Responsible Observation of Wild Bears in Alaska

Bears Alaska

Photo by Pacific Catalyst

Observing bears in their natural habitat in Alaska is a privilege and life-long memorable experience. While there are always risks with wild animals, these can be mitigated greatly if you follow well-established guidelines.

On August 10th, I had the opportunity to travel with AdventureSmith Explorations on the historic ship Westward to view brown bears, also known under the more general nomenclature “grizzlies,” on the remote island of Chichagof in Alaska’s Inside Passage.

Bears Alaska

The Westward

The Westward is an 8-passenger/3-crew historic wooden yacht, just 86 feet long, which allows it enter coves and bays too shallow for larger ships to safely navigate. The Westward and AdventureSmith Explorations promote responsible, eco and sustainable travel, from wildlife viewing, carbon footprint, organic and local sourcing for meals, quiet anchorage, and virtually every way they can make a positive impact and avoid a negative one.

Arrival on Chichagof

Bears Alaska

Patti and Alison from Boomer Travel Media with AdventureSmith Explorations

We anchored off the island of Chichagof, one of Alaska’s remote “ABC” islands, about 30 miles north of Sitka. Captain Bill Bailey motored our small skiff into Pavlov Cove, where we exited with a wet landing, i.e. our boots splashed into a couple of inches of cold water to get ashore.

Bears Alaska

Pavlov Cover, excited about the possibility of seeing bears!

As a group, we began the short walk along the banks of the stream which was laden with picturesque yellow lichen, before quickly arriving at our destination, the “fish ladder.” The fish ladder is so-named for its small cascading waterfalls where salmon swim and jump upstream to reach the calm area beyond where they spawn. The salmon are large and abundant, creating a personal buffet line for the bears.

Bears Alaska

The stream leading to the fish ladder.

Finding the bears

Alaska brown bears range in weight from 800 to 1,200 pounds. They feed on spawning salmon which are so abundant they gorge themselves on just the brain and stomach – the fattiest parts and quickest method to store for hibernation – then discard the rest of the fish before moving on to another. The different methods of catching a salmon are fascinating to watch, such as waiting at the bottom of the falls for a fish to jump, or standing at the top and catching a fish in midair, swatting, pinning or catching in their massive paws or sometimes dramatically in their mouths.

Bears Alaska

Waiting for the bears to appear.

It only took a few minutes to get to the area where we hoped to observe brown bears at the fish ladder. We sat on some rocks, a respectable distance away, but with a good camera zoom lens or binoculars, we’d be able to get a decent look.

No luck though. After what seemed like an eternity, Hannah Hindley, our guide and Naturalist informed us we would take a short hike before returning to the fish ladder.

“We’re going a little bit into the forest,” she said. “While it’s unlikely that we will encounter bears, there are some precautions we’ll be taking. We should continue to talk – but no high-pitched or loud screechy noises, please. If there are any bears in the area, they will hear us and should go away.”

“If by some odd chance we do see a bear, do not scream, and do not run!” she instructed. “We want any bears in the vicinity to know we’re here, but not to startle them.” We learned that she carried a kind of portable pepper spray that could repel a bear, if necessary.

According to National Geographic, “Bear spray, especially at close range where most attacks occur, is more reliable than a speeding bullet and extremely effective in thwarting a grizzly charging at 35 miles.”

I like the fact that bear sprays save the lives of both humans and bears. According to a 10-year study by the U.S. Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, “people who defended themselves against bears with firearms suffered injury 50 percent of the time, while those outfitted with bear spray evaded injury most of the time.”

Bears Alaska

Bear scat, not particularly fresh.

Hannah lead us though the forest, calling out every now and then, “Hey Bear!” We tromped over roots, rocks, and BSM (boot sucking mud), looking for signs of fresh “scat” (aka poop) which would be a signal that a bear had recently been there.

Bears Alaska

Hannah, examining the salmon carcass.

We came upon an interesting, partially eaten salmon carcass. Hannah examined it and determined it was approximately 24-hours old. I will confess, throughout the 8-day trip, I was impressed by her seemingly infinite knowledge about plants and animals and how they live in nature.

We bushwhacked our way to higher ground where we could observe the fish ladder. Within minutes, we were rewarded for efforts.

Bears in Alaska!

Bears Alaska

The mama grizzly on the opposite bank of the stream.

In the distance below, we spied a sow bear and her two calves at the stream.  Above is my best photo. On the left is cropped version; on the right is what I took from our viewpoint with my Nikon SLR at its full zoom, 55mm; we were pretty far away.

We climbed back down the ravine to where the bushes and trees met the stream and sat down on the ground to watch them, unobserved and undisturbed. They were still a good distance away, and across the stream, but you could hear a pin drop. Every one of our group of nine was breathlessly amazed watching cubs frolic while their mother caught fish for the three of them.

They had no idea we were there – they never so much a glanced in our direction. If they had, we would have left. “Westward’s practice of responsible wildlife viewing is to maintain safety for all involved – humans and animals,” says Captain Bailey. “We do not to impact or cause change to the natural habits of the animals.”

Bears Alaska

The sow and her two cubs.

As before, the left is my cropped photo, and the right was taken with full zoom. They’re not going to win any photo contests, but considering the distance, I’m very happy with them.

The bears eventually retreated back into the forest, and subsequently, we humans made our way back to the launch site, marveling at what we’d just been fortunate to view.

Fear vs. Respect

Some people have recently asked me if I was afraid. No, I was not. My adrenaline was pumping because I was thrilled, awed and excited, but I was not afraid.

There’s a difference between fear and respect. I have a healthy respect for wildlife and follow established safety guidelines – our Naturalist, the Westward, and AdventureSmith Explorations are exemplary in that regard.

But I’m not a fearful person. I’m just not wired that way. That’s why I write mainly about adventure travel. I AM fearless… I AM NOT foolish.

Bears Alaska

Would you be afraid of this beast?

Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of AdventureSmith Explorations during her stay in Alaska, but as always, the opinions, reviews and experiences are her own.

Comments

  1. A most interesting outing you had. I couldn’t help but think of the old saying (we use in the Pacific Northwest anyway) when something is an obvious fact: “Does a bear shit in the woods?” when I saw your photo of scat!
    Jackie Smith recently posted…A Summer’s Novel (and not-so-novel) DestinationsMy Profile

    • luggageandlipstick says:

      Too funny! Wish I had thought of that, Jackie! It was very unique and fascinating, seeing the bears’ natural behavior on Chichagof.

  2. We were on the Westward too on this trip! What an amazing experience!! Agree with the responsibility of watching wildlife. One can’t forget the environment and have to respect it. Bill, Tracie, and Hannah (the Westward crew) were beyond excellent. Tracie’s food was like having a gourmet chef on board and what versatility, Bill’s navigating us into those tight isolated coves and his Alaska knowledge, and Hannah our knowledgeable naturalist with her plethora of information on bears, whales, trees, ecology, etc. A magical experience.
    Girish recently posted…Responsible Observation of Wild Bears in AlaskaMy Profile

    • luggageandlipstick says:

      Well-said, Girish! The whole journey was an amazing, memorable experience, and the crew of the Westward was superlative. I really enjoyed meeting you and your delightful family. Give everyone a hug for me!

  3. I’m so pleased to read about responsible tourism here – where people can respect and appreciate wildlife and nature and not impose on nature.
    What a fantastic opportunity! I would love to visit Alaska one day. We don’t get brown bears in the UK!
    Rebecca recently posted…Falmouth – CornwallMy Profile

  4. The experience sounds great. I like how responsible and respectful and knowledgable your guide was. I have no desire to see a bear close up, but what you watched from a safe distance must have been fascinating.
    Donna Janke recently posted…Making a Difference with Community English in the Dominican RepublicMy Profile

    • luggageandlipstick says:

      Agree, Donna. Up close would be terrifying and not recommended, but from a respectable distance where you could observe their natural behaviors was very memorable.

  5. Looks as though things were handled safely and properly. There is always danger when encountering wild animals. We got to see a grizzly up close in Denali National Park a few months ago and it was amazing. Luckily we were safely enclosed in a bus.
    The GypsyNesters recently posted…Taking on Tallinn, EstoniaMy Profile

    • luggageandlipstick says:

      Wow, glad you were in a bus. It still must have gotten your adrenaline pumping. We were a very safe distance on Chichagof, they never even knew we were there, so we were able to observe. It was fascinating!

  6. I’m impressed with your entire experience, especially the measures taken to insure both your safety and the natural activities of the bears. Also, the bear spray is a great idea. Our son likes to go off camping alone in the mountains of NC from time to time, and I think Momma Bear will get him a can of the stuff. Thanks for the tip.
    Penny recently posted…Treasures of Salisbury Cathedral:My Profile

    • luggageandlipstick says:

      Thanks, Penny! I love the concept of the spray, and how it preserves the lives of both the human and the Alaska brown bear. What a great gift to give your son!

  7. I always wondered how effective those sprays were, I almost used one for a trip to the Grand Tetons, but this was a very popular trail in the day time where hundreds do the same trek so I decided not to do it.
    noel recently posted…American Southwest road tour Tours4FunMy Profile

    • luggageandlipstick says:

      Apparently very effective, Noel. A very good thing to have (or for your guide to have) if you’re hiking in Alaska or anywhere else where bears live.

  8. Great recap of your experience and explanation of responsible bear viewing. So happy you were on board with us!

    • luggageandlipstick says:

      The bears were great and so was our opportunities to see many humpback whales, bald eagles, sea lions and other wild life. The hiking and kayaking were fantastic. Absolutely loved this adventure!

  9. What a fascinating post. It sounds very much like the approach taken on safaris in Africa. It’s so important to be with a guide who knows about the animals and their behavior.
    Irene S. Levine recently posted…Miami Arts and Culture: More than sun and sandMy Profile

  10. Bears are formidable animals that one should always treat with respect. We’ve traveled a lot in North America and have seen a total of 50 bears so far (we keep count!). My husband once hiked at Glacier NP and there was a Grizzly eating berries just 10 yards away from the trail. A couple of dozens of hikers just stood there with the trail “blocked” by the bear because no one wanted to get close enough to walk by… Eventually, they decided they can’t all stand there all day long. They slowly moved forward as a group and the bear slowly moved away.
    That was also the only time my husband actually pulled the pepper spray’s safety pin. Fortunately, we never had to get this close to a bear ever again. Next year we’re going to Alaska and while I hope we see bears, I also hope there will be a safe distance between us and them.
    Anne recently posted…Alaska Road Trip Itinerary: Driving to Alaska & BackMy Profile

    • luggageandlipstick says:

      Wow, that’s what I call a close encounter! We were not nearly that close in Alaska, yet it was still amazing. So glad your husband had the pepper spray, and even more glad that he didn’t have to use it.

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