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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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!
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.”
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 when bear viewing in Alaska. 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.
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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.