Thursday, September 9, 2010

Thinking About Grizzly Bears

September 9 (at Kennecott Glacier, Alaska). Clearly here, as in most of Alaska, we are in bear country – grizzly and black. On two hikes, I have walked by very fresh bear scat, and in one section of my Bonanza Mine hike, the misty breeze was blowing up from a thick shrubby area, and there was this rank smell on the breeze. I pondered whether it was a bear, or perhaps the rotting kill of a bear.

We saw four grizzlies during our wildlife tour of Denali National Park, but that was from a safe bus. I’ve never encountered a grizzly while hiking. As much as I would love to see one from a couple of hundred yards away, it would be terrifying to blunder into one. Compared to a grown grizzly, the strongest man would be like a small poodle against a human if the bear got aggressive. I still remember hiking in the Grand Tetons a few years ago, and coming to a large tree where, right at face level, a bear had ripped off a huge chuck of bark. Try doing that with your finger nails!

For a one on one comparison between man and bear, look at these two photos. The paw print and claw were in the Kennecott Company Store Museum, and are from a Kodiak Island bear. For the record, I don’t have huge hands but neither are they tiny.
I have friends who encountered Timothy Treadwell, the “Grizzly Man,” in Alaska. The plane that they were flying in landed at his camp to pack up his camp and take him out for the winter. They helped gather up all of his gear and pack it in the plane, and my friend said it was pretty scary walking along the bear trails near his camp collecting stuff for Treadwell, if I remember correctly. Based on what I read about Treadwell, I’d have to agree: he was pretty insane about how he tried to interact with these great beasts. And in the end, it cost him and his girlfriend their lives in a most terrible way.

I saw a nature film a few years back where a wildlife photographer single-handedly sailed his boat along the Aleutian Islands and would go on shore to photograph the gigantic bears. He never tried to approach them, unlike Treadwell. He would sit on the beaches with his cameras as the bears moved around and dug clams, often walking within 20 feet of him. He just sat very still. I don’t think I would try that myself, but it shows that bears are not necessarily the man-killing beast that they are portrayed to be. You would think that at least one bear would have thought ‘Hmmm, you know, I’m getting pretty tired of clams. Hey, how about some surf and turf tonight? That would be a tasty break from seafood!” But they didn’t. A polar bear would have killed him in a flash, I am fairly certain. Polar bears are 100% carnivorous, and are the only bear known to actively stalk and hunt humans.

I would guess that most of the time, an encounter with a grizzly in the wild would end up fine, and I would like to have one someday – as I said, from a little distance, not for example, the wounded grizzly at the Russian River! But then I look at the picture of that paw print and that claw, and I begin to question that wish just a bit.

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