Scott W. Michael and Janine Cairns-Michael
The great bear quest was conceived on a warm September night in our Nebraska home. A week before, my wife, Janine, and I had been roaming through rain forest on the Olympic Peninsula, Washington. While hiking the mountain trails, I was intrigued with the possibility that we may see black bears (much to my dismay and Janine’s relief, we did not see one). But I had caught the “bear bug.” After our return from this lush national park, I went to the local library and checked out every book they had on the Ursidae (the scientific designation for the family that contains all eight known bear species). One of the books I found was particularly mesmerizing – it was on the brown (grizzly) bears of Katmai National Park, Alaska. I was unfamiliar with this national treasure and the idea of observing these mighty creatures on their turf was very intriguing. Before long, I made the following proclamation to my beloved – “We are going on a trip to Alaska to walk among the grizzly bears.” Janine responded in her now-Americanized Kiwi accent, “Yes Dear, that would be nice.” She was not concerned about my proposal, assuming that like some of my obsessions before it, that it too would pass after a few weeks.
Ten months later, Janine and I were on a small skiff that was ferrying us (and a handful of other bear fanatics) from a converted crab boat, dubbed the “MV Kittiwake,” to the sandy shore that fringes portions of Katmai National Park. While I was sure that this was going to be a unique and exciting adventure, I had no idea how profoundly the next six days would impact my life.
We arrived in Hallo Bay that afternoon on a Cessna floatplane. It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon and a magnificent flight from Kodiak. Rugged mountains, islets and sheltered bays rolled out beneath us as we made our way to the Shelikof Strait. By the time we reached the Strait, we could see the magnificent Aleutian Range and Katmai National Park. Our gracious pilot, Dean Andrews, made a high pass over the sedge flats where we were able to see numerous brown bears sleeping and grazing in the green expanse! After our smooth landing in Hallo Bay, we were immediately whisked by skiff to the “Kittiwake” to meet the rest of the bear-viewing party and prepare for our first bruin encounter. As soon as we were able to get our camera gear ready and our field gear on, we were on our way to the intertidal flats. At this point, my skin was literally tingling!
Not only were we “buzzing” at the possibility of seeing the second largest land carnivore, the setting that surrounded us was truly awe-inspiring. Even Janine (a citizen of New Zealand, one of the most “scenically-gifted” places on earth), was overwhelmed by the vista that spread out before us as we motored to the estuarine sand flat. At this point, it was evident to both of us that this was going to be a very special trip. We reached the drift-wood littered beach and we were immediately aware that the beasts we had come to admire were nearby – there were bear paw prints, of varying size, impressed into the sand.
On our way to the beach, Brad Josephs (bear expert and guide) gave us a briefing on how we should behave in order to both ensure our safety and to have the least amount of impact on the bears. We bunched-up and moved along the shoreline until we reached a tributary that held great promise. Before us, there were two light colored sows (i.e., female) that were standing in the middle of the water way. They were very vigilant, scanning the water’s surface for any turbulence that may indicate the presence of a piscine prize.
This was the beginning of the salmon run, when these anadromous “super-fish” smell their way back to their place of “birth” and re-enact the process of procreation that has occurred for millions of years. Soon after releasing their sexual products, the adult fish die, leaving a virtual “scavengers buffet” that is utilized by bears, eagles, gulls, foxes and wolves. During our six day stay, chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta) were in the process of re-acclimating to a riverine environment. While the salmon were present, they were by no means as easy to come by or catch as they would be later in the season. We were amazed at how much energy the bruins used loping to and fro as they attempted to find and capture the illusive fish.
One thing that seemed obvious from the get-go was that these bears were oblivious to our presence. They continued to move up and down the river and on a couple of occasions plodded along the bank very near to our group. Janine, who prior to arrival in Alaska, had expressed some consternation about how she would respond when she encountered Ursus arctos at close quarters, was not overcome by panic, but overwhelmed by a wave of veneration.
As the bears past, a couple stopped and adopted a bipedal stance in order to better spy any stirring at the water’s surface. A large female past by with a yearly youngster in tow. She was the only bear that may have been agitated by our presence because as she past she engaged in a threatening vocalization known as jaw-popping (a unique utterance that is made by knocking the teeth together). It was impossible to tell if our group elicited this behavior or if it was the activity of the other bears around her. (We came to find out she was a rather nervous mother that would often jaw-pop if other bruins moved past.) The female and her offspring eventually moved down the bank a short distance and plopped down with their backs towards us. We watched these bears for some time before they disbanded and moved off. It was time to make our way back to the boat.
We took a different course back to the “Kittiwake,” opting to transverse the luxuriant sedge meadow. While in route, Brad spotted one of his old buddies – a huge male that had been appropriately dubbed “Snaggle-tooth.” This battle-scarred old warrior was once one of the dominant males in this area. His jaw has been broken during "mouth-to-mouth" combat and as a result his right canine tooth protruded from his mandible. As we approached, Brad informed us that he was a very “human-habituated” bear and even though he was approaching 1,000 pounds and had been at the top of the pecking order during his prime, “Snaggle-tooth” had never caused problems with any of Brad’s bear-viewers. We sat and watched this gentle-giant as he jerked mouthfuls of sedge from the earth and masticated it like a big, shaggy cow. What an impressive beast he was! Although not universally known to the general public, brown bears feed heavily on plant matter. Along the southwestern Alaskan coast, sedge grass, as well as a miscellany of other botanical species, make up an important food item in the diet of U. arctos.
A little further along the edge of the sedge meadow we encountered another massive old boar named “Flop-ear.” Steve Stringham, a bear expert that had come to greet and briefly joined our group, suggested that he was probably over 25 years of age and that he once instilled trepidation into the other male bruins that fished this bay. His immense frame was not as well-muscled as the younger males that now ruled the Hallo region. He was scarred and even sported a relatively fresh wound on his left flank. Later during our stay, we were happy to see both “Flop-ear” and “Snaggle-tooth” catch a number of fish. Hopefully, they were able to put on enough fat to see them through another winter dormancy.
Flop-ear was once a dominant boar in the region, but now he no longer elicits trepidation in the younger males that are in their prime.John Rogers, the skipper and owner of Katmai Coastal Bear Tours, met us with the skiff to ferry us back to the "Kittiwake." I had spoken with John a number of times during the 10 months prior to this day and he assured me that I would be blown away by the trip. I could tell he was waiting for a response when we returned to the skiff, but we were gob-smacked! Janine and I were overwhelmed with what we had experienced in our first several hours of being bear voyeurs and did not know how to express our amazement in words. (After several minutes looking at him and shaking my head in disbelief, I simply grabbed his hand and began uttering “Wow” over and over.)
These were our first hours exploring Hallo Bay. There were to be many more amazing days of bear-viewing in Hallo, as well as Kukak, Kuliak and Kaflia Bays. Throughout our stay, I was impressed with Brad Josephs and his wildlife-viewing philosophy. He went to extreme lengths to ensure that our presence did not deleteriously impact the bruins. As a couple interested in the welfare of the animals we are taking photos of, we try to consider the impact our behavior has on our photographic subjects. With Brad and Katmai Coastal Bear Tours, I never felt as though I was “crossing-the-line” when it came to the well-being of the bears.
As I mentioned above, this trip really did change our lives. Upon returning home, I began gathering up as much literature on bear biology as I could find and I am currently trying to figure out a way that I can spend more time in the field photographing and studying these amazing mammals. Janine no longer suffers from “bear-phobia.” Her fear of bears has been replaced with a healthy respect and she is looking forward to upcoming bruin encounters in Alaska, Canada and the lower 48 states. But more than anything, we have both been overwhelmed by the magnificence that is Ursus arctos. We now feel that we must be advocates for the bear and teach others just how important and special these creatures are and how wanting the North American wilderness would be without them.
For more on bear-viewing in Katmai go to www.katmaibears.com!
©2008 Scott W. Michael