Category Archives: Brown Bears

Writer’s Camp

1 (1)

This morning Aki is at home with her other human. I’m out the road, twenty-some miles from home at writer’s camp. At least that what I am calling it. Ten other writers share the same cabin. When not eating, walking, or talking we write.


I wake early, down a cup of instant coffee, and leave the cabin. The beach in front of the cabin is still in dusky shadow but across Favorite Channel, the Chilkats are warming with Mediterranean light. In a half-an-hour I might be able to warm myself in sunlight but view across the channel will be too soft to impress. Birds that are just silhouettes bounce through the splash zone. Close in to the beach, a sea lion rumbles up for a breath and then splashes back into the water. Across the channel, the mountains are losing their buttery color.

1 (2)

Because there might be bears there, I have been waiting to return to the Eagle River until Aki is otherwise occupied. Now is my chance so I drive from the writer’s camp cabin to trailhead and find the river diminished by drought and a very low tide.  Side streams that might otherwise be filled with spawning salmon are dry. I have to step carefully around and over desiccated chunks of salmon and great piles of bear scat. There are fresh brown bear tracks but I will not see a bear today.  They may already be heading upriver to the salmon spawning grounds. Soon we can return to this spot, one of  Aki’s favorites.

1 (3)

Red Salmon


Hoping that there really is strength in numbers, I ride with another guy along single- track trails that winds through a paper birch forest. We are heading toward the red salmon spawning reids of Campbell Creek. I am comforted by the lack of fresh bear scat on the trail but worried by the absence of human activity in the area. We will be alone when we reach the stream.4

I sing a Bob Dylan song badly as we weave around trees and up tiny rises in the trail. No one has ever reported enticing the approach of a brown bear with a Dylan song so I figure my performance will encourage the privacy-loving bears to scatter. No bears wait for us at the stream. Maybe my signing worked or maybe the bears are all down stream to intercept salmon moving upstream.3

The difficult transition from salt to fresh water robs most species of salmon of their beauty. They enter their home streams fat and ocean-bright silver. By time they spawn, all have faded to mottled colors. The males form battle faces—nasty teeth and hooked noses. But red salmon change into lovely red and green creatures, showing off colors that sparkle when touched by forest light.1

Fortress of the Bears


Aki and I climb a gravel road that passes above Sitka’s Fortress of the Bears. I hold up the little dog so she can see into the topless tanks that once contained caustic chemicals for breaking down wood into paper. Large brown bears splash in a pond that covers the middle portion of one of the tanks. Memorize that smell, Aki, and let me know if you ever smell it during one of our walks.


Earlier, the little dog had stayed in the car while her other human and I stood on a gantry above the tanks and watched four brown bears that would have been killed if not taken in by the fortress’s owner. Eagles and ravens roost in surrounding trees, waiting to pick up scraps left by the big carnivores. As much as I try, I cannot belittle the experience. While denied the hundred-mile range enjoyed by a wild brown bear, they don’t lay about with the nervous or dull look of a zoo animal. In minutes I relaxed, for the first time, in the presence of bears.


Out of the Wild


Last week, while Aki chased her Frisbee over Juneau trails, I explored lands drained by the Innoko River area in Western Alaska. Some of the area I passed through has been designated wilderness. But we saw as many or even more animals in the non-wilderness areas. The flying predators we spotted—eagles, peregrine falcons, owls (great grey and great horned), and even a raven—seemed more interested in keeping near their food source than fleeing us. On each beach we sampled we added our boot tracks to those of geese, wolves, moose, beaver, porcupine, and grizzly bears. Twice we watched moose swim the width of the Innoko River.


Today, now back with Aki in Juneau, I spent part of this Fourth of July picking blue berries near the Mendenhall River. While we walked on trails beaten through the patch by black bears, none appeared. Even one did appear it would not make the moraine a wild place, not when rubber rafts full of cruise ship customers constantly float past the berry patch.


Back from Sitka


Back from Sitka. Picked up Aki from a friend’s house last night and returned to Chicken Ridge surprised at what a few sunny days can do for the garden. The lilac blossoms have popped open and even the conservative apple tree leafed out.


Aki would have like part of our visit to Sitka—the hanging out with our friends’ two dogs and the walks we took with them each day.


She wouldn’t have noticed the changing sky, capable in three days of emptying itself self of clouds then giving into to a Pacific front that brought, rain, Turner skies, and rainbows.


She would have moved with caution under eagles roosting on hemlock trees or the cross tower of St. Michael’s Cathedral.


Aki would have had nothing to do with the brown bears that played in the huge red liquor tanks of the now-abandoned pulp mill.

Tracks and Ice

P1120265Walking where the moraine touches Mendenhall Lake, the little dog and I find a landscape newly trapped in ice.  A sheet of it stretches over the lake to the glacier. Last summer’s ice bergs and shoreline rocks form islands in the translucent gray covering.  Hoar frost gathers in deep boot prints in lake bottom recently exposed by dropping water levels. River pebbles appear to hide in steep sided holes formed when freezing water in the surrounding soil expanded. This pushed the soil up into canyon walls an inch higher than the pebbles.  The little rocks appear to seek shelter from winter. P1120242

Along the slough we used last September to canoe to a berry picking patch, we find a bear print made just before the freeze. I can make out pad, toes and indentations made by the tips of P1120245claws. Brown bear? All summer the place is thick with the smaller black bears, drawn to the nearby salmon spawning stream but brown (grizzly) bears rarely visit. They prefer wilder places but a young one was seen last week roaming the moraine.

P1120228Not wanting to see how Aki would deal with a brown bear, I reverse direction and head back to the car. It’s time anyway. The sun finally crests Thunder Mountain so its rays can reach the upper glacier. This brings new beauty but also a rising wind chilled by its run over the ice field. On the way we visit a frost covered beaver dam, ice sculptures forming where water flows through a minor breach. Behind the dam, a glacier erratic mimics the beaver house in shape and placement. P1120229

Resurrection Bay


Resurrection Bay, like the rest of  maritime Alaska is lovely on a sunny day. Today the sun shone down on the boat taking me down the bay and into the Kenai Fjords. In five and half hours we saw Sea Otters snack and float, Dall Porpoise explode from beneath the boat, lazying sea lons, a Peregrine Falcon dive on a roosting eagle, several tidewater glaciers, clouds of Kittiwakes, escaping puffins, auklets, and a mother and baby Humpback whales. But it was the tall islands of granite guarding the entrance to the bay—some all knife sharp angles, others mimicking in hard stone the swirling mounds produced by soft ice cream machines —they appeared to  the special things today.  Then, on the drive home, we saw a double rainbow form over fireweed and a mountain lake.


Portaging to Tenakee Inlet

This morning a heavy fog blocks our view. Sunrise begins its demise.  Drinking morning coffee on the cabin deck the Captain and I are just able to make out the yearling brown bear fishing at the salmon stream mouth. Two of his elders, both making him look tiny, stir from makeshift beds in the stream side meadow and walk sluggishly into the woods. A small cloud of gulls forms around the young one, which at this early hour, annoys him. After a few half hearted attempts at grabbing a salmon he passes down the beach in front of the cabin and disappears into the fog.

Today we take the portage from Port Frederick to Tenakee Inlet. A friend ran into three habituated brown bears at the portage when he made this trip last May.  It was only with great effort that he and his two companions were able to keep the bears away from their food laden kayaks. In May bears spend much time grazing on beach grass at places like the portage. Little should keep them there this late into the salmon spawn. On this hope we push aside fear, pack the kayak and leave for the portage an hour before high tide.

It takes a 14 to 15 foot high tide in order to paddle all the way to the actual portage trail. Today we will only have 11 feet and expect to spend a long time moving the kayak and gear just to get to the trail.

In full sun we wind our way through a serpentine channel at the foot of Port Frederick. It leads us to a narrow tidal stream now too shallow to float the kayak with us in it. We line the boat for a few more minutes until it goes completely aground in the stream far from the portage. The stream braids into three channels. The Captain and I explore each until settling on one leading into a small pond. At its head a rough trail, marked with a metal diamond, leads into the woods. We unload the boat and I start carrying the food and gear along a bear trail stomped into the muddy grass lining the pond. While I make multiple trips from gear pile to trail head the Captain lines the kayak, its keel dragging in foul smelling black mud until he reaches the head of the pond. 

We pass through a section of blue berry bushes still laden with water from last night’s fog. This means no bears have recently passed this way.  In minutes the trail crests and we see through the woods a green meadow rather than the sparkle of salt water.  Pushing on we reach the meadow and walk across it to where a small stream enters another mud bottom pond. In a few days, when the high tide would crest at over 16 feet we could have easily paddled up the stream and across the pond to the actual portage trail.

We are both tired but aware that the more time spent making the portage the greater chance of an uncomfortable encounter with bears. I hang the food in a nearby spruce tree and find that it is surrounded by tall yellow cedars. Their pretty majesty  can’t delay our efforts so I grab some dry bags and hike with the Captain up the trail calling out a gentle warning to any bears that might be ahead. They hate nothing more than being surprised.


After dropping our load at the pond’s edge we start back for more, passing holes recently dug by bears hungary for the rice like roots of Chocolate Lilly plants. Hurrying on we make the several trips necessary to move the kayak and other gear to the pond, which is not deep enough to float us and the gear. The captain again has to line the boat along the pond shore while I use a paddle to keep it from grounding in the muddy pond side grass.

It’s been three hours now since the kayak went aground and we still have to move gear, food and boat over another land portage to Tenakee Inlet. The trail is short but muddy and in 90 minutes we are eating a delayed lunch along side a mountain lined fjord. Across the inlet we spot an island with a small stream nearby. We paddle to it with plans to make it our camp.  Tall tree covered domes rise from the inlet. To our right we can look into an intriguing wet land at the head of the inlet. Tomorrow, if the good weather continues we will explore it before starting the paddle up Inlet to the Tenakee Springs ferry terminal. 

Eight Fathom Bight Bear

The paddle to Chimney Rock takes up up Port Frederick toward Necka Bay.  The wind builds as we travel to produce small  waves. They present no problem until we approach the spit marking the passage into Necka Bay. We land to survey the passage around the spit, calling out in confident tones to any bear that might be sleeping in the tall grass bordering the beach. When none rises to our voices we hop out of the kayak and find recent bear sign.

The sun breaks out from the clouds to make the beach a warm and inviting place. The captains finds a sunny hollow at the point lined with more Bluebells of Scotland. From here he raises a couple of bars on his cell phone and makes a last call home.  There will be no more cell coverage until the ferry ride from Tenakee Springs to Juneau. While he calls I watch a fat black and yellow bumble bee climb in and out of the flower bells, completely disappearing on each foray into the flower.

After making a quick sketch of Chimney Rock  I join the captain in a survey of the passage into Necka Bay. We could make it in but would have a hard time on the return trip. Then an ebbing tide would be working against the wind to build a nasty little sea. It would be worse at the exposed spit. Saving the bay for the next trip we paddle down Port Frederick to the Forest Service cabin at Eight Fathom Bight. We saw out humpback whale heading up bay he was heading back to Hoonah. We never saw him again.

Wanting to pass through a choke point in the bay before the tide turned we paddle without rest. This flooding tide and tail wind gives us a nice push.  Waiting would mean fighting waves and current produced by the ebbing tide as it pushed through the choke point.

Just past the narrow spot we hear a waterfall and then see where a small stream enters the bay. Here we refill our water jugs and eat lunch washed down with clear stream water. Here also we watch the sun chase off the remaining clouds then sit quietly in the newly delivered warmth.

It’s an easy paddle down back to the Eight Bight Cabin where we will stay the night.  A cloud of white gulls erupts from a nearby stream as we approach the cabin, telling us that the stream holds spawning salmon and probably brown bears to eat them.

After helping to unpack and secure the kayak above the high tide line I put together a fishing rig while the captain heads over to the stream to stretch out on the gravel bank.  A yearling Brown Bear suddenly walks out of the brush to disturb his rest. We are downwind so are able to watch the bear from a respectful distance. From other bear tracks along the stream we know that other larger bruins are fishing the choice spots of the stream. They must have driven this young one here where deeper waters makes for tougher fishing.

The bear manages to display a wide range of emotion with body language as he tries different methods to dig a pink salmon out of the stream. Sometimes he looks like a playful cat with upraised bum and half submerged face. When that doesn’t work he tries batting a fish out of the water with his strong left paw.  Once he looked right at us with his weak eyes.

In time the bear forages a meal and we head back to the cabin for ours.