When a sow with cubs begins fishing, the hungry cubs watch with rapt attention. Once she catches a salmon and brings it to shore to feast, the cubs cautiously approach. They won’t run in or overtly take her food without permission.
They will hover, groaning and begging and trying to sneak a piece from her with a slyly outstretched paw.
She can eat a whole ten to twelve-pound fish in less than two minutes. The first fish, she won’t finish. She’ll eat the eggs first if it’s a female, and the tail first if it’s a male (probably to prevent escape), a few more bites and then leave the rest for her kids. They will spend the rest of the morning with their fish pieces, so their mom will fully consume the next few that she catches.
The cubs, predictably, fight over the fish. The one who got to it first chews at the tough skin, her jaws not strong enough to pierce into the flesh by the mouthful. She tears at it piece by piece, flake by flake. Her brother sits a foot away. His growls can be heard all along the coast. He waits and wails. She periodically runs off with him in hot pursuit.
These two adorable fluff balls, padding across the wet sand, splashing through the shallows, the one in the lead with her oversized fish turning to see if her brother is still following…or to make sure he’s still following, I’m not sure.
It’s as much a game as it is a real pursuit. They don’t run very far before she stops to tear at the fish again, and the scene repeats. Just like with their mom and her catch, the Have-not doesn’t actively try to take the fish. He sits close, whining, growling, and carrying on until a scrap is left behind.
In my cabin at night, I can hear these sounds and smile, knowing that there are siblings fighting and playing after another successful catch.
Respect the Hierarchy
The bear dubbed Ol’ Sow rules this beach. She’s been around for many seasons and is very tolerant of bear viewers and photographers. The other bears here give her a wide berth. She’s earned that respect.
Today, another sow, Crimp Ear, with two spring cubs of her own caught a salmon that she had chased downstream.
Between Crimp Ear and her hungry cubs sat Ol’Sow.
Instead of arcing around to the far shore giving Ol’ Sow ample space, she walked right past where Ol’ Sow sat on the beach. To be fair, Ol’ Sow was no longer actively fishing. She’d had her fill, having eaten four whole salmon already. Ol’ Sow, in her wise strategic ways, waited for the bear to pass her and then pounced—the surprise attack. The bears reared up on their hind legs roaring and growling, spit flying.
The salmon fell to the wet sand, flopping into the air repeatedly in a desperate attempt to find water.
Ol’ Sow grabbed Crimp Ear hard by the neck, and in one smooth, powerful, swift motion, pinned her to the ground.
This was not the posturing of a heated argument. This was physical. Serious.
Point made, Ol’ Sow got up, picked up the salmon, and buried it in the sand to eat later. She wasn’t hungry. It was the principle.
Cub Antics and Getting Lost
While mama bear is intently focused on fishing and survival, her curious, energetic cubs are all about entertaining themselves. Their favorite past-times are wrestling,
chasing one another, shooing gulls into the air, playing with rocks,
and carrying around remnant fish parts.
Sometimes in their play, the cubs will wander dangerously far away. Alternatively, sometimes mom doesn’t keep a close eye on them, and they get left behind. You know what it’s like; you’re tired of telling your kids to pay attention and keep up, so you let them learn a lesson.
One evening, Ol’ Sow came over the dune, from where she’d been hanging out at the curve in the river, without her cubs. She sat along the river mouth, waiting for the salmon to run. She’s an experienced mom, so this behavior isn’t surprising. A while later, a young adult bear crested the dune heading toward the surf. Ol’ Sow’s two cubs followed, lagging behind, wrestling and rolling as they made their way to the shore. The young bear walked out into the surf to fish. The cubs were catching up to her. They had unknowingly passed by their mom, blinded by the noise of the wind and crashing waves, her scent carried off in the opposite direction, in their pursuit of this strange bear. Ol’ Sow saw them pass on the opposite shore and called to them, a quiet jaw pop and guttural sound that they could not hear.
As the cubs approached the misidentified young sow, she turned and shooed them away. Confused, they approached again.
The bear turned abruptly in a mock charge. At that moment, they knew they were lost.
I could see their fear. They started calling for their mom. At the same time, their mom was walking out to retrieve them.
She’s calling more forcefully now into the wind that carries her voice behind her. The cubs see her coming, don’t recognize her, and begin running away. Out to sea. The crashing tide is coming in. Sandbars are disappearing before my eyes. Ol’ Sow starts trotting after them, which is pushing them further out.
It’s a tense few moments before one of the cubs finally recognizes her mom. They touch noses in greeting. The other cub still isn’t convinced this is mom.
He doesn’t feel safe; he’s keeping his distance, standing up on his little hind legs, trying to make sense of the situation. Mom calls to him again. He cautiously approaches until I can see the look of recognition and relief wash over his face. His whole body relaxes in the reunion.
The bear family pushes back through the surf to the beach where mama bear resumes fishing, and after a rest, the cubs begin anew with their antics running and wrestling across the sand.
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