Below the weir is a large shallow pool where a lone sow is wading. She occasionally darts in a rush of water toward salmon that are making their last journey upstream. She isn’t having much success in the middle of the pool.
On the weir, two one-year-old cubs are playing – with each other, with the equipment, with the churning water, with fish. They are carefree; still nursing, but able to catch some fish for themselves, too. They’ve made it through their most vulnerable first year. In the several hours we spent here, these two never stopped playing. I can’t help but think that this sow must have her hands full raising these two!
Halfway up the hill on the opposite side of the river, an old, worn-looking sow is nursing her three spring cubs on a ledge that she’s literally carved out for herself. After eating their fill, the cubs and their mother stretched out for a good nap on the hillside. It is remarkable how comfortable this family is among the other bear families who are fishing so close by.
There are seven other bears nearby, all of the adults are female, which leads to the safety of this spot. And these bears are all evidently familiar with each other and respectful of personal space. At its base, all mammal interactions are based on the same needs.
It’s unseasonably warm today. Quite comfortable for people, but hot in the midday for a bruin in a thick, dark coat. There’s a nice breeze that keeps the gnats and mosquitoes at bay. Everyone appreciates that. The old sow gets up and heads down to the river.
The cubs scramble and play and generally get distracted as they casually follow her down the hill. She has come to wallow in the cool waters, bobbing like a hippo and blowing bubbles with her nose. The cubs settle into a pile on the shore close to her and wait.
Further upstream two two-year-old cubs sit attentively watching their mother fish a long way downstream. She is successfully catching fish in the middle of the river below the weir. She eats them right where she caught them, her giant claws delicately holding the slippery salmon while she slurps up every bit but the head. Most bears take their meal to the shore to eat. It seems to be easier to eat them on the firm ground, and it also removes the bears from the competition in the streams. I suspect this mother is eating her fish in the water, so she doesn’t have to share them with her cubs, who are old enough to catch their own fish.
A solitary bear is finding great success under the weir. She stands in shoulder deep water, waiting. Then she traps a fish with her giant dinner plate size feet, plunges her head down to grab it and comes up with a writhing salmon in her mouth. The salmon seem to have a perpetual look of shock on their faces.
Is this because of the treacherous, distressing run they’re making or do they always wear this expression? The bear slowly makes her way to shore, picking each foot up and out of the water as she moves forward. While it takes more strength to high step like this, it takes less effort than pushing her massive legs through the water. She walks out of the water in our direction and then turns her butt to us to eat. She clamps the fish in her claws and pulls the skin off in one big peel. The skin, brain and eggs are the fattiest parts of the fish and, therefore, the most desirable. She then proceeds to eat the rest of the fish as a parliament of magpies waits patiently to clean up after she’s done. She returns to the weir and repeats this successful process time and time again, returning to the same spot to eat, always turning her back to us, until even the magpies are full.
The two mischievous cubs are on our side of the river now, after having had a lesson on swimming into the rush of the river. One cub mastered the swift current, swam up rover and climbed up a craggy, small island. The stream pushed the other cub toward the weir where he happily clamored up on his personal jungle gym and walked breezily across the bridge.
A sow, with her two cubs in tow, is coming up the river bank toward the cubs who are now playing on an old fish ladder. The playful twins are on a collision course with her cubs. She moves to intervene in defense of her cubs, staring at the interlopers and walking toward them with a wide, imposing gait. It looks like there is going to be trouble.
The mother of the two mischief-makers is up by the falls, out of sight and in the roar of the water. The sow approached the cubs, stopping just short of them, trying to intimidate them into leaving. They would have none of it. They turned to face her and firmly stood their ground.
It was a tense standoff before the sow decided it was not worth her trouble and turned away toward the river and the fish. Her two cubs, who had taken refuge behind her enormous body, were now left exposed facing the larger cub pair, probably closer than they’d like to be.
One cub took over mom’s role and with a wide stance, squared up and leaned in toward the older two, still standing on the fish ladder. The other cub sat down. This is how bears convey that they don’t want any trouble. It’s a polite “I’m not leaving, but I’m not going to bother you, either” sort of message. The sow turned to look back, letting them all know she was still ready to return in a flash to defend her cubs if need be. Then everyone just went about their business as if it never happened.
The mother of the older cubs appeared at the fish ladder some time later with a fish in her mouth, using it as a dinner table. Maybe she was closer than I thought all along. A good mother letting her cubs sort out minor skirmishes and learn the ways of life in the wild. But ready to intervene if needed. Maybe the approaching sow knew she was there all along and it wasn’t the kids that deterred her. But the cubs think they won it themselves. What a good self-esteem lesson for an adolescent.
As the day is growing long and the harsh sunlight is fading, the bear activity picks up. And its time for us to leave. The flight back to Kodiak over the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge takes us over this gorgeous, pristine wilderness and back to town.