Our last post about Alaska left off with us joining the bear-viewing line-up of tourists/photographers and their guides. Sitting quietly on the river bank, we unpacked our own cameras and tripod for a day of watching and shooting images.
At first we divided our attention between a big lone bear upriver from us and a mother and cubs at the edge of the stream a little ways away.
The mother and cubs were steadily moving away, though, and the big lone bear was moving downstream towards us. Pretty soon he was only about 15 feet away and looking straight at us.
Then he came closer, and closer, still looking straight at us. He passed within 3 feet of us!
He was so close that I could see how his eyes were bloodshot from the brackish water. I could see individual hairs on his coat and no-see-um flies buzzing around his head. (They were buzzing around my head too, but I didn’t notice that!) Most impressive of all were his enormous claws, more than 4 inches long, curved, sharp, and gleaming with water droplets. My heart was pounding fast but I managed to keep completely still and silent. So did everyone else. Seth—nerves of steel—couldn’t get the whole bear in the frame of his 100mm lens.
But, just as Eric (the guide) had said, the bear didn’t perceive us as a threat and just continued downstream. Then we were treated to a tremendous display of powerful fishing. He would stand stock still staring into the water and then lunge, batting with his claws and plunging his jaws into the water to capture a salmon. He got one on his second try, not surprising if his girth was any indication of his fishing prowess. Carrying the severed fish in his mouth, he moved up the stream past us again, this time closer to the opposite bank.
Then came another one, taller and with longer legs and a narrower snout and an even more threatening look to his eyes and face. Heading downstream he passed a bit further away (maybe 6 feet?!) than the first bear. He put on an equally impressive display of lunging and pouncing, his body huge and powerful, sending the spray flying.
After about four tries, he landed his fish and came marching back upstream with it, right in front of us on the bank where we were sitting. He was so close I could see the mottled colors of the fish in his mouth. My heart was going fast again, but strangely enough I was actually getting used to it and wasn’t as scared as I’d first been.
More bears kept appearing as the morning wore on. The first two hung around, still fishing. Another stout one came down the middle of the stream, stopped on a gravel island and scratched his ear like a dog.
He had the most teddy-bearish face of all the bears, with a big snout, small ears, round head, and curious eyes. Our photos of him were some of my favorites, almost as if he was posing for them.
Two more materialized from the direction where we’d left our dinghy (hmmm…) and the flirting pair made a re-appearance.
After several hours, the guides decided to change location to give their clients different angles for their photos. Seth and I decided to say goodbye at that point, and Eric told us to stop by the tourist boats and say hello to the rest of the crew.
Eric had chosen a good moment to move his clients: the bears had all moved away from us and were busy fishing. There were no bears behind us, where we’d left our dinghy, so Seth and I moved slowly and quietly back towards it. We encountered no bears and no difficulties until we found how far the tide had come up. We had to clamber over some very big boulders where just a few hours before we’d walked along a mud beach. So I stayed with our cameras and Seth climbed over the rocks to get the dinghy and pick me up. It was much too difficult terrain for bears so I wasn’t worried—if they wanted to go that way they’d have to swim. Seth got the dinghy without mishap and we headed over to say hello to the two tourist boats. It was only about 2pm—what a morning!