Practically cuddling brown bears, Alaska

The big brown bears of Alaska’s Katmai National Park don’t seem to mind humans much. And a trip with award-winning guide Simyra Taback-Hlebechuk ensures an intimate encounter...

Lyn Hughes | Issue 141 | October 2013

The big brown bear sauntered into the creek and lay down to cool off. She wriggled on her stomach –  we could just see her head as she splashed along. She stopped, sat up to look around, then crashed back down into the water. Eventually she pulled herself up out of the creek and onto the bank... just yards from where Simyra and I sat on a driftwood log.

Simyra stood slowly, a raincoat in one hand, a marine flare in the other. She spoke calmly but firmly, addressing the animal: “Go away bear, go away.” The bear shook herself like an overgrown Labrador, splattering us with her spray, and then settled down, just 5m away.

A large male bear, which had been following this female around the meadow, was disgruntled to say the least. He was making a popping sound, drawing in air. “He’s wanting to mate and she doesn’t,” explained Simyra, “I think she’s using us as a shield.”

It was a good 40 minutes before the female deigned to get up and move off, the male shadowing her as she ambled across the meadow, pausing to graze on any particularly succulent sedge. As we got up and stretched our cramped limbs, Simyra smiled. “I guess the stresses of my job are a bit different to yours!”

And what a job. I was in Alaska to catch up with Simyra Taback-Hlebechuk, the Silver Award winner of the 2012 Wanderlust World Guide Awards. A Canadian, she first visited Hallo Bay Bear Camp in 2000 – and fell in love with both the bears and the camp’s owner, Clint Hlebechuk. Simyra now spends about a third of the year guiding bear-watching trips.

Expert at work

It had already been a day of superlatives. I’d flown the 220km from Homer into Katmai National Park in a Cessna, following a coastline of volcanoes, glaciers and a glittering turquoise lake. As we’d started to descend, pilot Trent had pointed out some bears grazing in meadows, and others searching the sand flats for clams.

We landed on a white-sand beach in South Hallo Bay, an area known for its concentration of bears. Here I joined several daytrippers, all quivering with anticipation as Simyra explained the basics before we set off. “Walk in single file when we see the bears – it makes us look smaller. If we are close to a bear, we sit down. If I say sit then sit!”

We followed her off the beach and into the tall grass, following well-defined tracks that had been made by the bears. In the distance were mountains, while stretching in front was a lush meadow of sedge and wild celery. The sound of an avalanche echoed from the mountains. A bald eagle rode the thermals overhead.

We buzzed with excitement as we spotted what looked like a particularly shaggy cow that actually turned out to be a grazing brown bear. More and more came into view; we did a headcount: 15 of all ages and sizes were within sight. “Just another day at the office,” said Simyra.

We were surprised at how little attention the bears paid us. “You’re bottom of the food chain – right now you’re the least of their worries,” Simyra assured us. “There’s plenty of food for them here, and they haven’t learned to associate humans with food.” In early July, it was the rich vegetation and the clams that were sustaining the bears. “The salmon arrive here on 25 July,” said Simyra.

It is the abundance of spawning salmon, as well as plentiful other food, that accounts for Alaska’s coastal brown bears growing so big. It was once believed that the smaller grizzly bears found in the interior were a different species all together, but now it’s accepted that they’re the same – just not as big.

We got close to a sub-adult bear, around eight to ten years old. “He’s a male,” observed Simyra. “You can tell by the way he walks; he’s got a cowboy swagger.” The males tend to have longer legs than the females, which are rounder in shape; they also tend to lose their winter coats faster than the females. The other distinguishing feature is that they pee forwards, unlike the females who pee backwards.

It sat down as a female sub-adult approached the male. They sniffed each other and did a bit of nuzzling, before indulging in play-wrestling. “It’s rare to see a real fight,” Simyra told us. “They have too much to lose.”

The female paddled into a steam and lay down. A larger nearby male thought it was his lucky day and began to show interest, but the first male approached. As I held my breath, all three sniffed each other, before the female slid away, leaving the two males staring at each other, unsure what to do. The larger male backed down and strutted off, as if it was his decision to leave. Simyra confirmed that size isn’t everything in bear politics.

Hooray for halibut

The next day was hotter, a sunny 24°C. We donned thigh-high waders and headed down what we’d dubbed the Soggy Bottom Trail to the meadow we’d visited the previous afternoon. Due to the heat, there wasn’t much bear action to be seen. We’d been joined by two members of a film crew, here to shoot for a new DisneyNature film, Bear, due for release in April 2014. “We’ve got enough shots of grazing bears,” sighed renowned British camera-woman Sophie Darlington.

We settled down on a low bank that bordered the beach but gave good views of the whole meadow. “Ah, here comes Audrey,” said Sophie, as a very round, cappuccino-coloured bear with a distinctive ‘saddle’ back strolled into view.

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As we sat and gradually ate (or swapped) the contents of our lunch bags, various bears came and went. Simyra had explained that the bears, having not been fed ‘human’ food, would be oblivious to us eating, and she was right. The same alpha male and female that we’d seen the day before appeared, the female coming close as she again spurned his advances, yet they showed no interest in our sandwiches or snack bars.

Simyra had warned that we could be “weathered-in” at the camp, a fairly frequent occurrence due to the changeable Alaskan climate and the fact that the only way in and out is by small plane. By this stage, I was praying for a weather front – I wanted to stay another day or two. But I woke the next morning to a sunny day, and after breakfast it was time to return to Homer.

The charming town was a culture shock after the wilderness. The ‘Halibut Capital of the World’, Homer is a lot of things to a lot of people. It’s beautifully scenic, has a strong arts scene, and is the base for fishing, bear-watching and a range of water- and land-based activities. Arriving back at Hallo Bay’s Homer office, some traditionally dressed Russians walked past; they were ‘Old Believers’ whose forebears broke from the Russian Orthodox church and set up communities around the world, including here.

We drove the Spit, a 7km-long sandbar and visitor magnet, with its boardwalks of shops and restaurants, a harbour and boat trips. We took a water taxi around Gull Island, home to thousands of seabirds, and toasted our health in the Salty Dawg Saloon. But it was bears rather than beers I hankered for. At least Homer’s excellent Pratt Museum had a live bear webstream.

Man vs bear

I moved on to the tiny town of Cooper Landing (population 300), where bears were certainly a common topic of conversation. The town is strung along the confluence of the Kenai River and Kenai Lake, and is a magnet for fishing in the Kenai and Russian Rivers. It was here that I first heard the phrase ‘combat fishing’, referring to the huge number of anglers who descend on the accessible spots of a river when the salmon are running, resulting in them standing shoulder to shoulder.

Of course, bears are after the salmon too, and I was told many a tale of how they can be in the river, just feet away from the fishermen. I was in Cooper Landing just before the salmon were due to run, and several bears had been seen in or near the water in the previous few days. I took a gentle raft trip along the Kenai, and saw dozens of bald eagles standing sentinel in the trees, but nothing bigger. However, when we pulled the raft out, my guide revealed, “A bear was right here yesterday evening, just as one of our rafts arrived.”

The next morning I went for a trail ride with local riding outfitter, Alaska Horsemen. Owner Alex looked like the archetypal backcountry man, straight out of a Marlborough ad. We rode first into picture-postcard Kenai Lake; then he led the way up a steep hillside on narrow, twisting forest tracks, pointing out the different trees and plants. We dismounted in a small clearing and exited the trees to discover a jaw-dropping view of lake, mountains and forest.

On the way down, I broached the subject of bears, asking Alex if he ever came across them. He answered in the affirmative but clearly wasn’t going to volunteer any anecdotes. “I was told to ask you about a recent experience...?” I ventured.

“Ah, well, I guess that’s the story of how I came across a bear on a moose kill.” The huge brown bear had been surprised, and understandably grumpy, at having an intruder arrive while it was eating its dinner. It charged Alex on his horse seven times. But the horse hadn’t panicked, and it was the bear that eventually backed off, allowing Alex to continue on his way. “He was trying to protect me,” said Alex, giving his mount a hearty pat.

If you’re happy and you know it...

Even in Anchorage, Alaska’s biggest city by far, living with wildlife goes with the territory: at least 1,500 moose, two brown bears and 30 black bears live within its environs, while other animals come in close at certain times. As an article in the Alaska Dispatch reported: ‘One thing is for certain, as urban as many Alaskans believe Anchorage to be, it’s still bear country’.

While I was visiting there was some controversy about a hiker who’d shot a bear while on a walking trail to the south of the city; the hiker claimed to have felt under threat. Emotions are stirred whenever such a situation occurs. The fact is that hunting – of bears as well as other wildlife – is big business in the state, something that can come as a shock to non-Americans.

This was the case when I took the iconic Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Seward. I was delighted when the train stopped so passengers could admire a moose in a marshy clearing. A woman from the ‘Lower 48’ sitting behind me said, “I can’t believe how excited everyone is. I’d only be excited if I had my rifle with me.” As the train pulled away, her young son – no more than seven years old – ran in from the outdoor viewing deck. “Mom, mom, did you see the moose? If only we’d had our guns!”

Things became even more surreal when our carriage’s enthusiastic young guide exhorted us all to raise our arms and join her in a chorus of ‘If you’re happy and you know it’.

Equilibrium was restored at Seward. A small but attractive town, it is a base for seeking out the wildlife and glaciers of Resurrection Bay and the Kenai Fjords National Park. I transferred straight onto a bay cruise, spotting bald eagles, two types of puffin, sea otters, sea lions and bow-riding Dall’s porpoises. Whales are frequently seen but we weren’t in luck on this occasion.

It was murky and drizzly the next morning when I rose early and took a taxi to a quiet bay for a kayaking trip. Three generations of a family from Wyoming were my companions, and we swapped nervous chit-chat about our lack of kayaking skills and dubious levels of fitness as we looked out at the low, menacing clouds. Fortunately the water proved relatively calm, there was little else out on the water at this hour, and we started to relax and grin as we sliced through the inky water.

Soon we became aware of several dark shapes gently breaking the surface. A pod of harbour porpoises, including babies, had joined us, and for a few precious minutes we seemed to be moving as one group.

Once the cetaceans had gone, we headed to a beach of black sand, pulled the kayaks up and agreed how magical it had been to be part of the porpoise pod. “I’ve never had a wildlife experience like that!” exclaimed one of my companions. I thought back to the bears – to how close and how intimate my encounters had been. “Well...” I started, but then decided to keep my luck to myself.

Lyn Hughes is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Wanderlust. Follow her on Twitter at @Wanderlust_Lyn.

The author travelled courtesy of the State of Alaska tourism office and Hallo Bay Bear Camp.

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