In early August I was in Alaska, fishing and kayaking. Every time I go there (now a grand total of two) I remark how unspoiled it is. Alaskans probably think it’s plenty spoiled. But to those of us in the lower forty-eight, we are so accustomed to a denser population and what goes with that that we are surprised to see what the earth looks like when there aren’t many people around. But the real story from this trip is how I encountered a couple of grizzly bears, or as they’re called in Alaska, brown bears.
I was fishing with several other people and a guide on Chichagof Island, a large island across the Icy Strait from Gustavus Alaska, where I was staying. To say it is beautiful doesn’t capture it. It takes your breath away. There are large snow-capped mountains and rivers, and marshes. There are birds everywhere and wildlife. Salmon in the rivers and Dolly Vardens—large, silvery fish from the trout family.
After fishing most of the day and after lunch, I headed downstream in the Mud River (notable for its lack of mud) to get a little distance from the others. After a few minutes, just as I had hooked another Dolly Varden (most of them were 22 inches or so) I looked up to the bank of the river and there was a mother grizzly staring me in the face. Maybe thirty yards away. Just staring. Then her cub comes out of the grass and stands next to her on the riverbank. Our guide was about a hundred yards upstream. I yelled, “Bear!” Then, “Cub!” I thought to myself, I believe this is the situation you are to try to avoid, encountering a mother grizzly with her cub. It would have been worse if I’d been between them of course, but I still wondered whether she’d decide I was a threat.
You are also told not to flee. If you do, you’re prey, and they’ll chase you down, which won’t be much of a challenge as they’re much faster.
So I stood there in thigh deep water, watching her watch me. When the guide heard me, he grabbed his shotgun out of his kayak and started running down the river in his waders. But since by my estimate the bear was about three seconds from me if she chose to come get me, and the guide was about twenty seconds away, he wasn’t likely to be part of whatever was going to happen.
The mother grizzly stared for about a minute, while I stared at her and tried to land the fish that was determined not to be caught. I was surprised how I felt during the minute or so I watched the bears. I thought my heart would be in my throat, but much to my surprise I didn’t feel any fear at all. I think it must be because as soon as I saw her, for some reason I knew she didn’t feel threatened by me and was just passing by. She finally turned and walked down the bank of the river with her cub in tow, looking for something more interesting. Here is a photo of the two as they walked away.
I caught the fish, and came away from my first encounter with two grizzlies none the worse for wear. I can’t wait to go back.