, at the local dump!GrizeatingMussles

‘Brownies’ are much, much larger – males can grow up to a thousand pounds or so, and are easily recognized by their brown color and very noticeable hump on their back behind their head. Grizzly bears are actually a slightly different species, found more inland than the coastal brown bears.

All these bears feed on salmon, berries, mussels, clams, pine nuts, moose, sheep, goats, and rodents.

Your best chance to actually see a bear from the ship would probably be in Glacier Bay, where you would be close to the shore. Bears could be along the shore, clamming or scraping mussels off the rocks like this guy, or in the open slopes above the water, scraping berries off the bushes. Look for a moving brown spot!