"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Saturday, July 30, 2016

The 2nd Fur and Feathers Journals, Ch. 6: In which we mind our bear manners and reap the results, Part One

Part One
In which we mind our bear manners and reap the results

Over the past half century, the Coastal brown bears that inhabit certain places on the western shores of Cook Inlet have somehow reached an accord with humans, one that allows predators and prey to coexist in a tenuous peace.   Of all the places to experience this habituation phenomenon, Silver Salmon Creek is perhaps the best.

Farther south on the Alaska Peninsula, groups of spectators and photographers stand on a wooden platform at Brooks River falls in Katmai National Park and Preserve to watch dozens of huge bears stand in the rushing water and snatch salmon out of mid-air as they try to leap over the falls to get to their spawning grounds. While the bears can fish 24 hours a day, the humans have a time limit for their time on the platform.

At McNeil State Wild Game refuge, entrance is by lottery to limit the number of people watching bears fish.   Seventy-four brown bears were seen in one day at the river.

Silver Salmon Creek is farther north, in Lake Clark National Park, established in 1980.  Since then, generations of Coastal brown bears have become habituated to humans.  It’s taken time, but today’s bears don’t view humans as a source of food or harm, as long as the humans mind their “bear manners.”


Bear manners come very much into play one morning while we wait for the high tide to recede.

We’re in the cabin getting ready for Rick to pick us up soon.   Suddenly someone says there’s a bear in the yard.   We scramble for cameras and go outside carefully and quietly.

This shows the entrance door to our cabin, the deck under which the skiff is stored, and the spruce tree at right where the cubs are high in the branches.

Cabin at left, spruce tree with cubs in center, and two airplanes at right.  The salt marsh is beyond the spruce.

A young sow has sent her two first season cubs up a tree near the cabin and she heads directly to our cabin where a skiff is stored under a second floor deck.   The others line up to watch her while I go back into the cabin to my bedroom window.

One of the cubs sits on a branch in the spruce tree.   In the previous photo, they are in the spruce tree at right.

There she is, lying on the ground behind the skiff, not ten feet from my bedroom. 


It seems even mama bears like to play.   She rolls around on her back, moving so quickly I can’t keep her in focus with my little Nikon Coolpix point and shoot. 

 She chews on the log supporting the skiff.

She rubs her face on it.

She sits up a couple times to see what the humans are doing.  They are all lined up with cameras and tripods and clicking away whenever she raises her head.  Staying in a quiet group and not invading the bear’s personal space are essential bear manners.   As I’m inside the cabin shooting through a salt water-misted pane of glass, I don’t think the bear is aware of me being so close.   If she is, she never glances my way.

With her cubs in the tree, the sow ambles across the yard, crosses the still wet ATV trail, and goes into the salt marsh where the nutritious sedge grasses grow. 


 I expect her to browse, but she doesn’t.   She watches carefully, and apparently content that all is well with humans and cubs, she continues her brief “adult only” recess.

By this time, Rick has arrived and finds us all enthralled with the unfolding drama in our  yard.   He immediately takes charge and shows us where to stand to photograph the sow in the field.

I leave the group to return to the cabin on some now-forgotten errand.   I am heading back across the yard to rejoin the group when the sow walks right past Rick’s group and in my direction.  

I back up against one of the airplanes, trying to make my mass appear much larger.   Then I hold my breath as she nears.

(To be continued....)

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The 2nd Fur and Feathers Journals, Ch. 5: In which the light turns magical

Chapter Five
In which the light turns magical

For six days during the first week of July, my life is predicated on the tides of the Pacific Ocean.  The waters of the great oceans are ever constant, sloshing back and forth like water in a bowl, predictable so far in advance that booklets are printed showing the exact minutes of high and low tides for each day of the year.

Flowing in and out of Cook Inlet, low tide reveals a strip of sand along the shore where small planes land to deliver and pick up guests of the two lodges at Silver Salmon Creek.   Vast clam beaches are exposed where dimples in the sand reveal the presence of a bit of protein for the Coastal brown bears.  

And low tides mean the two river crossings are fordable so that ATVs pulling cart-like trailers filled with spectators and photographers can transport those people to the beaches to watch the bears dig clams of fish the mouth of the creek during silver salmon runs.

The south creek crossing.

Up the tricky bank on the far side.

High tides, though, cut off that access and occasionally confine us to camp as the water pushes into the creeks and sloughs, flooding the river crossings and sometimes reaching the lawn of Silver Salmon Creek Lodge.   During those extreme tides, David Corey, owner of Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, can motor his aluminum boat almost to the front yard of his lodge.


This first week of July brings a series of extreme highs near 23 feet and extreme lows near minus five feet. 

Rick pulls a tide book from his back pocket, consults it briefly, and tells us what time we’ll be going out.  He’s been a bear guide here at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge for eight years and knows the habits of the bears.

This evening, we take the interior trail looking for bears.    When the tide is low enough, we cross the creek, noticing a persistent semi-palmated plover next to where the ATVs turn to access a trail through the beach vegetation.   Soon, we see its chicks and stop to photograph the tiny things.   Their fuzz makes them look like a gray and white egg with legs.

The plover is hiding her chicks.

Fuzzy chick with legs.

The light is magical as we drive south along the beach.   The overcast and fog turn the deep spruce forest blue and presents a striking contrast to the bright green vegetation and the light brown of the beach sand. 

It’s the kind of light photographers love.

We see a sow with cubs far down the beach.    

She has come through the vegetation and is trying to decide which direction to go.   A group of people are on her immediate far side, standing quietly.   Most of them are looking away from the sow at something far down the beach.

Rick stops the ATV far back from the bear so as not to block her or stress her.  We stay in the carts, cameras at the ready.

Eventually, she makes up her mind and heads in our direction.   Rick asks us to remain in the carts, and he kneels on the sand next to the ATV so we can photograph over his head.   The only sounds are the clicks of camera shutters, my occasional “oh, ow” as I try to find a comfortable position, and Marg whispering, “Hold still” as she shoots more of her magnificent pictures.

The sow and the cubs approach.   I am certain she doesn’t do it on purpose, but the path she chooses couldn’t be more scenic for us.

And then, when she is almost upon us, she veers sharply towards the beach and walks just a few feet away from Rick, who is still on his knees so as not to block our view.  He is photographing the cubs.   

I pull out my Coolpix point-and-shoot and take a few shots of this sight—Rick on his knees, looking away from the sow as she passes within touching distance.   

Rick is the blur on the left;   the handlebar of the ATV is the blur on the right.

I am inwardly chuckling with glee because this is going to be a great joke on Rick—him pointing his camera in the opposite direction as a bear walks right beside him.

The cubs have yet to reach us and it occurs to me that we are now between the sow and her cubs.     Should this happen anywhere else but at Silver Salmon Creek, say your prayers and kiss your you-know-what goodbye, because this would be a dangerous situation.  But here, the bears are okay with us in close proximity to them and their cubs, as long as we follow our guide’s instructions and mind our bear manners.

The cubs catch up and the family heads for a  late evening snack at the clam beaches exposed by the low tide.

We head for our warm and cozy cabin.