Pack Creek National Forest

Alaska part 5

Alaska has three types of bears: Polar Bear, Brown Bear (this is the Grizzly, can be brown or beige) and the Black Bear (brown or black.  The Polar Bear lives in the far north Alaska, deep in the Arctic.  The southern part of Alaska has many Grizzlies and even though we haven’t seen any yet, we know they are in every forest we anchor by.

We saw some of the smaller black bears in Yellowstone.  Black bears are generally shy and almost never attack humans, unless they feel threatened or if a mother feels her cubs are threatened.  Despite being told that there was no real danger, I didn’t feel completely safe when we wandered in the Rocky Mountains. 

Before going to Glacier Bay, we equipped ourselves as the locals do, buying a bear spray and two “bear bells”, small bells to hang on your belt or backpack to let the bears know you are coming.  Bear spray is a type of mace and can be used if a bear starts charging.  Once it gets to within 30 feet or so, you spray it at the bear’s feet and it will (supposedly) create a fog that will irritate the bear’s eyes and force him/her to withdraw.  If the bear keeps coming, you spray directly for its eyes.  All this is, of course, only viable if the bear is downwind from you.  If he/she is upwind, then when you spray you will only mace yourself, thereby becoming incapacitated and an easy lunch for the bear (ok, no system is foolproof).  We also bought “bear bells” hoping that their noise will tell the bears we are coming and therefore they will disappear deeper into the forests.

Of course, the reason we are wandering through the forest is to see some bears – do I sense some kind of cross-purpose thinking here?

Great advice we’ve been given by many locals up here:  Stay far away for the big, territorial and aggressive Grizzly bears.  Further, make sure you never get anywhere even close to a Grizzly mother and her cubs – she will charge without warning.

Nowhere on our entire trip up through Canada or Alaska have we seen any bears.  After Tracy Arm and Glacier Bay, this is the only sight we are missing.

Pack Creek National Forest is a bear sanctuary patrolled by Park Service Rangers.  It is a huge area and no entry is allowed without a permit.  In the summer season, only 12 permits are issued per day.  There is a small clearing for bear watching and a tiny rise on the beach for watching any bears that come down in the morning to hunt clams.

Although it is a an out of our way location, we spend a full day sailing through diverse narrows to get there.  No anchoring is allowed in front of the National Forest, you can anchor across the narrows, about 2 nm, behind a small island called Swann Island.  Then you can dinghy over, although you also are not allowed to take your dinghy up on land.  There is a spot where you can land, get off, then tie your dinghy to a line out to a buoy and you can then haul the dinghy 30-40 feet from shore.

Carsten and I, as usual, are up early and I’ve got our good binoculars and am scanning for the ranger station and the buoy we are supposed to dinghy to.  It is only seven o’clock and no landing is allowed before nine o’clock.  We’ll have to wait two hours, and I’m hoping that any bears haven’t decided to go home as the day heats up.

I see nothing as I scan the shore, but there is a sailboat, anchored right by the dinghy buoy.  How did he manage to get permission to anchor there?  As I scanned, I noticed a small dark spot at the water’s edge.  I thought it was a rock, but suddenly, it moved!  “Carsten – hurry and get up here in the cockpit – I can see a bear on the beach!”  Looking even more closely, I now can see three small dark spots next to the big one.  A Mama bear and her cubs!  Gads, what I wouldn’t give to be closer and be able to really see them.  They will certainly be gone by the time we are allowed to come on shore.  Nothing to be done except hope that where there is one bear, there may be more.

It is now just past eight a.m. and we launch the dinghy and sail towards Admiralty Island – land of the bears.  We still haven’t spotted where we are supposed to land, so our plan is to sail over to the sailboat and ask them.  They have had a front row seat for the bear family that came down the beach.

When we are halfway, Carsten takes the binoculars out of his backpack and says, “Vinni, your bear family is still on the beach, waiting for you.”  How lucky can we be?

As we near the coast, the bears are standing right at the water’s edge.  Mama bear is digging clams when she hears our engine and looks at us to see if we plan to stay out on the water.  Once satisfied that we do she returns to her clamming and seems to be unconcerned.  We pass by only 30 years out and look at these pictures:

Mama bears keeps an eye on us, but continues to dig clams, once she has convinced herself that we are no danger. The cubs, on the other hand, are not so blasé.  They stare at us and it is easy to see they don’t know what to make of this strange thing out there on the water.  Should I be afraid?  Mam isn’t but maybe I better get in between her legs where I feel safer.  One of them stands his ground and stares at us – probably a male grizzly already thinking he is king of the forest.

We are totally aware of the fact that we are very close to a mother grizzly with three cubs (this is something everyone says is dangerous as all get out).  Carsten is ready to make a U-turn in the dinghy, put the pedal to the medal and get far away as fast as we can.  But the mother remains calm and so do the cubs.

What a sight and what an experience – we’d never hoped for something like this.

The sailor on the anchored boat turns out to be the husband of a Park Ranger, Nancy, whom we will meet in while.  Now we understand why he has permission to anchor where he is.  He tells us that we are more than lucky since there haven’t been any bears here on the beach in three or four days.  He explains where we can land our dinghy and then walk up the low hill to meet the three Park Rangers.

Nancy, who has been a Ranger here for more than twenty-five years, explains the rules to us.  This land belongs to the bears and we are only here as guests.  We aren’t allowed to wander around by ourselves, a Ranger will lead us to the viewing spots.  The first viewing spot is right here where we are sitting and the other one is some few hundred yards away by the river.  When we walk between the two spots, there will be no stopping.

We are not allowed to bring any food or any fluids except water.  Anything else has to be secured in a buried “bear box” nearby.  There are no toilets here.  If you need to pee, you can go behind a group of rocks nearby at the water’s edge.  That way, the smell of the urine will get washed away when the tide comes in.

We won’t need our bearspray, says Nancy, leave it in the bearbox.  The same goes for our “bear bells”.  They will only disturb the magnificent silence.  All three Rangers do carry a bearspray.  Carsten remembers that we have some chocolate caramels in our pack and these also have to be deposited in the box. 

OK – now we are ready.

Nancy explains that the mama bear we have been watching, now only two hundred yards from us, is a bear she has known since it was a cub twelve years ago.  The bear has smelled Nancy’s scent many times and is comfortable with her being nearby.  This bear learned Nancy’s scent from her mother when she was a cub and would walk down this same beach.  Since her mother was comfortable with Nancy’s presence, so is this bear.  She does not consider Nancy a threat.  Now the mama bear is teaching her cubs that Nancy and the other two Rangers pose no threat.  If Mama is not worried, neither are the cubs.

Instead of going to the viewing spot at the river, Nancy suggest just sitting where we are and waiting.  Perhaps the Mama bear will come down the beach past us.  She cautions us to remain quiet and make only slow movements.  Mama and her cubs will probably come past us on their way over to a small creek to drink some water.  Nancy is spot on and within a half hour here is what happens:

Mama bear has registered that Nancy is sitting on the hill and is not worried.  The bear family wanders by us about thirty yards away – both we and the Rangers sit absolutely still.  Only the sounds of the our camera firing away breaks the silence.  Wow – this is unreal – we are only thirty years away from a mother grizzly and her cubs – unbelievable!

Notice her size and the hump on her neck – that is not fat, rather one huge muscle.  Her paws are gigantic and if you look closely, you can see her claws.  I’m not afraid, but only because Nancy is here and has created a “safe” environment of both the bears and us.  If the Rangers had not been here and told us this was safe, we wouldn’t be here.  Carsten and I had never landed the dinghy so close to a grizzly with her cubs.

The cubs are just about as cute as can be, but we have to remember that someday they will grow up to be huge grizzlies.  They aren’t very big and Nancy tells us that they are only five months old.  We thought they were a month.  Nancy tells us that when a bear cub is born, it is no bigger than your hand and has no fur.  They will stay with their mother until they are three years old, then strike out on their own.  This mother bear’s own mother is still alive, twenty-seven years old and often comes down to the beach to dig clams.

Apparently, only about 60% of bear cubs survive.  If they wander off from their mother, they can’t survive.  Sometimes a male grizzly will attack and eat them.  Normally a bear only births one or two cubs,, three is a rarity.  Even if a bear mates, she will only become pregnant if she has built up a big enough fat depot to carry the cub(s).  A bear’s gestation period is four months.

Now the bear surprises even Nancy.

After the bears have drunk some water, the mother lies down on her side and begins nursing the cubs.  Nancy thought she was just going to take a nap, but she begins nursing. 

She lies on her back and looks at us while her cubs climb up on her stomach and go at it.  All five of us are staring at this spectacle through our binoculars and telescopes.  Nancy says that in her twenty-five years as a Ranger here, she has never seen a bear nurse this close to humans.  She says the bear is showing us the ultimate trust in letting the cubs nurse this close to us.  We enjoy every minute of this, unfortunately, it si just a bit too far away to get good pictures.  But – WOW!

Suddenly we are all disturbed by the sound of a floatplane landing.  Mama bear and her cubs disappear into the forest.  The floatplane is bringing guests from Juneau who have paid a goodly amount to be flown down here in the hopes of seeing some bears.  Nancy asks us not tell them about our experience this morning – since they will only be vastly disappointed if they don’t see any bears.  Their guides will be shown in a poor light by not having flown them out here earlier in the day.

Nancy leads us out to the other viewing spot near the river.  We end up sitting ehre with the other guest for a couple of hours – no bears.  The other guests have wasted a fair amount of money and not gotten the exceptional experience we did.  We tell them nothing.

The exceptional trust shown by the bear to the park rangers may have an explanation.  Nancy has a theory.

Back in the 1950’s a couple lived here by the river for more than thirty years.  They frequently saw a mother bears come down to the river to feed along with her yearling cub.  One day a male grizzly showed up and tried to attack the cub.  The mother immediately attacked the male bear and drove it off, but not before receiving mortal wounds.  She died a few hours later.  The yearling would almost certainly not have survived if the people hadn’t thrown fish and berries out for it each day.  By feeding it, the bear got a close relationship with the couple.  The bear eventually grew and was able to feed itself, but the relationship apparently continued.  Later, when the cub matured and had her own cubs, she taught them that some humans do not represent a threat.  This has apparently gone down through the generations, even though no one feeds them anymore.

It is clear, that if a cub walks down the beach with its mother and the mother isn’t apprehensive when she sees Nancy and the rangers, then the cub learns that they are no threat and therefore there is no reason to be frightened. Nancy is fairly sure that the bear form the 1950’s is this mama bear’s great grandmother.  So this is the fourth generation of female bears that has learned not to be apprehensive around these few humans.

I’m not sure how the mama bear would react to us if Nancy were not with us.  If we remained quiet and still, it probably would not have attacked us, but I’m convinced she would not have come so close.

Finally – here you get to see the bear family “live and in person”

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