Brown Bear Stories (Part Two)

Don’t Mess with Mama Bear

Mama bears are notoriously, fiercely protective of their cubs.

It’s unusual for adult male bears (boars) to hang out here. In other places where I’ve watched bears fish, the opposite is true; sows with cubs are rare. This stretch of Lake Clark National Park, however, is known for its cubs and sows.  They’re here precisely because the big males aren’t.  Boars will kill cubs both for an opportunity to mate with the sow and as a food source.  The night before I arrived, a pair of cubs belonging to a first-time mom got confused at the river mouth in the wind and noisy surf. They approached a boar, seemingly thinking he was their mom. The boar ended up killing one of the cubs. 

The whole place was shaken over it. Understandably, the guides are upset and concerned. They don’t want this aggressive stranger around.  His presence, especially now, is likely to scare away the mothers and cubs that they’ve come to know and care about.  He also creates a volatility that is potentially dangerous to the guests they guide.  And they don’t want to see what they saw last night ever again.

Bear Stories
A boar approaches too closely, and the cubs huddle into their mom for safety.

Ol’ Sow is having none of it.  She is at the river mouth with her cubs the next morning when the boar ambles out from the woods.  It’s tense watching the scene unfold.  Closing the distance, he meanders up the beach looking for fish. He doesn’t seem interested in the bear family, but Ol’ Sow isn’t taking any chances. 

She takes off after him.  In three bounds, she’s on the other side of the river.  Roaring and growling, galloping across the beach, her body outstretched airborne with each stride.  Her heavily padded feet thump and splash in the soft, wet sand as she lands and pushes off hard for her next bound towards this intruder.  The boar turns to flee. 

He cannot move his lumbering body as fast as she can. She is quickly gaining on him. He has no option now except to turn and confront her.Bear Stories

In seconds, they are standing on their hind legs, face to face, roaring in deep, guttural, earth-rumbling sounds.  Ol’ Sow is markedly smaller; a distinction made all the more clear with them standing in front of one another.  Bear StoriesWhat she lacks in size, she makes up in might.  The proverbial mother bear defending her cubs.  There is little physical contact in this argument. Bear Stories It’s in neither of their interests to escalate to real physical harm.  She’s made her point and turns to trot back to her cubs who have witnessed the whole interaction wide-eyed up on their hind legs, too.  Point taken, he leaves the area completely.

She returns to meet her cubs, looking back to make sure he’s leaving.

This scene will replay itself a few times over the coming days until the boar, in seeing this bear family, contemplates the risks and decides to leave.

Brown Bear Stories
Another admonishment from the sow.
After each encounter with the boar, she immediately returns to reassure her cubs.

Bears’ body language is similar to that of domestic dogs.  The boar’s apprehension about her is written all over his body.

With her repeated, sustained charges, Ol’ Sow has reclaimed this river mouth for all of the mothers and young cubs.  The boar will fish elsewhere.

Beat feet. That’s the last I saw of him at the river mouth.

Too Much to Eat?

After eating her fill of fish (an estimated 40-50 pounds), this bear can’t resist the primal urge to chase after a splash. She flinches with each salmon that breaks the surface as they struggle upstream while she sits full-bellied at the river’s edge.  A few pass too close, and the urge to hunt overtakes her.  She carries her easy catch to the shore and buries it in the sand not far from the rushing water. Alaska Brown Bear StoriesHer cubs are uncovering the salmon almost as fast as she is covering it. I doubt they appreciate that they are doing something different than she is. “Aren’t we all just playing in the sand with our dead fish?”

Another splash. Another chase. She left her cubs with the first sandy salmon and went to catch and cache another.

The second buried salmon lies a few yards from the first.  Her cubs, other bears, ravens, and gulls are all interested in these unattended buried fish.  The piles are too far apart for her to defend simultaneously. She reclaims one pile only to turn to see the other at risk again. I wonder if she’d even eat them before the tide took them away for good.  But she just can’t help herself. 

Alaska Brown Bear Stories
She had just shooed these ravens off one pile and the gulls are already moving in on the other one.
A two-year-old cub tried to sneak in for a piece.

Eventually, they all settle in for a nap on top of the mounds of sand where the fish, despite the sow’s best efforts, were never successfully buried.

Like Fish in a Barrel

Twice a week, commercial fishing operators set their nets near the mouth of this river. Regulations stipulate a minimum distance from the mean tide line (I think it’s 1/4 mile).  They seemed to be closer than stipulated on this day.  The guides wearily report common breaches like this to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game without noticeable effect.  Their concern is for the bears’ survival and the successful spawning of enough salmon to fuel this ecosystem.

This brown bear has her own take on the situation. Clearly familiar with these nets, she paused, staring at the buoys, and seemed to consider if they were too far away and therefore too deep for her to access.

She pushed through the waves until reaching the edge of the net and deftly plucked out a big silver salmon. 

She sloshed back out of the waves to the wet sand where she set about burying the salmon, much to the chagrin of her two spring cubs.

Before long, she left them with the dead fish and went back out to the net. The tide is rapidly rising, but she made it back out to the boys and quickly came back with a second fish.

She left this live fish with one cub to hone his fishing skills and went back to eat the first stolen fish with her other cub.

These bears are quite creative about how they get their food which helps them to adapt to a changing environment.

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