Grin and Bear It: Going Wild in Grizzly Country
by Risa Weinreb
The two cow moose had a serious problem. After grazing down by the estuary, they wanted to return to the forest. But between them and the woods, 500 pounds of potential trouble awaited: a brown bear sow gorging on the luxuriant arrowgrass.
In close formation, the moose ambled forward nonchalantly, but kept their heads lowered and eyes locked on the bear. The bear, meanwhile, continued to munch with studied casualness until the moose closed within 30 yards. Then she whipped her head sideways and bared her teeth, her entire body language daring, "Make my day."
The confrontation flared for less than a second. Then once again, the moose walked, the bear grazed, and Mother Nature's pop quiz determining survival of the fittest remained unanswered for another day.
Previously, I had never imagined hunter and hunted in the same frame, an equipoise of hunger and mortality. But here on the verge of meadowgrass and mountain, I was witnessing the perilous courtship of life and death.
I was in bear country--big time. On the Alaska Penisula, some of the largest brown bear in Alaska have been recorded, powerful boars (male bears) weighing over 1,000 pounds. I hoped to observe Ursus arctos horribilis up close at one of Alaska's more unusual wilderness retreats--Bear Camp, operated by Great Alaska Adventure Lodge.
Known for their primo fishing--trophy-size salmon and halibut--Great Alaska opened Bear Camp in 1997. "It's a magical place, special--just like Machu Picchu," Lawrence John, Great Alaska's owner, had promised me. The retreat occupies privately owned land adjoining Lake Clark National Park, set on an arm of Cook Inlet about 75 miles southwest of Anchorage.
Bear Camp is accessible only by bush plane--a quintessential Alaskan adventure in itself. Alaska is renowned for its bush pilots, skilled at touching down on anything from ice floes to mountain stubble.
Our six-seat Cessna took off from Soldotna, located about 20 minutes from Great Alaska Adventure Lodge. Although low fog cloaked Cook Inlet and the foothills, the peaks of the 10,000-foot Alaska Range slashed the clouds. We skimmed the icy pinnacle of Mount Redoubt and alongside Mount Iliamna, which exhaled a thin plume of steam from a still-active vent. Surrounded by endless vistas of snowy peaks, with nary a cabin nor highway in sight, I truly understood why the Alaskan license plate proclaims, "The Last Frontier."
At Bear Camp, flight schedules are determined by the tides, since the plane lands on the grey, pebbly beach fronting the camp. We set down smoothly, and climbed out into the warm July sunshine. The sky loomed a clear, Wedgewood blue, and a light breeze moaned through the spruces. "The weather's as nice as it gets here," said Steve Griffin, the head guide who greeted us. I saw he had a rifle slung over his shoulder.
Steve lost no time in explaining bear country safety. We could walk unattended around Bear Camp itself--but only in daytime. Forays beyond camp perimeter ("more than one tree in," as Steve put it) would only take place as a group--and only when accompanied by a guide carrying the Winchester shotgun, loaded with buckshot.
We climbed into a small cart pulled by an ATV, and Steve drove us to "the picnic benches," a viewing blind set across a small stream from a lush green meadow.
"Bears don't graze--they forage," I had sniffed just the day before when an acquaintance had shown me an article about Bear Camp. I was wrong--in fact, most of my presumed "knowledge" about bears was completely inaccurate. Although I had thought brown bears and grizzlies to be two different species, they are the same, although bears in Alaska's interior tend to be smaller and lighter in color, or more "grizzled." I had also expected bears to be solitary.
Instead, focusing my binoculars as we settled into the blind, I saw over 20 bears in the meadow--mothers and cubs, one or two lone females, and small gangs of rowdy adolescents. In early summer, this coastal plain becomes a prime breeding ground and nursery because of its delectable grasses and sedges--bears can consume 90 pounds of vegetation in a day. The salmon run was still a few weeks off, and succulent cloudberries, blueberries, and nagoonberries would not ripen for another month. While not exactly solitary, the bears maintained a "privacy level," staying about a quarter-mile from each other.
"The bears expect to see us here," Steve said of our viewing spot about 150 yards off from the creatures--a wise margin of safety, since a grizzly can charge at 40 miles per hour. Through powerful viewing scopes and binoculars, we observed the bears' muscular shoulder humps and concave profiles.
Most of the bears had names bestowed either by Steve and his crew, or Eric and Jeannette, the National Park Rangers we met who were logging bear behavior into a computer for a survey. ("Sniff air. Graze. Graze. Sit. Scratch. Graze. Graze.")
Soon, I was engrossed in watching Heidi with her cubs Joey and Jamie, who alternated feasting with fisticuffs. Steve also introduced us to "the Hooligans"--Harry and his sister "Busted Butt," so named because of a now-healed limp. About five years old, the Hooligans were a little too unafraid of humans for comfort, probably because of a permissive upbringing: as cubs, they had managed to steal salmon from the trapper-fisherman who had homesteaded the Bear Camp property in the 1960s, and still lives on the adjoining site. The youngsters had learned to equate humans with food--potentially dangerous arithmetic. They needed to be given wide berth.
My favorite denizens, however, were The Triplets, two-and-a-half-year-old siblings who had just been weaned by mom. (Cubs generally stay with their mothers until their third season, when she mates with a new boar.) They had a roly-poly Teddy-bear goofiness. Overheated by the warm afternoon, they jumped and splashed in the river, then sat up on their hindquarters and sparred with their forepaws, before piling together on the grass for a nap.
After over an hour of bear-watching, we walked the half-mile down the beach to camp--accompanied by Steve, still carrying the shotgun. Have you ever had to use it?" I asked. "No, if we have to use a weapon, we've failed everyone--our guests, the bears, and ourselves," he replied.
I was pleasantly astounded by the camp's cushiness. Accommodations were in what Alaskans call Weather Ports--Quonset-hut-like structures made of high-tech fabric stretched over ribs. They offered wooden floors and bunks outfitted with mattresses topped by sleeping bags. For final al fresco luxury, they had propane heaters and propane lamps. And--to prevent noctunal calls of nature from intercepting the call of the wild, each featured a pristine camping potty, to enhance the services of a large Port-O-Let nestled discretely among the spruces.
With a smile, Steve explained that outdoor ministrations were also encouraged, for both gentlemen and ladies. "We're marking our territory from the bears"--a tactic which seemed to be working. Steve showed us how a well-worn bear trail behind Bear Camp had shifted about 15 feet toward the interior after the facility was set up. (Reader note: Although I thanked Steve for encouraging feminine parity, I remained loyal to the Port-O-Let during my stay.)
"And this is Dee, our guardian," said Steve, pointing to a massive Malamute who had just sauntered into camp and plopped at his feet. Dee belonged to the property owner, who had trained her from puppyhood to defend the homestead from the bears. She would patrol our perimeters all night, and bark furiously to chase off any gate-crashers. The mainstay of her diet was mice, Steve said.
At the center of camp stood the kitchen, nicknamed the "bear box" or "coffin cabin." It was crucial for everyone's safety that the bears never found food around camp. Garbage was flown out daily in the same bush planes that ferried guests. Nonetheless, I noted that the thick wooden doors to the kitchen had been gnawed by powerful teeth. Matt Meier, working as Bear Camp chef on a summertime break from Idaho where he was a college student, slept in the loft above the pantry. I envisioned him conking ursine intruders over the head with a skillet.
While the bears had not learned to associate the aroma of a charcoal fire with dinner, we humans certainly had. About a half hour after we had first whiffed the smoldering barbecue, we called to the dining tent. Here--75 miles from the nearest road--we poured wine and feasted on grilled steak, accompanied by huge razor clams sauteed in butter and garlic, clams that the camp crew had dug earlier in the day.
After dinner, Rob Murray, the other guide, suggested more bear viewing. It was early July, and the sun would not slip behind the snow-crested mountains until nearly midnight. Even then, skies would not blacken, but instead melt into a pearlescent twilight.
We headed for the picnic benches, Rob in the lead. Suddenly, he stiffened and tightened his grip on the ever-present shotgun. "Hey bear," he called conversationally. "Hey bear." In the three-foot-tall grass, we could just discern muscular brown shoulders. And they were on our side of the river.
"It's the Hooligans," Rob said calmly. "We'd better go back." In no way would we want to get caught with bears between us and the camp.
Our retreat went smoothly, and we headed back to the viewing platform. In the perpetual dusk, the river gleamed like molten silver. On a distant mud flat, we watched a mother bear with two very young cubs, still wobbly on their legs. She encouraged them to splash in the pools--training for a month later, when salmon would churn upstream for their fatal, one-way rendezvous.
The Triplets were still about, engaging in yet another boxing match at water's edge. Rob also pointed out the Hooligans, now across the river and splashing through eddies with long, powerful strides. In less than ten minutes, the bears covered a half mile--it was sobering to realize how fast they could move.
We returned to our tents after midnight. I must have been overtired, because I spent an inordinant amount of time debating whether or not to lock the door. ("Bears can't open doors, can they?" I pondered. Lock? Unlock?) Door unlocked, I burrowed into my sleeping bag, where I fell asleep to the sound of a waterfall and jeering gulls circling the bay.
I awoke to a perfect morning--a true gift in Alaska, where clouds and rain often shroud vistas. Under the vast turquoise sky, the inlet reflected the chiseled might of the Iniskin Range.
After breakfast we hiked with Steve down the beach to Iliamna Point. The shore was strewn with cockle shells--leftovers from canny gulls that drop mollusks on the rocks to extract the savory flesh.
Steve stopped and pointed. "Bear tracks," he said, and we gathered around deep imprints that measured about eight inches long.
"It's probably the female Hooligan," he added, cocking the shotgun.
Carefully, he hiked up the low dune for a better view. Scanning the meadow, he saw that both Hooligans were safely ensconced on "their" side of the river.
We continued to the point, where Steve set up the spotting scope. Through the eyepiece, we watched bald eagles circle the heavens, and still more bears--padding through the channels, splashing in rivulets, and devouring the delectable grass.
Low tide--and our Cessna--would come at about 1 P.M. It was time to go.
Matt had prepared a delicious wilderness lunch: pasta in a lush cream sauce with smoked salmon and tomatoes. Although we wanted to linger, we twirled the strands quickly, so we would have time for one last visit with the bears.
As we hiked in towards the picnic tables, Rob suddenly put out his hand and hushed us. The Triplets were less than 50 yards away.
Boxing each other, they tumbled together like puppies before going back to grazing.
We watched them for several minutes before quietly returning down the path, back towards civilization.
Bear Camp is included in Great Alaska wilderness, fishing, and safari packages that range from five to ten days. Prices for multi-day packages begin at $2,495 per person. Day trips to Bear Camp are also available. Phone: (800) 544-2261; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: www.greatalaska.com.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Activity Index under "Nature Trips-Alaska."