Let Nature Heal You
I awoke to word from home about yet another hiccup in one more seemingly straightforward home improvement project. I’ve been in Anchorage, Alaska, for a week. I arrived on a record-setting cold April day at the end of a record snowfall year. It’s not spring yet, not in Idaho, and certainly not in Alaska. As long as the sun comes out, it’s all good. The persistent grey winter in Idaho sent me into the winter blues. I don’t think the sun came out at all in December.
The work week in Anchorage has been a slog. I said to myself, “This weekend better make it all worthwhile.” At the same time, berating myself for not appreciating this beautiful place and this unreal opportunity to come here on someone else’s dime. I’m stuck in my head and can’t shake these blues.
I leave the house on a flat grey Saturday morning, heading to the Far North Centennial Park, just a few miles away. I’m almost to my chosen trailhead when the road is blocked by emergency vehicles. Fire trucks, an ambulance, and police cars. Sigh. I turn around. On my way in, I noticed a small pullout with parking and tracks in the snow that suggested a creekside trail. I pull off there. There’s one truck here. A guy is standing along the path, pointing his phone camera toward the trees on the opposite bank. His black lab is barking at me. I see a dark shadow in the tree. Porcupine?
No, it’s a black bear!!
Serendipity: “finding something nice while looking for something else.”
I quickly switched out my walking around 70-300mm lens for my heavier 150-600mm lens and climbed over the plow berm. This bear had just crawled out of its winter den in the cottonwood tree yesterday.
The fantastic thing about heading out into nature, whether it’s your backyard (caterpillars, goose/coyote) or Anchorage’s backyard, is that there is always something to learn, always something unique to see, and something to heal you. I had no idea black bears would hibernate in hollows up in trees. I thought they were always in the ground. I also didn’t expect any bears to be awake yet. There’s at least three feet of snow on the ground.
The friendly man with his dog told me there’s a sow with cubs in another tree 100 yards upriver. He last saw them in October. She hasn’t been out yet this spring. He’s been here for half an hour to see this bear shimmy back into the tree cavity. He left, and I was alone with the bear.
A young couple walked up, saying they had just come from watching a black bear in a tree a short distance up the trail. They couldn’t believe there were TWO bears! I left them with this bear and walked up river, past the abraded – wholly abraded – cottonwood that is cradling a sleeping bear family. Now I will look for and recognize these den trees by this characteristic bark pattern. I stopped to photograph a couple of bear and moose prints near the tree trunk.
The second black bear is napping in a crook of the tree with his adorable feet hanging out. I took a few pictures when I heard a whistle and turned. The couple is enthusiastically waving me over. The other bear is moving about the tree top.Another photographer showed up. Word is out that the bears are waking up. This woman said that the first bear came out yesterday. She stops by every day.
The bear, with no sense of urgency or even purpose, is smelling the tree, looking around, and moving down to a new perch. He rested, moved back up, and then slowly moved back down, looking around, smelling the air. Once he got to the hole’s edge, he visually inspected it and then shimmied out of sight in a few swift, deft moves. Absolutely amazing!
Campbell Airstrip Trail
After checking on the other bear, who had turned around to face the creek trail, I relocated to the Campbell Airstrip Trailhead parking lot. There’s so much to get distracted by here. I wandered along the creek to the north until I encountered a dog sled trail. I meandered south, where a plein air artist was painting a landscape. The light was beginning to peek through the clouds. I ran out of packed trail to follow (off the trail, I sink to my knees in snow) and headed back to the main drag.
Across the bridge, I turned south again to follow the creek. The sun is out now. The shadows of the birches on the rolling mounds of snow are beautiful. A woman stops to tell me she just saw a three-toed woodpecker and points into the woods. Everyone is so friendly.
I followed a side trail towards the river, where I noticed a big cottonwood with abraded bark. A bear tree!
As I walked closer, I realized this is the same tree I watched the bear climb into from the other side of the creek! Cars are parked across the road, but no one is watching the tree – a good sign that the bear is still tucked safely away. I peered around to be sure. Footprints in the snow tell the story of yesterday’s foray into a nearby tree to eat catkins. I noticed a couple of trail cameras focused on the den tree. I took my pictures and left the bear to nap in peace.
A little further down the trail, I see the other bear still napping in the crook of the tree. He’s facing my direction now. There are a lot of trees and branches between this bear and my lens. I follow a couple of side trails to try to get a better vantage point. Each time, I end up sinking into the soft snow. The snow will initially support me and then suddenly collapse, sending me knee-deep into the snowpack. It’s jarring. Sometimes I fall, and sometimes I catch myself. I have to crawl a few feet to solid snow. The bear seems entertained by my exploits. I never did get a good vantage point. I finished my hike and went home for the day.
After a local hike, I stopped by the bear den trees the next day. A crowd of photographers had been there all day with no bear sightings. They speculated about the temperature and lack of sunshine keeping the bears in today. Or maybe they were put off by the deep snow they encountered in yesterday’s forays? I moved on.
Monday, I hiked into the Chugach State Forest from the Basher Trailhead, where I had views for days. But, no wildlife was to be seen. I enjoyed the scenery and solitude.
On my way back down the mountain, I stopped by the bear dens. The photographers were all by their cars along the road. Not a good sign that there’s wildlife activity. As I pulled in, they all clamored over the berm to the creek. It turns out a black bear was on the ground coming along the creekside trail. The same side of the creek as all of the photographers. They all, smartly and considerately, moved back to the cars to let the bear have the trail. He strolled by and crossed the stream.
This was when I arrived. Once he was across the creek, the photographers returned to the trail, with me following behind.
We stood along the creek watching this bear posthole through the snow to the tree where another, smaller bear was tucked into its hollow. He seemed to revel in harassing the smaller bear just by his presence.
It went on like this for more than 15 minutes.
Then the big bear ambled off and disappeared into the thick woods. The small bear settled into the crook of the tree and napped.
A fishing dipper (an aquatic songbird) in the creek at our feet entertained us. A mink also made a brief appearance.
Then an off-leash dog came wandering, nose to the ground, up the side trail toward the bear tree. I could see a hiker and another dog on the main trail I’d taken yesterday. The bear up in the tree stood up, yawning again. The retriever sniffed around the base of the tree and then looked up and saw the bear. Bark! Bark! Bark!
The bear is distressed again, up watching the dog while yawning and lip licking. The hiker sees the bear and calls his dog back. The person takes a few cell phone pictures of the bear from further away on the trail – in the direction where the other bear had gone. Then wisely returns back the way they came. The bear settles back down, high up in the tree. It’s just another day of people, pets, and wildlife living peacefully together in Anchorage.
A few minutes later, the black bear stands up, scans the area a few times, and shimmies out of sight into his aerial cottonwood den.
If you’re interested in purchasing or licensing any images you see here, please email me: SNewenham at exploringnaturephotos.com, and I’ll make it happen.
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