By Joan Larsen
A very large grizzly bear, standing in the water, greeted us as our tiny float plane landed on the calm waters of Naknek Lake and coasted toward the shore of Katmai National Park in Alaska. Snapping pictures like mad from the windows, we watched him lumber off to tell his friends that the new visitors to his home grounds had safely arrived and would soon be among them.
Alone – well, for the moment – we jumped from pontoon to pumice-covered beach to find rangers who would not let us go further until we heard the “bear lecture” in its entirety. Within minutes we were to fully understand its necessity. There were bears EVERYWHERE!
Clapping, talking loudly and even singing when outdoors became routine for all of us. If the grizzlies know you are coming, they are like to back away (or so we were told!) Clawmarks along the sides of the sixteen comfortable cabins, attesting to the fact that you could have a bear at your door, made the concept of walking in groups suddenly desirable.
We were not afraid . . . we were intensely excited to have stepped into the home of the bear, the moose, the ptarmigan, the eagle, where we were their guests!
A predictable eruption occurs here every summer when as many as a million salmon burst from the Bering Sea into park waters. These fish provide the food source for the world’s largest population of brown bears. The small group of us were in the heart of the largest “bear country in the world”! Our group was soon on a mile-long hike to Brooks Falls, world famous for bear viewing, talking loudly and clapping all the way.
A high platform – with gates at the top and the bottom of the stairs – was said to be the only “safe place” to be. I knew that the grizzlies could easily jump the gates, but with that many salmon on hand for meals, it would seem to be unlikely. (From prior face-to-face experiences, I also know that bears – just like people – may be unpredictable. I was no fool as I went along with locking the gates!)
For hours we were mesmerized, watching the drama play out before our eyes. If the dominant grizzly was at his fishing place at the falls, others dared not join him. They waited their turn at the water’s edge. Some bears snorkeled underwater below the falls instead of standing in water, waiting for the salmon to make the leap up.
When Mama Bear and her two cubs thought the way was clear, the yearlings (who’d stand up to your shoulder or above) would play along the shore while mama kept one eye on her hunt for salmon and one eye on their behavior. If a male came out of the woods, mama bear and cubs would panic, knowing that male bears are not above eating cubs. The babies would rise up on their hind legs and then run to higher ground and up trees while the mother would frantically run a hasty retreat behind them. Occasionally, two males might have a face-to-face confrontation at the falls. The power of the bears, the raking of the huge claws over “falls-front rights” was mesmerizing, only settled when one headed for the woods once more.
Hours later, long past dinner hour, we still found it difficult to leave the front row seats of such a real-life nature spectacular and head back again to the lodge in bear country.
Little did we know then that we were to have another even more scary encounter in those woods!
After a night of almost continual daylight that made it a sacrilege to sleep when a parade of bears was yours for the watching right from your room’s porch, we were off for a day’s unbelievable trip to the eerily beautiful nearby Valley of 10,000 Smokes, the volcanic landscape where America’s astronauts once trained for a landing on the moon. Volcanoes still puff and rumble and glaciers are creeping down the basin walls. And we were fortunate enough to spend that day hiking in the crevasse-like canyons on the valley floor – a time that will always to be remembered.
The day of hiking had been strenuous, and our small group could not believe that my family and I wanted to be de-bussed to walk along back to see our bears at the falls for one more time. Spotting fresh bear scat on the path had this group of normally very non-musical people singing improvised tunes at the top of our lungs as we clapped our way to the platform. We guessed that no self-respecting bear would go near such a crazy-sounding group, so we made our way a mile along to the platform in safety.
A female bear had fortuitously placed her babes directly in front of the platform for safe keeping. So just a few feet below we had the closest-of-the-close views of the youthful exuberance of the young bears. Continual dramas played out on the river, ever changing, and we knew that we were having a once in a lifetime experience that would play in our minds forever after.
It was late. We knew we had to go back to meet our group. But – as we went down the platform steps, two rangers – with four visitors in between – started up between the locked gates. Immediately, we were warned that it would be inadvisable to take the path as the mother and cubs had staked it out as their waiting area. He suggested – he actually suggested – that we could go down off the ridge to skirt that potentially dangerous area. Mother bears with cubs are the most protective and can be most dangerous to would-be predators!
Looking at the track through waist-high grass that lead downward, I said “no way”. But my family has spent time with bears also. They actually said we would be OK. I not only was worried about bears, but I just knew we’d get lost in this uncharted wilderness. My husband, flaunting his compass, did absolutely NOTHING to calm my nerves. We were no longer on a people path. We were going down a BEAR PATH.
Hearts racing, clapping wildly and singing “The mouse takes the cheese” at the top of our lungs, we went down. BUT 50 feet away we found there was a forest, and suddenly my husband changed his tune.
“There is a bear, there is a bear” sung to “the mouse takes the cheese” rooted us on the spot. There WAS the bear. Our grown daughter was pulled in close. It was the largest grizzly I had ever seen (and I had seen many!) We remembered Katmai’s instructions: do not look the bear in the eyes, take a lower profile, never never turn your back on the bear and DON’T RUN. We slowly walked backward up a steep slope, knowing that we could be running into the mother bear with cubs on the trail!! Not too comforting!
Everything privately thought was instead sung loudly. I still remember my plaintive solo was “”I can’t believe we are doing this”, followed by a nursery rhyme version of “I knew we shouldn’t have gone”.
On the ridge we heard a voice and soon saw two strangers who we all greeted as long-lost friends! They screamed: “There’s a bear and two cubs right there”. I did nothing at all to reassure them when I pointed out the other huge bear “down there”.
We quickly decided there was safety in numbers and they would forego the platform for a safe trip back to the lodge! By the time we came off that trail, we had shouted our life histories, finding that this couple was going to quickly have to become much braver as they were about to embark on a ten-day canoe trip through the wilderness. (Now friends, we saw them off reluctantly the next morning. The ranger had asked the color of their packs so they could look for them just in case they did not return – a reassuring but disquieting thought! What do you think?)
As I sat on that pumice beach, waiting for my turn to jump into one of the small line-up of float planes taking us back to the tiny town of King Salmon and then on by Alaska Airlines to Anchorage (and onward to Alaska’s High Arctic), I had time to review our adventures as I watched the parade of grizzlies fishing in the river.
Even today my thoughts remain the same: most people take a cruise ship up to Alaska, having a good time and loving it, but thinking they have seen this wilderness state — while most have only seen the coastline. Inland Alaska is stunningly beautiful – unique — allowing you to see one of the greatest displays of wildlife on earth. Meeting the people who have chosen to live here, much closer to the earth, has been a joy as well as an eye-opening experience — one I have found enriching. To us city folk, this is really a frontier life.
There are trips going inland that are geared to every comfort zone and price range. After traveling the world, I still will say that the real Alaska should be high on most people’s priority list. It is a “do not miss” place that will color your mind and heart forever. DO think about it.
If you would like to read about one of my other up-close-and-personal one-on-one grizzly experiences – a story that had already been spread around at Katmai National Park by the time I got there – click here for “The Good, The Bad and The Grizzly“.
MOUNT McKINLEY, Alaska – High on an Alaskan mountainside, I was reveling in being alone. Just me and Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in the United States, a stone’s throw away. This was as close to heaven as I could get, I thought. Until a very large blonde grizzly bear strolled toward me, and it occurred to me that I could be eaten — and soon. And get even closer to heaven….
Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth. But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again. She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”