A Perfect Week with Bears in Katmai National Park, Alaska
I spent most of the morning watching a brown bear lazily grazing through willows and alders on the far side of a lake in Katmai National Park. I was comfortable in my camp chair under the warm Alaskan sun, sipping hot coffee and watching the day unfold. The bear was only occasionally visible in the dense alders. She also seemed to be enjoying a relaxing morning.
When she finally emerged onto the short grass, two, no three! tiny spring cubs tailed her! The family moseyed along the lakeshore as I grabbed my camera. Moments later, a large boar crested the ridge above the lake. As soon as the sow was aware of his presence, she bolted. Boars can be aggressive toward cubs, sometimes killing them. This mom was taking no chances.
Her cubs ran as fast as their furry little legs could carry them. Two of them kept up close to their mom; the third trailed far behind. It was a tense situation. The sow periodically slowed to look back to see if the boar was pursuing and to allow her little ones to catch up. The boar plodded along in a low-speed pursuit. The sow and cubs covered a lot of ground, putting quite a distance between them and their pursuer. Those big lumbering bears are surprisingly swift.
I scrambled over a hill to the next lake to continue to watch the drama unfold. As the boar re-emerged from a valley onto the hillside where the bear family was, he abruptly turned away, moving off in a different direction. It seemed that something else caught his nose. I could finally exhale. When survival is at stake, keep running. And so the sow with two cubs in tow and the third still trailing behind ran until they disappeared in the distance.
Later, away from camp, I saw this same bear family cross the braided river some distance away.
Then again, towards the end of the day, a sow poked her head out of the grasses along the river’s edge. She’s looking for fish that have yet to arrive. Two cubs followed right behind her onto the rocky shore. A third appeared a few paces back. It’s the same family. I had worried that this straggler was a runt, smaller and weaker, not so fit for living in Katmai. At this close glimpse, all three appear the same size. This is just a personality difference. All mothers of multiples can identify.
The following morning, we hiked upriver, searching for the salmon that would bring the bears. In a deep pool at a river bend, some salmon were gathering. This is a beautiful place to wait and see what happens. Some bears passed by, but none lingered until this sow with her three adorable spring cubs appeared. She stayed for a long time, claiming that pool as her very own fishing spot.A salmon fluttered at the surface, making a splash that grabs every bear’s attention. The sow shot forward, startling her sleeping cubs. They bolted upright.
At the same time, a bear that had been ambling up the river took off full speed in the same direction. The cubs scattered in a panic.
Two ran to the cover of the brush. The third followed mom into the water. The tension was palpable.
The two adult bears and the tiny cub disappeared behind a rocky outcrop in the river bend. Roars echoed through the valley. I held my breath. Was this new bear after the cub?!? Was it going to end in tragedy? A second later, the wet cub reappeared, dashing toward the brush. Hot on her heels was her mom clenching a bright red sockeye salmon. Not a pace behind was the new bear, also with a fish in her jaws! A tense situation for bears and viewers alike turned out ideal for everyone.
This family spent the afternoon camped out on the riverside. As did I. Bears continually passed by, working their way up or down the river, searching for the glut of salmon they knew was coming. They’d see this mom, detour through the brush, and give her a wide berth. Sometimes, the cubs would get scared, standing up wide-eyed or huddling close to their mom.
Mom, however, never even looked at the passersby. She’s comfortable in her stature. Yesterday, on the tundra, she seemed young and vulnerable. Today, on the river, she seems experienced, strong and confident. Queen of the River.
She made a few more attempts at fishing but didn’t catch another salmon this afternoon.
There were two exceptions to the deferential behavior of the other bears. First, a boar came upriver, seemingly ignoring this bear family (not a glance, not a stare, let alone a cowboy walk). The cubs scurried in close, and the mom stood up and glared. Then, the family sauntered off for the brush, deferring to this boar.
Not too put out, the family reappeared on the gravel bar where mom laid down to nurse her cubs. Unfortunately, they were too far away to hear the purrs that nursing cubs make over the sounds of the river.
After four hours with us, the family moved on. Other bears continued to pass by and stop to fish. As the sun started getting low, it was time to head back to camp.
Along the way, we encountered our bear family sacked out. To avoid disturbing them as we passed, we detoured into the brush (like all the bears before!). We came out behind them and paused to swoon over the cubs. A smaller adult came downriver from behind us, walking right past the resting family, causing concern for the cubs. The sow hardly gave a sideward glance. Queen of the River.
As this young bear continued down the river, a sow with two two-year-old cubs came into view. With all of this bear activity, the walk back to camp is a slow process! As this new family made their way up, they left the river, scaling the steep bluff with ease. They paralleled the river as they came toward us, piquing the attention of our young family.
When the newcomers were directly across the river from us, the sow stood to get a better look. She turned back toward the river and plodded down the bank, cubs following.
At the water’s edge, she stared at us, put her head down to scent us, and all the while kept coming.
For only the second time today, the Queen of the River stood, deferring to another bear, and walked off into the alders. Likewise, we huddled up. This bear could be trouble. As one big group instead of a bunch of individuals, we appear more imposing, too much trouble for any bear to mess with.
We stood quietly as the sow, with her posse in tow, walked right over to where the other family had been napping.
She passed us with nary a glance and no further drama. The family disappeared into the thicket. One of her cubs stopped momentarily to smell the air, trying to make sense of us.The dynamics of the bear’s relationships are fascinating. They are sentient individuals with personalities, friendships, and preferences, just like each of us. Research has shown that in some bear populations, related females allow each other into their territories and share resources during lean times. They care for one another.
Throughout my week watching bears in Katmai National Park, I saw this family every day. Caring for oneself in Katmai is a challenge, to say the least, let alone successfully raising a family of three. Watching this mom navigate threats, assess competition, find food, and care for her cubs in this vast landscape increased my respect for these majestic animals.
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